With some of the coldest temperatures and record-setting snowfall pounding the U.S., many building owners are looking closely at their energy usage.

Catching energy spikes is important to decrease utility costs, improve ROI/NOI, and prioritize retrofits, but it shouldn't just be done in the dead of winter. Common utility management issues can be identified at any time of year through energy benchmarking and monitoring.

An immediate benefit of tracking your water and energy use is catching extreme variances in usage. In the energy efficiency world, it's called "spike tracking." Spikes are sudden jumps in utility consumption that are very easy to notice when you're continually monitoring usage, but might go overlooked otherwise. Spikes indicate that something is awry, and catching one means that you can respond to a problem quickly, whether it is a billing error from the utility or something going wrong in your building.

These three case studies show just how frequent the problem can be and what you can do to avoid or correct these common pitfalls.

Uncovering Billing Errors
A housing authority with a portfolio of 300 buildings was tasked with getting a handle on their utilities. Upon adding their gas accounts into their online utility tracking platform, they noticed that one building had suspiciously high usage. It turns out that they had been incorrectly billed for 15,000 therms for one day, when their typical monthly usage was no more than 50 therms. They contacted their utility company, the mistake was corrected, and they were refunded the $4,500 they had paid.

It's easy for billing errors to go unnoticed when you simply receive and pay your bills each month, but benchmarking and visualizing the data immediately shows if there's something wrong.

Undetectable Water Leaks
By tracking her organization's water consumption, a multifamily property owner noticed that one building had water usage twice as high as the other buildings over six months. Maintenance staff took a look at the building and determined that there was an underground water leak that was undetectable to the tenants. They fixed the leak and now save $1,500 a month on water costs.

Old toilet flappers can also be a common leak that most residents won’t realize without a noticeable puddle on the ground. A running toilet wastes hundreds of dollars and hundreds of gallons of water.  Another property owner identified this common problem and found that one leaking toilet was costing an additional $700 per month because the flapper was old and worn out.

Energy Spikes and QA'ing New Construction
What about overall energy spikes? These impact aging building stock, but can happen in new construction as well. Homeowner’s Rehab, Inc. (HRI), a community development company, started monitoring energy usage in a new LEED-certifiable project and soon noticed that its usage was all over the place—spiking, crashing, and then spiking again—and much higher than the usage of other LEED-certified projects in the database.

Curious, they sent a commissioning agent into the building. The agent found that the high-efficiency condensing boilers weren't condensing because there wasn't enough pressure in the gas line, so HRI contacted the utility and asked them to correct the issue. Then they sat back and watched the usage.

Unfortunately, the following winter brought even stranger peaking. Based on the data, and the high number of overheating calls received from their tenants, they sent a heating contractor into the building. The contractor determined that all of the thermostatic radiator valves in the tenant units (which allow them to control heat flow) were stuck open. HRI received new valves from the manufacturer and enjoyed two winters of normal usage. But the following winter, there was yet another spike: the variable speed drives on the pumps had a programming issue. The problem was fixed and the property has enjoyed stabilized usage ever since.

Start Monitoring Your Data
Spikes are a common occurrence that are difficult to catch looking solely at a monthly bill. They're impossible to catch if you just pay your bill and file it away. So, whether you elect to use a utility tracking platform or manually plot your usage in Excel, start monitoring your energy consumption so you can identify spikes and correct them. Even if you don't have funds to perform building upgrades, the EPA claims monitoring alone can save 2.4% annually in utility spending so it is a practice worth exploring.