Upgrade the energy efficiency of your existing station

CarolinaFireJournal - Ken Newell, AIA, LEED-AP, NFPA
Ken Newell, AIA, LEED-AP, NFPA
04/29/2011 -

“How can we reduce our utilities costs in our already challenged budget?” That’s what many departments are asking in this day of reduced revenues. We would all rather be dealing with the challenges faced while proceeding through construction of a new station, but fewer departments can currently afford that privilege.

If you have access to some capital funds, but not enough for new construction or renovations, consider items that will extend the life of the existing facility and reduce other annual costs. Some of these upgrades that “pay back” are more expensive than others, but all are worthy of your attention.

For this limited examination we consider several issues that are extremely critical to the energy consumption rate of facilities. They included: Building Envelope, Electrical, and Heating-Ventilation-Air Conditioning (HVAC).

Building Envelope

Insulation. Before the middle of the last century, building insulation was rarely used as a stand-alone product. The building materials, due to their inherent properties, provided a degree of insulation. Some Departments felt that a “12 inch, solid masonry wall” would have all the thermal buffering they needed. In truth, though, the solid masonry provided a relatively low insulation value. And, on the rare occasion that actual insulation was used, it typically had very low resistance (R) values.


Trapped air in blanket, blown or rigid insulation is what normally provides the barrier to outside air temperatures. Today’s codes for new construction place stringent, minimum insulation requirements on roofs, walls, and even perimeter foundation walls. Most designers will exceed these code-enforced requirements, thus increase the energy cost savings. Depending on the existing exterior wall section, adding a layer of insulation — possibly with a new exterior or interior finish — may greatly increase the R-Value of the building. If a new roof is due, additional insulation can normally be added at the same time for relatively little cost.

Air Infiltration. We’ve all seen and heard the advertisements for building-wrap products. These companies have made a lot of money over the last 25 years for a good reason. Outside air can find its way through building walls without a barrier placed in the walls. Even solid masonry walls will develop cracks in the mortar joints that allow air to infiltrate the conditioned space. The proper installation of caulking plus these air infiltration barriers greatly enhance energy efficiency. Air infiltration is more difficult to address in existing walls, but there are some beneficial efforts that can be performed, especially where new exterior finishes are to be added.

Windows/Doors. Except for the unavoidable cracks around the edges of doors, they and most windows now have a greater R-value than solid walls on older buildings. “Double-pane,” “low E,” “argon filled,” and “tinted” are all terms associated with the characteristics that apply to the products manufactured today. There is no comparison between the old, overhead, vehicle doors used on fire stations and garages versus the new doors available. Whether it is glass overhead doors with the characteristics mentioned above or insulated, steel panel overhead doors, insulation values have increased by light-years. Replacing some of these older components will reduce your department’s energy costs.

Later in this article we will discuss more efficient means of heating and cooling. However, if building envelope is not adequately keeping the unconditioned air out of the building, then HVAC efficiencies will suffer.


Lighting. Replacing light fixtures is a way to easily reduce energy consumption. Lighting has changed more in the last few decades than any other energy-consuming device in a facility. The development of the electronic ballast helped revolutionize the energy demands of light fixtures. Now an 80-watt fixture can provide the lighting given by a 180 to 200 watt fixture just a few years ago. The lower watt fixture also reduces the cooling demand placed on HVAC systems. The cost of fixtures and replacement lamps is also lower than in past years and the lamps have a longer life expectancy, thus reducing maintenance costs.

LED lighting seems to be getting a great deal of the press, and mostly for good reason. While their upfront cost is very high — though it is reducing as the industry expands — their performance and longevity is extremely promising. Each department will have to weigh the cost-benefit and make an informed decision. Many electrical engineers feel that interior LEDs are further advanced and worth you consideration more so than exterior LEDs.

Most new facilities control lighting levels in critical rooms. For instance, many offices and assembly rooms have double ballast fixtures that allow for half the lighting to be turned off when the brightest lighting levels are not required. Motion sensors, timers and photocells also give a high level of control while reducing energy demand.

And don’t forget the cheapest, easiest way to reduce lighting costs...replacing incandescent lamps with CFLs.

Controls. Occupancy sensors and timers are worthy of consideration to reduce waste. By the way, firefighters typically hate occupancy sensors in bunk rooms and toilet rooms with stalls — for obvious reasons.

Natural Light. There are now more effective ways to bring natural light into a building than ever before. By doing so, the need for artificial lighting can be greatly reduced, thus limiting electricity demands and maintenance costs. If adding windows or skylights to the existing structure is impractical or cost prohibitive, consider the “solar tubes” that bring extraordinary amounts of natural light into rooms with very little roof impact or cost.


Depending on the type of Heating-Ventilation-Air Conditioning equipment you have, you would normally expect to replace it in 15 to 25 years. If you are due a replacement, you will have the opportunity to benefit from much more efficient equipment.

Heating. Aside from the electrical demands placed on HVAC equipment, gas consumption rates for similar equipment has also significantly dropped. The average HVAC equipment installed in the 1950s had an efficiency rating of approximately 65 percent. The average equipment today has a rating in excess of 92 percent, an increase of over 33 percent efficiency.

Cooling. The average cooling equipment from the 1950s has a rating of approximately eight seer. The same equipment today is rated from 12 to 15 seer or more, an increase of roughly 25 percent efficiency.

HVAC Motors. The motors that run today’s HVAC equipment are many times more efficient that those of previous years. This is reflected by the lower electricity consumption that these motors demand.

There are several other factors that help the heating and cooling efficiencies. Today’s equipment requires less maintenance than previously. Like electrical equipment, many of the parts necessary to keep older devices operable are no longer available. The control options for today’s HVAC equipment are one of the many reasons for the energy savings. Thermostats are programmable and/or capable of being controlled from off-site locations. Often, parts of the building can be cooled while other parts are heated. Equipment can be monitored and/or controlled via phone or computer from remote locations.

Even new water heaters can play a significant role in saving energy. Today’s heaters are roughly 92 percent efficient where heaters a few years ago were approximately 80 percent efficient. For small, remote hot water needs, point-of-use heaters can be utilized that instantly heat water when needed.


You may not be able to build that five million dollar station now. You may not even be able to do that quarter of a million dollar renovation now. But with far less capital expenditures you may be able to significantly reduce your yearly utility costs with a few simple upgrades. Your utility provider likely has much more energy saving recommendations and potentially some incentive programs that will help offset the costs.

Ken Newell, AIA, LEED AP, is a senior principal with Stewart-Cooper-Newell Architects, and since 1988, has designed over 140 of the firm’s 200 fire and EMS stations and public safety facilities. He has provided architectural and consulting services for fire departments and municipalities in 22 states and is a regular speaker at various national and state fire conferences. He can reached at www.fire-station.com, e-mail [email protected] or call 800-671-0621.
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