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Optimizing Retrofits: A Q&A with Caesars Entertainment’s Eric Dominguez

Photo Credit: Mike Stotts

“We have over 55 million square feet of air-conditioned space,” says Eric Dominguez, vice president of facilities, engineering, and sustainability for Caesars Entertainment. The gaming and hospitality company owns diverse buildings that include the iconic Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, which turned 50 years old last year.

As far as facilities projects go, investing in retrofits might seem like the opposite of glitz. But Dominguez views them as opportunities to get more bang for the buck. He will be discussing retrofitting aging facilities at the 2017 Environmental Leader Conference in June. Recently we spoke with him to find out how Caesars Entertainment approaches retrofits, and the numbers they’re seeing as a result.

How does Caesars Entertainment approach retrofits?

We established a formal sustainability program in 2007 and we set targets around energy, water, waste, and greenhouse gas emissions reductions. To achieve those targets, we’ve had to take a look within our operations.

We’ve grown prominently through acquisition so our building types are different ages and designs. The other thing is we are 24-7 — we have guests we’re catering to at all hours of the day and night seven days a week. Those factors present challenges and also opportunities. We can get more bang for our buck if we go in, look at existing systems, and come up with strategies to improve how they operate.

What kinds of retrofits are you working on?

We own and operate over 50 properties across the globe. A lot of those buildings are older. We look at opportunities that are scalable across the range of building ages and technologies.

Lighting retrofits are the first place to start. There’s been so much advancement in light-emitting diode technology. You don’t necessarily need to rip out fixtures. We’re finishing a major retrofit of T8 fluorescent tubes to LED tube lamps at all properties that cuts energy use, reduces heat load, and reduces maintenance costs. You get 40,000 to 50,000 hours out of an LED versus 15,000 or 20,000 hours out of a fluorescent tube. It reduces waste because we’re not changing the tubes as frequently.

We’re also looking at our heating and ventilation equipment, and our major mechanical systems. Advances in control technology mean there’s more we can do with controls, and data from how the buildings are operating. We can take that information and optimize the systems.

What is an advanced type of retrofitting?

Look at heating and ventilation systems, and how you deliver heating and cooling to spaces. We’ve done work where we’re starting to deliver chilled water throughout the property on a variable basis. You do that through installing variable-frequency drives on pumps and fans, and having a control system in a feedback loop. As conditions change in your building, your central plant gets that feedback. You can adjust flow rates of water delivery and, subsequently, let your whole cooling system ebb and flow with the building’s demands.

Commissioning involves more advanced control strategies, but it allows your equipment to ramp up and down as building conditions change. In the old days everything was delivered at a constant flow rate or volume. You’d end up overshooting set points, overcooling a space, then triggering reheating.

Buildings are smarter, and feedback allows you to run them more effectively. It’s positive for guest comfort, it’s good for the operators, you can save money, and it’s good from an environmental perspective. Any time we can reduce energy on our properties, it allows a generator upstream to emit less pollution. The beauty of retrofitting existing buildings, even though it’s challenging, is that when you have success, multiple areas benefit.

What were the specific steps taken to complete the upgrades?

We’ve taken a multipronged approach. We look at our utility billing information and a normalized view of how much energy per square foot we’re using at different buildings, identify anomalies, and then target outliers. Then we develop an upgrade strategy

Often we have to replace equipment through a capital plan. A lot of times we can leverage that. It’s not a pure efficiency play, but you can squeeze value out of those projects. Instead of just replacing a chiller, look at integrating it into an advanced control strategy.

The last piece is listening to our operators. If they see an opportunity, we can take that and try to scale it across our enterprise.

Could you share examples of retrofit projects?

Recently we did a project at our Paris Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. We looked at upgrades on the chilled water plant to move to a variable approach. The project estimate was about $1.6 million. We received around $230,000 in utility rebates, and our energy savings are trending at about $480,000 per year between electricity and natural gas. That project had payback in under three years. The emissions impact was about 2,800 metric tons of avoided carbon dioxide equivalent for a year.

Another project was on our Harveys Lake Tahoe property. Our chiller plant was 30 years old. We ended up doing an upgrade on the controls, replacing some of the pumps, and going to variable-speed pumps. The project had a longer payback, but we were able to drive savings that may not have materialized had we just replaced the equipment. The total investment there was $1.1 million. We received about $33,000 in utility rebates. Our annual energy savings are around $92,000. We reduced the annual emissions by about 460 metric tons CO2 equivalent.

We did an efficiency play at our Harrah’s Las Vegas property — our first deep dive into the central plant. It involved a heating system, a cooling system, and part of the air-side system. We invested about $1.1 million and received $110,000 in utility rebates. Our annual utility savings are tracking around $310,000 per year, and we reduced annual emissions by 1,900 metric tons equivalent.

This project was unique because it started as a capital request to replace a failed chiller that was going to cost about $300,000. Instead, we were able to optimize our existing plant to the point where they didn’t need that chiller. Our properties are big so we have multi-chiller plants. Through optimization, we still had the redundancy needed. It reduced the simple payback on the investments that we made on the efficiency side to around three years.

What does the future look like?

Eventually everything ages. If you can be strategic and integrate strategies with your normal expenditures, it can have an impact. We’re going through Science Based Targets greenhouse gas emissions goal setting now. Aggressive reductions are needed to help the planet and avoid that two-degree rise in temperature. If organizations are going to commit to that, you better think about how you’re going to get there. If you can do it in a way so that your CFO is happy, it’s a win-win.

Eric Dominguez will be speaking at the Environmental Leader Conference in Denver June 5-7, 2017. His track, Making Economic Sense of Retrofitting Aging Facilities, starts at 11:20 am on June 7.

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