You might be surprised to learn what goes on in your retail stores when you’re not watching.

Or at least you’d be surprised to know what doesn’t get turned off. This is especially true for energy managers in large organizations that operate many different facilities. Outdoor lights go on before dark and stay on after dawn. Exhaust fans and air handlers run around the clock. HVAC systems condition the air in unoccupied rooms. Doors on refrigeration units are left open.

You know it happens. But unless you’re using real-time energy monitoring, you probably don’t know when or how often it happens. Or how much it’s costing you.

One U.S. grocery retailer that operates 130 stores in the Southwest piloted a system for monitoring real-time energy use at 10 stores. The pilot showed that ceiling lights were being left on at night regularly at 4 stores, costing about $30,400 a year. The retailer concluded that if the same problem were occurring at 40% of its 130 stores, the actual excess energy cost was $395,000 a year. Real-time energy monitoring discovered this problem and helped the retailer cut its energy bill.

Would real-time energy monitoring benefit your organization?

That depends to some extent on:

  • How much energy you consume now.
  • How much you pay for energy.
  • What you’ve already done to reduce energy costs.

But here are questions to ask yourself to help decide if real-time energy monitoring can benefit your organization.

The answers to these questions will help guide you toward the best choice:

1. What do you want to accomplish?

As with any other initiative, it’s important to have clear goals in mind. Organizations often implement a real-time energy monitoring program for one or more of these reasons:

  • To find instances of waste, inefficiency, error or neglect.
  • To increase accountability by setting energy budgets, assigning costs and tracking usage against budgets.
  • To avoid triggering higher utility rates when you exceed your prior peak loads.
  • To provide timely feedback to influence the behavior of people who consume energy.
  • To avoid financial surprises by accruing energy costs between utility billing statements.
  • To take advantage of time-sensitive energy rates available from some electrical utilities.
2. How will you use your data?

Another consideration is whether your people, operations or processes are likely to respond to fast feedback.

  • Is your organization flexible enough to revise your operations or processes in response to the data you collect?
  • Does your organization regularly use data and quantitative analysis to drive management decisions?
  • Do you use Six Sigma methodology?
  • Are you committed to the principles of lean services?

If so, you already have a culture that’s likely to welcome real-time energy monitoring. If your company doesn’t use data to drive continuous improvement, you may find yourself fighting against the current to suggest real-time monitoring.

3. Where and how often should you monitor energy use?

With current metering systems and data-collection technologies, you can see data at almost any level of detail. At the broadest level, you can see a central view of all energy use in all facilities, broken down by building and by day or week. At the most granular level, you can monitor energy use for every appliance every 15 seconds. The right amount of data for you depends on your goals. You might want to monitor specific appliances that consume use a lot of energy. Or you might want to find inefficiencies in certain operations, which would require recording data at frequent intervals.

4. Who should see your data?

The cost and feasibility of real-time energy monitoring will depend, in part, on who needs to see your data and in what form they need to see it. Considering the lean staffing of most retail organizations, it can be cost-effective to make energy managers responsible for energy efficiency across multiple properties. If this approach is in your plan, you’ll need to provide your energy managers with access to energy-use data in near real time.

5. How efficiently can you manage the processes?

The more metering devices you use, the more data you will have to collect and consolidate. And the more detailed the energy-use data you generate, the more data you will have to manage. Do you have the means to collect, compile, store, report and distribute the data efficiently? Do you have internal staff or external resources to analyze and interpret the data?

6. How cost-effectively can you use real-time energy monitoring?
Real-time energy monitoring typically incurs costs in 4 main categories:
  • Buying hardware for metering, sub-metering, data collection and aggregation.
  • Installing the hardware.
  • Collecting, compiling and analyzing data.
  • Generating and distributing reports.

You might decide you need a system that provides monitoring, reporting and feedback.

Several independent studies have also shown that nothing more than timely feedback on energy consumption can cut use by as much as 5% to 10%.