Birk Jones
Birk Jones in his office in the UNM Mechanical Engineering Building.

Birk Jones, a Ph.D. candidate in engineering is teaching the 33-year old Mechanical Engineering Building on the UNM campus to think about energy efficiency.  So far Jones and the ME building have improved the energy efficiency between 10 and 15 percent.  He expects that to improve.

The building was state-of-the-art in 1980, but in the last couple of decades it has suffered from age-related decline, remodeling and changing power demands as students and faculty brought in new equipment and technologies and created new problems.  The ME Building has a dual-duct system, multiple air-handling units, a water loop and absorption chiller, hot and cold storage systems, and chilled and hot water supplied by the campus.  It also has a solar thermal system on the roof.  Jones’ Ph.D. research is to find a way to make this combination of technologies work together more comfortably and efficiently. 

His job began with replacing the 60 or so thermostats (only some of which worked) with digital units in the four story building.  Then he began to install monitors on the air intake units and to examine how air moved through the building during a 24-hour cycle.  He built a database so he would know how much energy was used on hot summer days and cold winter nights.  Jones worked with Lawrence Berkeley National Lab to help evaluate how energy models can provide building thermal load predictions for the Distributed Energy Resources Customer Adoption Model (DER-CAM).

He also found an energy modeling software program called TRNSYS to simulate physical and thermodynamic processes. Using TRNSYS he performs advanced simulations that run in parallel with the building.  Results from the model and the actual building are used to train Artificial Neural Networks (ANN), which is a rudimentary brain that mimics the operation of biological neural networks.  The ANN are trained to know what is normal and then he uses them to test actual data from a daily cycle to see if it can pick up small deviations.

One night, when all was quiet on the system, he opened up outside air dampers and brought unexpected changes into the system to see if ANN would notice.  It did.  Now he is teaching the network to suggest possible remedies for the anomaly. 

But the biggest challenge for ANN is a familiar one.  How do you deal with people?  Specifically how do you deal with people working in an office where one person has opened a window for fresh air and another has turned on a space heater because it is too cold.  Jones and ANN don’t have a solution yet for that universal conundrum, but they are working on it.

Jones would like to see all the 300 or so buildings on UNM’s main campus work with each other.  Not all the buildings on campus are used by people every day, and collecting information on when various building systems can be minimized and when they must work at full effort is complex, but it is a major part of the ultimate solution of campus energy savings.

Jones’ work is funded by Yearout Mechanical an Albuquerque-based constuction firm that specializes in solving energy problems for existing buildings. The owner of the company, Kevin Yearout, is looking for information.  “From our perspective, our goal within our company is to guarantee performance contracts.  In that kind of a risk reward situation, you really want to cut the risk down and by understanding these buildings better as far as what exactly efficiency changes will happen if you make minor changes to the building we feel much more comfortable when we put our neck out there. That’s because the proposal for performance contracts guarantee it and say – we’re putting our name on the line that this building will perform this way after we’re done.”

Jones is a student of UNM Professor of Mechanical Engineering Andrea Mammoli who is conducting research on ways to integrate solar and other energy sources into the electrical grid without humans feeling a disruptive change in their environment.