Final Report: Developing and Assessing the Impact of a Socio-Technological Resource-Use Feedback System for Improving the Environmental Performance of Buildings and Institutions

EPA Grant Number: SU831875
Title: Developing and Assessing the Impact of a Socio-Technological Resource-Use Feedback System for Improving the Environmental Performance of Buildings and Institutions
Investigators: Petersen, John E. , Arnaudov, Vesselin , Murray, Michael , Platt, Gavin , Shunturov, Vladislav
Institution: Oberlin College , Brown University
EPA Project Officer: Nolt-Helms, Cynthia
Phase: I
Project Period: September 30, 2004 through May 30, 2005
Project Amount: $9,993
RFA: P3 Awards: A National Student Design Competition for Sustainability Focusing on People, Prosperity and the Planet (2004) RFA Text |  Recipients Lists
Research Category: Nanotechnology , P3 Challenge Area - Built Environment , Pollution Prevention/Sustainable Development , P3 Awards , Sustainability


The built environment is responsible for two-thirds of U.S. electricity consumption and over 15 trillion gallons of water used annually. On college campuses, a significant percentage of total energy and water consumption takes place within dormitories. Personal and institutional choices can substantially reduce energy and water use in dorms and other institutional buildings. However, it is difficult to motivate building occupants to make decisions that conserve resources for future generations if they cannot easily sense and react to the implications of their decisions. The technical challenge that we proposed to address in our P3 Phase-I project was to develop and test a relatively low-cost data monitoring and display system that would enable easy observation and interpretation of resource use as it occurs at scales ranging from individual dormitory floors to an entire campus. The premise of our research is that easily accessible feedback on resource use in buildings increases both awareness and motivation to act in ways that change attitudes, minimize resource use and save money.

Specifically, for P3 Phase-I, we proposed to develop a prototype system that would combine: 1) off-the-shelf water and energy flow sensors; 2) newly available and relatively inexpensive wireless datalogging and networking hardware; and 3) networking, database management and display software custom developed by the project team. The goal was to use these to generate easily interpretable real-time data on energy and water use on individual floors in two Oberlin College dormitories and then to deliver this information in easily interpretable graphs and gauges to students, faculty, and facilities managers through a web site and on public display monitors in the lobbies of the dorms. To this high-resolution feedback we added low-resolution manually collected data - total energy and water use integrated over weekly meter readings - for 22 of the 25 dorms on the Oberlin College campus. A review of existing technology indicates that there is no integrated product or even combination of products currently available on the market that can accomplish the objectives of collecting, processing and displaying resource use in multiple older buildings at the resolution and quality that described here. Our goal was thus to design arid execute such a system with a very limited budget.

Our P3 team developed a layered research design to allow us to assess the extent to which the different resolutions of socio-technical feedback encourage college students to reduce electricity and water use in their dorms. Specifically, we employed a campus-wide “dorm energy competition” to rapidly assess the effect of the data monitoring and display system that we had developed. The competition provided a context for advertising and delivering visual feedback on resource use. The start date of the competition marked the first time that resource feedback data were made publicly available to the campus. Low-resolution, campus-wide data on dorm energy and water consumption was only made publicly available during the two weeks of the competition (March 10 — March 24, ‘05).

We developed four approaches to quantify the impact of feedback on student resource use and student interest in resource use: 1) we compared energy and water use in dormitories before, during and after a period during which we displayed feedback to dormitory residents on a web site; 2) we recorded and analyzed the origin, target-page and number of unique and repeat visitors to the data display website; 3) we compared resource use reductions in dorms with low- and with high- resolution data; 4) we surveyed dorm occupants to determine what conservation strategies they had employed and whether they had changed their attitudes.

Summary/Accomplishments (Outputs/Outcomes):

The P3 Phase-I pilot project proved to be enormously successful with respect to achieving the technological, educational, economic and environmental objectives outlined in our proposal. Despite significant technological challenges, we were able to successfully design, build and test all of the components of the monitoring and display system components between September 2004 and January 2005. Since February 1, 2005 the wireless monitoring and display system for the two intensively monitored dorms has been in full and continuous operation. The Exit website, where feedback data are displayed, was made publicly available on March 10, 2005 to coincide with the beginning of our “dorm energy competition”.

Every 20 seconds the following sequence of events occurs: 1) the sensing stations located in the mechanical rooms of the two dorms read data from electricity and water flow sensors; 2) data are processed into several discrete packets and transmitted by radio signal from the sensor station through intermediate relay stations to a base station; 3) data received by the base station are inserted into a database that resides on a PC server; 4) raw data that are delivered to the database are processed by the server to create derived variables; derived variables are made available to the Internet; and 5) when the website is called, our graphics software creates and “plays” time-series graphs on the website of the visitors computer (animated graphics aid the viewer in understanding the patterns of resource use over time). Since all Oberlin dorm rooms have internet access, and most rooms have at least one computer, the data are easily and immediately accessible to the target audience. In addition, for the duration of the dorm energy competition, computer terminals were installed in the lobbies of the two dorms with high-resolution data and in the lobby of the College’s Science Center to run continuous presentations of dorm energy data.

Two important considerations need to be understood before the results of our research can be appropriately interpreted. First, it is important to know that all Oberlin dormitories are heated either with steam from a central heating plant or by natural gas boilers. Although there is a small amount of electricity used to run some of the heating and ventilation equipment in the dormitories, outside temperature differences between the reference and feedback periods were small (average of 28 F vs. 31 F respectively) and we assume that temperature differences had a negligible effect on electricity consumption in the dorms. Electricity use in dorms is primarily attributable to plug loads and lighting, and to mechanical kitchen appliances and refrigeration units in those dorms that contain dining halls (ovens and stoves are heated with natural gas). Students have control over plug loads and lighting, and in some cases, over kitchen appliances, so there is considerable room for behavior modification to translate into energy savings.

Second, although average day-length was increasing over the course of the study, average outside light levels measured with an on-campus weather station were actually lower during the competition (129 W/m2) then during the reference period (148 W/m2), so if anything we would expect use of electricity for lighting to be higher during the competition week. Our results and conclusions assume that without the new feedback that we provided, electricity and water consumption during the feedback period would have been the same as consumption during the reference period.

Resources use reductions: There were substantial decreases in electricity use during the period in which students were provided with feedback. Between the reference period and period during which feedback was supplied, the winning dorm reduced average electricity consumption by a whopping 56%. The mean percentage reduction for the 20 dorms that are part of the study was 13%. These data suggest that providing students with easily accessible web-based feedback can be a very effective means of lowering electricity use.

Water use fell by considerably less than energy use. The winning dorm reduced its water consumption by 11%, but average reduction among all dorms was only 1.2%. We believe lower water savings relative to energy savings may be due to the fact that we placed greater emphasis on energy in advertising for the competition (the event was called the “dorm energy competition”).

Financial savings: Dormitories saved a total of 68,500 kWh of electricity during the two-week period during which feedback was provided on the dormEnergy website. At market prices in Oberlin of 7.5 cents/kWh, this amounts to an electricity savings of $5,120. Dormitories saved 20,500 gallons of water. Combined savings in freshwater and wastewater fees amount to $260, providing a total resource conservation cost savings of $5,380 for the two-week period. For a small residential college like Oberlin (1,826 students reside in the dorms included in the study), these savings are considerable.

Pollution reduction: Pollution equivalents can be calculated based on the mix of electrical generation facilities in our local electrical grid (>90% coal-fired generation). Based on savings of 68,500 kWh of electricity, the two-week feedback period resulted in a decreased emission of 148,000 lbs of C02, 1,360 lbs of S02 and 520 lbs of NOx.

Interest and attitude: The number and identity of visitors to the dormEnergy website provides a good measure of the degree of interest and utilization of feedback on energy and water use. In sum, the pages on the dormEnergy website received a total of 4,082 hits during the two-week resource feedback period. These website visits were made by 1,036 unique computers (assessed by tracking computer IP addresses). Of the hits, 835 came from computer addresses located within the dorms indicating that 50% of the dorm residents with access to web-based feedback on their resource use actually utilized it within their dorm rooms.

Effects of high- vs. low-resolution feedback: Residents of the two dorms in which real-time data monitoring systems were installed reduced their energy use by a larger percentage than did students in any of the other dorms on campus. The average electricity use reduction by dorm residents in the two dorms with high-resolution feedback was 55%, compared to a 13% average reduction for residents of dorms receiving low-resolution feedback. The high-resolution feedback group also visited the dormEnergy web site more often (average = 4.8 visits/resident) than did the low- resolution group (average 2.5 visits/resident). These data suggest that high-resolution real-time data stimulate more interest and greater electricity conservation than does lower-resolution feedback.

Educational value: The number of visitors to the dormEnergy website and the high level of discussion on campus about the website suggest that the project was very successful in stimulating interest in resource use in Oberlin dormitories. The five student members of the P3 research team received well-deserved research credit for their collaborative efforts on this project. One team member, Vladislav Shunturov (OC ‘05), built his honors research and thesis on the project. In addition, eight students in the introductory environmental studies course built semester-long class projects around this work and at the end of the semester these students will present their findings to the class. The entire campus was exposed to educational materials developed by these students around the theme of energy and water conservation. Although we did not publicly advertise the existence of the dormEnergy website to audiences outside of the college, during the two-week competition the site received a total of 181 visits from computers that are not registered on the campus network as belonging to Oberlin students or faculty. Kath Williams, Education Coordinator of the US Green Building Council informed us that she is already using Oberlin’s dormEnergy website as an example in her “LEED-EB” training workshops that she leads, which may account for at least some of the external website visitors.

We have not yet collected and analyzed the results of our post-feedback survey on student attitudes and behaviors. However, members of our P3 team have received considerable anecdotal feedback in the form of emails and conversations. This feedback, together with the dramatic reductions in electricity use, suggest that students were very excited and engaged by the accessibility of data on their resource use within the dormitories.


We successfully developed and tested a novel technology for monitoring and displaying feedback on resource use in dormitories. The results described above provide evidence that delivering web-based feedback on resource consumption stimulates interest and decreases consumption. The $5,380 in savings that resulted from conservation during the two-week feedback period represent 54% of the cost of the P3 grant that made this research possible. Clearly a longer- term, larger-scale study is needed to determine the degree to which feedback delivered through realtime monitoring and display technology stimulates sustained attitudinal changes and resource use reductions. This larger scale assessment is precisely what we propose to undertake in Phase-II of the P3 program.

Proposed Phase-II objectives and strategies:

In Phase-I of our P3 project we successfully demonstrated that it is possible to create a relatively low-cost resource feedback system that stimulates interest and motivates college students to exhibit substantial short-term reductions in on energy and water use in dormitories. However, we fully acknowledge that the limited number of dorms receiving high-resolution real-time feedback and the short duration of our Phase-I study make it difficult to draw firm conclusions about the impact of such a system on long-term attitudes and behaviors of dorm residents. The challenge we propose for Phase-II is to scale up both the technology and evaluation of its impact to the level of campus-wide implementation. Specifically, in Phase-IT we propose to: 1) expand the number of dorms receiving real-time monitoring and display from 2 to 10; 2) investigate the efficacy of XML- Ethernet based data acquisition as an alternative to the wireless techno1oy that we employed in Phase-I; 3) implement more stable and transferable server management and display software; 4) engage a broader team of faculty and student researchers that includes members with expertise in environmental psychology and in the sociology of resource conservation; 5) implement a comprehensive research protocol to assess longer term effects of socio-technical feedback; 6) develop more educational content for the feedback website; and 7) engage a broader group of partners to ensure future technology transfer.

Phase-II represents a more comprehensive and larger scale implementation of our Phase-I design goals of creating a cost-effective campus-wide feedback system that inspires and empowers students to behave in ways that minimize resource use and generate environmental and financial benefits. The inclusion of more dormitories, more robust hardware and software technologies and a broader faculty and student team we allow us to be more comprehensive and conclusive in assessing the psychological, social, environmental and economic impact of the promising feedback technology that we developed in Phase-I.

Journal Articles:

No journal articles submitted with this report: View all 6 publications for this project

Supplemental Keywords:

Energy conservation, water conservation, resource conservation, feedback, monitoring, display, sustainability, sustainable design, ecological design, green architecture , green building, complex system dynamics, college campus, dormitory, LEED-EB,, RFA, ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AGENCY, Scientific Discipline, TREATMENT/CONTROL, Sustainable Industry/Business, POLLUTION PREVENTION, cleaner production/pollution prevention, waste reduction, Sustainable Environment, Energy, Reinvention, Technology, Economics, Technology for Sustainable Environment, Environmental Monitoring, energy conservation, environmentally friendly technology, green design, waste minimization, clean technologies, consumption pathways, clean technology, incentives, computer models, ecological design, education, environmental conscious construction, green building design, emission controls, monitoring environmental emissions, energy efficiency, innovative technology, real time energy monitoring, monitoring resource consumption, water conservation, outreach and education, environmental cost analysis, green technology, environmentally conscious design

Relevant Websites:

Oberlin College's Building Dashboard | dormEnergy Exit provides dormitory residents at Oberlin with real-time visual feedback on doem energy and water use. The site was developed by our P3 team as part of Phase I.

Adam Joseph Lewis Center's Building Dashboard | Oberlin Exit features real-time data on the environmental performance of the Adam Joseph Lewis Center. Although not a part of our P3 grant, our phase I P3 student team has played a central role in developing this site.

Adam Joseph Lewis Center's Atrium Building Dashboard | Oberlin Exit provides an example of a lobby display developed by members of the P3 team. The new lobby displays for dorms in Phase-II might use an analogous presentation style.

SBIR Phase I Follow-on Project: Software Framework for Enabling Innovation in Behavior-based Energy Conservation in Commercial Buildings | Final Report
SBIR Phase II Follow-on Project: Using Software and Internet of Things Technology to Drive Behavioral Energy Savings in Commercial Buildings Using Building Orbs

P3 Phase II:

Developing and Assessing the Impact of a Socio-Technological Resource-Use Feedback System for Improving the Environmental Performance of Buildings and Institutions  | Final Report