Offset rising energy costs

The cost of running building services is rocketing as energy costs go through the roof. Optimising the efficiency of your steam systems can offset these rises and reap rich rewards, says Rick Plummer, UK Engineering Manager for Spirax Sarco.
According to government figures released this summer, industrial gas prices in the first quarter of 2006 were a staggering 65.2% higher than during the same period in 2005. And if we strip out the Climate Change Levy, the price hike was an even scarier 67.9%. It’s a similar story for industrial electricity, with rises of 48% and 50.6%, including and excluding the CCL respectively. So it’s no wonder that companies are focusing on reducing their energy consumption like never before.

Steam is an established, reliable and efficient way of providing space heating, hot water and humidification in large buildings. But its very reliability can hide the need for regular servicing. Many steam systems have scope to achieve higher efficiency through improved control, closer monitoring and more regular maintenance.

Offset prices

The impact of an effective overhaul can be enormous. For example, the savings from a recent steam trap survey at one site in Durham has offset a massive hike in gas tariffs by saving an estimated £30,000 in annual energy costs. In fact, the company’s gas tariff was rising so fast at the time that the estimated annual savings leapt to over £50,000 in the first month following the survey.

At the time of the initial survey, it was several years since the site’s steam trap population had been surveyed and several traps had failed completely. The company’s engineers were so impressed with the results that they have since committed to having a steam trap survey every six months. As a rule of thumb, most steam systems need a thorough inspection at least once a year to maintain a top-notch performance.

Achieve higher efficiency

Even greater energy savings may be available from investments in the latest steam controls, rather than relying on systems dating back to a time when energy consumption was not seen as a big issue.

For example, a major project to upgrade boiler controls and install an advanced Spirax Sarco automation system has played a key role in achieving up to 15% energy savings in one of the NHS’s largest boiler houses, in spite of a simultaneous project to expand the number of buildings being served by the system.

The initial idea of upgrading the boiler plant’s automation systems was to enable St George’s hospital in South London to operate its boiler house unmanned. Other energy saving measures undertaken during the project included improved flowmetering, a detailed steam system survey and steam trap refurbishment programme, the installation of boiler blowdown heat recovery and a deaerator head on the boiler feedtank. Together, these yielded the energy savings that are now helping the Trust to offset recent energy price hikes.

Sound reasons for outsourcing

Many managers may be thinking that there’s no reason why in-house maintenance staff can’t take on a lot of this optimisation work. Unfortunately the in-house approach often stumbles for two important reasons – lack of resources and lack of expertise.

Perhaps a company starts a project to improve its steam system, kicking off with an audit and steam trap survey provided by a third party. The results come back showing what needs to be done and then the delays start. Other maintenance matters arise, dragging engineers away and leaving nobody to implement the survey recommendations. Before long, the survey results are out of date with little or no progress being made.

It’s also increasingly difficult for companies to keep all the skills they need in-house to maintain their steam plant at peak operating efficiency. And why should they? It’s not their core business.

In any case, finding skilled technical staff is a growing problem. Over the last decade the number of graduates who leave university with a degree in physics, engineering or technology has slumped as a proportion of the whole by a third. Only 32,000 undergraduates qualified in these subjects last year. According to the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), the disparity between supply and demand is such that many British-based businesses are already starting to recruit from overseas because of a shortage of candidates from the UK.

Achieving improved performance

It’s little wonder then, that outsourcing steam system optimisation to a specialist company may be the best option for many organisations. There are essentially three steps to achieving improved steam system performance.

The first stage is to measure a system’s current efficiency, identify areas for improvement and determine the scope and potential for savings.

The main benefits include:

• Performance measures give a detailed assessment of system efficiency.

• Choose surveys and services flexibly to suit available budgets and desired objectives.

• Management information turns an asset list into a valuable tool.

• Investment decisions are simplified because benefits and potential returns are easily identified.

Next, the improvements recommended in the survey stage need to be implemented. Spirax Sarco, for example, will work with in-house personnel, contractors or can use its own steam engineers to make the changes.

The benefits here include:

• More reliable provision of heating, hot water and humidification services.

• Outsourcing the implementation work reduces the paperwork and administration required from the steam plant operator.

• Using steam experts reduces risk by ensuring that any changes are carried out correctly.

By this stage the steam system should be working at peak efficiency. But sustaining that performance in the long term demands regular maintenance. Service agreements with steam specialists can often be the most cost-effective solution, as well as freeing up hard-pressed in-house staff to concentrate on other duties.

Look for a company that can tailor the service package to meet requirements and budget. For example, Spirax Sarco offers a range of flexible options that may include the boilerhouse, flowmeters, humidifiers, steam traps, modular equipment such as engineered systems, and control valves.

The resulting benefits fall in five areas:

• Maintaining optimum efficiency reduces running costs.

• In-house personnel are freed up for other duties.

• In-house personnel no longer need to be trained in the latest steam system procedures, thereby reducing training costs.

• Time-consuming paperwork is eliminated.

• Budgeting is simplified by paying an agreed fee, whether it’s annually, bi-yearly or monthly.