By Mansour Asrani and Susan Horne

Retrofits are routinely planned for building systems, based on their life cycle under ideal conditions. Age, wear and tear, and the real conditions in which the building is located all affect the performance of building components over time and require retrofits involving repairs and replacements. Given Canada’s ambitious goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2050, retrofits to reduce energy usage and associated costs also deserve attention. No doubt, every building owner and operator is motivated by the opportunity to reduce energy costs! But what to do? And what will it cost?

It needs to be stated that energy cost reduction and GHG reduction are not the only priorities of building owners! Effective management to curb greenhouse gas emissions can reduce costs, everyone would agree. Consider, too, the impact of reducing energy losses on occupant comfort/health and safety, maintaining the reputation of the building, the operational performance of the building’s systems, avoiding surprises, avoiding increases to maintenance fees to building occupants, and the opportunity to preserve and even increase the value of the asset itself.

Initiatives to reduce building emissions have typically focused on retrofitting the heating, cooling, and lighting systems. The building envelope is often sadly overlooked as a source of energy losses, but failures of the building envelope – the skin that separates the building’s interior from the elements and prevents moisture and heat transfer, may be responsible for as much as 50% of the energy loss in a building.

The integrity of the building envelope is also essential to the performance of all building systems! Heating or cooling energy can be lost through the envelope as a result of such things as structural cracks, missing or damaged insulation in walls, and leaked insulating gas in multi-pane glass windows. Some of these envelope failures are visible, but most are not. Some represent conditions that need attention urgently. And even certain minor problems, left unattended, can turn into major problems that are costlier to repair.

But where to start? Even those who are inspired by the challenge of reducing energy losses may find it daunting to make a plan to achieve it. Energy losses due to the building envelope might not even be visible. What data exists on which to make decisions and establish priorities? How can heat losses that are higher than normal be identified, especially in high rise buildings? The
introduction of drones equipped with infrared technology has solved that challenge and replaces old, outdated technology.

Thermography (using infrared cameras) enables failures of the building envelope to be identifiable – to make the invisible, visible. To recognize losses at the granular level. Such reliable data is useful for planning, reporting, and benchmarking purposes. Retrofits, to be targeted, must be based on facts about specific building elements (e.g., the windows) and about components within given elements (e.g., the caulking of windows on the south side of the building). Facts must be analyzed to determine which losses represent the most urgent scenarios, and ones that are a priority.

Building owners and investors need reliable data that will help them make informed decisions about undertaking repairs and retrofits to reduce energy usage, maintain and improve the integrity of the building and enhance the sustainability of the building. The goal is to avoid surprises. Which envelope failures require urgent attention? Which current conditions can cause more serious damage if left unattended? Drones equipped with infrared cameras can provide all the granular data required. Armed with this level of detail, those in authority can consider the impacts of sources of energy loss (moisture penetration, thermal bridging, or failed Argon gas, for example) and determine priorities.

Energy losses must also be quantified in order to build a business case to gain the necessary approvals for any retrofit. Reliable data is needed on which to make sound, strategic decisions, plan for success and apply for any incentives that are applicable. The latest technology available goes beyond using infrared technology. It involves using artificial intelligence (AI) to quantify energy losses which help in the determination of priorities and the creation of a targeted retrofit plan.

About QEA Tech
QEA Tech is an innovative company, leading the way in the use of new technologies. QEA Tech uses infrared cameras on unmanned air vehicles (drones) to take thermal images of hi-rise buildings. Given an inventory of hundreds of thermal images of a building, QEA Tech converts every pixel to an energy value. Based on the analysis of a building’s catalogue of images, actual costs of envelope retrofits can be calculated, enabling further analysis of return on investment. Priorities can be established, and a complete plan developed.

In this way, the data generated by QEA Tech is actionable on a broad scale. In one of its Toronto projects, for example, QEA Tech found that the total energy loss from a single, downtown, commercial building with 1.1 million square feet of floor space was 3,042,200 Kw per year, equivalent to 2,151 metric tonnes of ghg. Imagine the avoidable costs involved by the year 2050, when the government expects to achieve net-zero carbon emissions!

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Mansour Asrani is a project manager at QEA Tech with 20 years of experience working on innovation and technology development with a decade of successful experience in cleantech and environmental solutions. Mansour specializes in image processing and precise imaging technologies. He is responsible for managing building envelope thermal inspection and energy loss quantification projects.

Susan Horne is a retired College Chair and is currently self-employed as a writer/editor of reports, articles, curriculum, and textbooks.