Washington at Work is a regular feature that focuses on the people behind area businesses and government.
The red box on Kevin Jensen’s computer screen wasn’t anything to worry about, at first. But when it didn’t go away, he picked up a phone and dialed one of the 126 buildings from Boston to Chicago being monitored from the control room.
“The pump’s cavitating,” he told the building’s engineer, immediately diagnosing the problem and warning of a problem that could damage the air-conditioning system.
Mr. Jensen is one of the “bubble boys” who work in the Environmental Control Center at Consolidated Engineering Services Inc. at 2345 Crystal Drive in Arlington, Va. The dim, cool, glassed-in room is the nerve center of the operation.
It’s the most critical operation at Consolidated Engineering, which manages the mechanical and electrical systems of office and high-rise apartment buildings for client landlords, and silence means gold here.
“The measure of how well we’re doing is how quiet it is,” said Dennis Mulgrew, who oversees the center.
The center’s computer system constantly tracks building systems chillers, heat pumps, air-handling equipment, elevators and lights so that operators know if these machines are working properly. With a few keystrokes, they can turn these devices on or off, or change their settings.
The operators stay in touch with hundreds of engineers and janitors in the field via telephones and two-way radios.
The center also provides emergency services to more than 1,000 buildings, covering almost 100 million square feet of space, Mr. Mulgrew said. That includes the entire portfolio of Charles E. Smith Residential Realty, which owns Consolidated Engineering.
The center takes calls on everything from locked-out tenants, temperature problems and people trapped in elevators to far more dangerous situations, like fires and gas leaks.
Mr. Jensen’s window to this world is his computer screen.
On the right, there’s a vertical line of tiny blue squares, each representing a different building. By clicking on a mouse, he can display each building’s various systems. On the left, icons light up in an alarm mode if there is a problem.
Sometimes, it is hard to tell. “The engineers are always turning things on and off,” which takes flows and currents out of their pre-programmed performance, until the device settles into dormancy or proper operation.
“When it stays in alarm, you gotta pay attention,” he said.
That led him to warn a building engineer by phone about the malfunctioning pump. It was his conclusion based on what the red boxes were telling him about flow information. But he wouldn’t know that without having been a building engineer himself, Mr. Mulgrew said.
“That’s the value of having an engineer,” Mr. Mulgrew said.
It also helps Consolidated Engineering, which uses the center to develop tactics to keep energy costs down at all the buildings it manages.
The company claims to outperform standard energy costs by 26 percent in this area $1.68 per square foot vs. the $2.28 per square foot on average for Washington-area buildings, Mr. Mulgrew said.
Meanwhile, an engineer from another building has called in, and asked Mr. Jensen to watch something in his building. Mr. Jensen now has to call him back.
“Check that chiller. It looks like it’s getting pretty hot,” he said.
It’s only off a few degrees, but that makes a big difference when it comes to tenant comfort, as many office workers might report.
The control-center operators try to maintain a range of 70 to 76 degrees.
“It lets tenants swing 2 degrees with the thermostat. Theoretically, everybody should be happy,” said Mr. Dorsey. “Comfort is our first priority. Energy management is second,” he said.
And some clients are far more comfortable with that, because they want very precisely controlled environments. Museums, for example, maintain “microclimates” inside glass display cases to preserve their artifacts.
The Holocaust Museum keeps its artifacts out in the open for the sake of an interactive display, so it has to be even more careful, Mr. Mulgrew said. Its ideal environment can vary by only 1 degree Fahrenheit and 2 percent in relative humidity.
That’s a trickier proposition than the typical office climate, which can rise or fall 3 degrees Fahrenheit, or add or lose up to 10 percent on humidity, he said.
Back at the control center, where it stays cool and the lights stay dim, the phones and the radios stayed quiet.