About the Commercial Buildings Energy Consumption Survey (CBECS)

CBECS is a national sample survey that collects information on the stock of U.S. commercial buildings, their energy-related building characteristics, and their energy consumption and expenditures.

The CBECS was first conducted in 1979; the tenth, and most recent survey, was fielded starting in April 2013 to provide data for calendar year 2012. CBECS is currently conducted on a quadrennial basis.

The CBECS is akin to a national census of building performance. The U.S. DOE’s Energy Information Administration (EIA) develops a frame—or list—of all commercial buildings in the country. The EIA surveys thousands of those buildings throughout the country using a validated methodology. These buildings constitute a statistical sample that is designed to represent all 4.9 million commercial buildings in the U.S. The CBECS provides the green building community with a vital dataset that serves as the benchmarking backbone for the ENERGY STAR Portfolio Manager, LEED, the 2030 Challenge and various energy modeling tools.

CBECS field data collection completed

The active field data collection phase of the 2012 CBECS ended in November 2013. In the next month, home office staff at Westat (the CBECS survey contractor) will continue to work on open cases via telephone interviews. With over 200 interviewers deployed across the U.S. starting in mid-April 2013, the 2012 CBECS is the largest field collection in the 30-year history of CBECS.

Westat has been transmitting cases to US Energy Information Administration EIA every few weeks since May, and the data editing phase at EIA is making good progress. We are on track to publish the first characteristics results in late April or early May 2014. The consumption and expenditures data releases will follow in about a year. The Energy Suppliers Survey (ESS) data collection begins in early spring 2014: those data will provide energy usage and cost data for about half the CBECS cases.

Why is CBECS important to the Multifamily Industry?

It has been 10 years since the last full set of survey data. Considering the building design and construction industry’s current focus on performance data, not to mention the leaps and bounds made by green building standards over the past decade, the CBECS could not have come at a better time.

The CBECS is an essential tool for energy and water performance benchmarking and we should all be thankful that arms of the federal government beyond the DOE are acknowledging its value amidst times of financial trepidation. The CBECS is the only dataset of its kind. And without incremental updates, it will be impossible for us to truly gauge just how far the green building movement has come and how much farther it still needs to go.

The size and scope of the CBECS makes it unique among other datasets. Moreover, it is unlikely that anyone from the private sector would undertake a comparatively vast effort anytime soon. This leaves the CBECS as a one-of-a-kind dataset that provides invaluable information to the built environment. But if it is so important, why hasn’t the survey been updated since 2003?

History and Background

Dating back to 1979, the CBECS is typically carried out every four years. Despite rising costs to carry out subsequent surveys, the U.S. DOE’s budget has always been able to support the CBECS—that is until (you guessed it) 2008.

Like everyone else, the EIA was under budgetary constraints in 2008. In order to salvage the 2007 CBECS, the EIA allowed a contractor to pursue some cost-saving measures that amounted to an experimental sampling that the EIA ultimately could not validate. Consequently, most of the dataset was not be released.

The 2011 CBECS was also thwarted by financial hurdles. The final fiscal year (FY) 2011 federal budget slashed the EIA’s budget by $15.2 million—a 14 percent reduction from the FY 2010 budget. Among other concessions, the EIA hesitantly decided to suspend the nation’s only statistical data source for energy consumption characteristics of the entire commercial building sector.

Despite the financial struggles of recent years, the EIA is commenced with the CBECS in 2013, with 2012 as the reference year. The 2012 CBECS will expand its sample size from 5,215 to 8,400 completed commercial building surveys. Making good on an initiative starting with the 2007 iteration, the 2012 CBECS will also survey about water consumption and characteristics. According to the EIA, the public can expect data from the 2012 CBECS to be released in the spring to fall of 2014.

 Challenges to be aware of in the future

A potential challenge is accurately quantifying the impact of occupant behavior on energy efficiency. Though a building may be designed to the correct specifications, occupant behavior can be difficult to predict and often leads to discrepancies between the expected energy use (derived from energy modeling during the design process) and post-occupancy energy use.

Another challenge is the potential change in the EPA’s energy average score. With the impact of energy effciency over the last ten (10) years, we expect the median average score to rise. This means that buildings that have a good rating today may find with the new data that their ratings will fall.


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