Photo "N.Y Post Office -- Pneumatic Tube" courtesy of the U.S. Library of Congress

As we study the data across Alpha projects, one consistent post-COVID pattern is that buildings with pneumatics almost always want to get rid of them.

Our first year of Gridium Alpha has seen building retrofit projects of over 10 million square feet. Prior to COVID, I thought of pneumatics as the fax machine of building controls — as much as you try to kill them, they just have a way of just clinging on. Post COVID, I’m not so sure. There are some signs that we might be on the cusp of finally getting 19th century technology out of commercial buildings.

Newcomers to the building industry are often surprised to learn about pneumatics and its digital replacement, Direct Digital Control (DDC). In the age of artificial intelligence, and rocket ships that land themselves, you might be surprised to read that even the biggest tech companies still have buildings where comfort cooling is controlled by… compressed air. That’s right, just like Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, tiny tubes have a constant flow of compressed air, allowing dampers and valves to close without electricity. Upward of 70% of commercial buildings still have pneumatic controls.

Why has this antiquated technology persisted?

First, it’s a pain to change. Because retrofits involve ceilings and ductwork, the retrofit has typically been disruptive to tenants, and often only even considered as part of a tenant improvement (TI). Second, just like that fax machine, it sort of works. Pneumatics aren’t that bad for basic control, are extremely long lived (no motors to burn out) and have wide use, serviceable parts and rich supply chains from other industries. One fascinating part of Kevin Kelly’s 2010 book What Technology Wants is the discussion of how the Amish refuse electric service from the grid, but widely use pneumatics for light industry and even have adapted household appliances like washing machines and blenders to run on pneumatics. They even call pneumatics “Amish Electricity”.

A second reason is economics. Even with California’s high electric rates, pneumatic to DDC conversions run in the 8-10 year zone, well past most organizations’ tolerance for energy-only paybacks.

What then with COVID? Why have we noticed a big uptick in asset owners wanting, once and for all, to be done with pneumatics?

Only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked. — Warren Buffett

COVID has revealed much about underlying building energy response as a function of the energy services delivered to tenants. In Gridium’s COVID Factbook, the average commercial building is down 18% post COVID but the standard deviation of that reduction is almost 23%! Pneumatic or partially-pneumatic buildings have a much tougher game post COVID. For example, with hundreds of pneumatic VAVs, a global change in set-point policy, wider dead-bands or unoccupied schedule programming that is punch-key work in a DDC building is just an impossible mountain to climb in a pneumatic building. One frequent pattern we’ve seen this summer is that in sparsely occupied buildings, even a small number of pneumatic zones can start the building on hot weekends, often causing expensive spikes in peak demand charges.

Control is one aspect, but with pneumatics a bigger COVID related issue is that pneumatics don’t provide any zone, damper, or air flow level information. It’s one reason we’re skeptical of “halfway to nowhere” overlay solutions, where you might get digital temperature or branch pressure information, but not much else of use.

Why is information important? Consider a conference room post-pandemic. Would you rather market and run space where a client could see real time CFM and CO2, or have a “trust us” offering? With public transit advertising air changes per hour, you could even link this up with a simple real time display that shows your air changes in a room.

Real time is important, but once you have digital points, trends speak volumes to the cautious custody of space. Perhaps the building reported a positive case? Report and document a full 24hr air flush, right down to the zone level.

Finally, let’s return to economics. In a fully occupied building, savings might be small, but what about a sparsely occupied building? Or a building where worker hours are extended to reach for lower occupancy? What if work from home becomes a permanent 1-2 day trend in your building? Here, wider deadbands, demand control ventilation or even occupant based systems like Comfy set the stage for even wider savings, all of which is – of course –  impossible if you are using “Amish Electricity”.

So savings might be even bigger than pre-pandemic. What about costs? COVID has emptied buildings to their minimums, and has therefore created an opportunity to rethink the restriction on project timing and staging. Because fewer occupants are in the space, work is less disruptive, and project costs can be lowered due to less restrictive hours. That combination means paybacks that look brighter than ever.

A final note is that financing programs have also changed the game. With financing offerings that are more suited than ever for commercial buildings, upgrading antique controls doesn’t have to touch your capex and can immediately improve your building’s asset value and make the space more competitive in the next chapter of the commercial real estate market.

Let us know if you are tired of pneumatics and want to take a closer look at the impact in your building.

About Tom Arnold

Tom Arnold is co-founder and CEO of Gridium. Prior to Gridium, Tom Arnold was the Vice President of Energy Efficiency at EnerNOC, and cofounder at TerraPass. Tom has an MBA from the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania and a BA in Economics from Dartmouth College. When he isn't thinking about the future of buildings, he enjoys riding his bike and chasing after his two daughters.

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