Auditing: User-Friendly Reports (Energy Engineering)

Abstract

Energy audits do not save money and energy for companies unless the recommendations are implemented. Audit reports should be designed to encourage implementation, but often they impede it instead. In this article, the author discusses her experience with writing industrial energy audit reports and suggests some ways to make the reports more user-friendly. The goal in writing an audit report should not be the report itself; rather, it should be to achieve implementation of the report recommendations and thus achieve increased energy efficiency and energy cost savings for the customer.

INTRODUCTION

This article addresses two questions: “Why should an energy audit report be user-friendly?” and “How do you make an audit report user-friendly?” The author answers these questions in the context of sharing experience gained by writing audit reports for industrial clients of the University of Florida Industrial Assessment Center (UF IAC).

At the UF IAC, we had two goals in writing an audit report. Our first goal was to provide our clients with the facts necessary to make informed decisions about our report recommendations. Our second goal, which was as important as the first, was to interest our clients in implementing as many of our recommendations as possible. We found that “user-friendly” audit reports helped us achieve both goals.


WHAT IS A USER-FRIENDLY AUDIT REPORT?

The definition of “user-friendly” is something that is easy to learn or to use. People generally think of the term “user-friendly” related to something like a computer program. A program that is user-friendly is one that you can use with minimal difficulty. We have applied the same term to audit reports to mean a report that communicates its information to the user (reader) with a minimum amount of effort on the reader’s part. We operate on the belief that a reader who is busy will not want to spend valuable time struggling to understand what the report is trying to say. If the report is not clear and easy to follow, the reader will probably set it down to read later, and “later” may never come!

HOW DO YOU WRITE A USER-FRIENDLY AUDIT REPORT?

From our experience, we have identified a number of key points for successfully writing a user-friendly audit report. These points are summarized below.

Know your audience

The first thing to keep in mind when you start to write anything is to know who your audience is and to tailor your writing to that audience. When writing an industrial audit report, your readers can range from the company president to the head of maintenance. If recommendations affect a number of groups in the company, each group leader may be given a copy of the report. Thus, you may have persons of varying backgrounds and degrees of education reading the report. Not all of them will necessarily have a technical background. The primary decision maker may not be an engineer; the person who implements the recommendations may not have a college degree.

We dealt with this problem by writing a report with three basic sections. Section One was an executive summary that briefly described our recommendations and tabulated our results such as the energy and dollar savings and the simple payback times. Section Two was a brief description of a recommended energy management program for our client. Section Three was a detailed section that we called our technical supplement. This section of our report included the calculations that supported our recommendations and any specific information relating to implementation. (These sections are described more fully later in this article.)

Use a simple, direct writing style

Technical writers often feel compelled to write in a third-person, passive, verbose style. Because energy audit reports are technical in nature, they often reflect this writing style. Instead, you should write your audit report in clear, understandable language. As noted above, your reader may not have a technical background. Even a reader who does will not be offended if the report is easy to read and understand. Some specific suggestions are:

Simplify your writing by using active voice. Technical writers use passive voice, saying “It is recommended… ” or “It has been shown…” rather than “We recommend…” or “We have shown…” Passive voice allows the writer to avoid taking direct responsibility for the recommendations. Be clear and straightforward in your writing by using active voice wherever possible.

Address the report to the reader. Write as if you were speaking directly to the reader. Use the words “you” and “your.” Say “your company…,” “your electric bill…,” etc. Make the report plain and simple. The following examples show how to do this.

Not: Installation of high-efficiency fluorescent lamps in place of the present lamps is recommended.

But: Install high-efficiency fluorescent lamps in place of your present lamps.

Or: We recommend that you install high-efficiency fluorescent lamps in place of your present lamps.

Not: Twelve air leaks were found in the compressor system during the audit of this facility.

But: We found twelve air leaks in the compressor system when we audited your facility.

Or: You have twelve air leaks in your compressor system.

Avoid technical jargon that your reader may not understand. Do not use acronyms such as ECO, EMO, or EMR without explaining them. (Energy Conservation Opportunity, Energy Management Opportunity, Energy Management Recommendation).

Present Information Visually

Often the concepts you need to convey in an audit report are not easy to explain in a limited number of words. To solve this problem, we often used drawings to show what we meant. For example, we had a diagram that showed how to place the lamps in fluorescent lighting fixtures when you are eliminating two of the lamps in a four-lamp fixture and adding reflectors. We also had a diagram showing how a heat pipe works.

We also presented our client’s energy use data visually with graphs showing the annual energy and demand usage by month. These graphs gave a picture of use patterns. Any discrepancies in use showed up clearly.

Make Calculation Sections Helpful

The methodology and calculations used to develop specific energy management opportunity recommendations can be very helpful in an audit report. When you include the methodology and calculations, the technical personnel have the opportunity to check the accuracy of your assumptions and your work. Because not every reader wants to wade through pages describing the methodology and showing the calculations, we provided this information in a technical supplement to our audit report. Because this section was clearly labeled as the technical supplement, nontechnical readers could see instantly that this section might be difficult for them to understand and that they could ignore it.

Use Commonly Understood Units

In your report, be sure to use units that your client will understand. Discussing energy savings in terms of BTUs is not meaningful to the average reader. Kilowatt-hours for electricity or therms for natural gas are better units because most energy bills use these units.

Make Your Recommendations Clear

Some writers assume that their readers will understand their recommendation even if it is not explicitly stated. Although the implication may often be clear, better practice is to clearly state your recommendation so that your reader knows exactly what to do.

Not: Install occupancy sensors in the conference room and restrooms.

But: You should purchase five occupancy sensors. Install one in the conference room and one in each of the four restrooms.

Explain Your Assumptions

A major problem with many reports is the author’s failure to explain the assumptions underlying the calculations. For example, when you use operating hours in a calculation, show how you got the number. “Your facility operates from 7:30 A.M. to 8:00 P.M., 5 days a week, 51 weeks per year. Therefore, we will use 3188 annual operating hours in our calculations.”

When you show your basic assumptions and calculations, the reader can make adjustments if those facts change. In the example above, if the facility decided to operate 24 h/day, the reader would know where and how to make changes in operating hours because we had clearly labeled that calculation.

Use a section of your report to list your standard assumptions and calculations. That way, you do not have to repeat the explanations for each of your recommendations. Some of the standard assumptions/calculations that can be included in this section are operating hours, the average cost of electricity, the demand rate, the off-peak cost of electricity, and the calculation of the fraction of air conditioning load attributable to lighting.

Be Accurate and Consistent

The integrity of a report is grounded in its accuracy. This does not just pertain to the correctness of calculations. Clearly, inaccurate calculations will destroy a report’s credibility, but other problems can also undermine the value of your report.

Be consistent throughout the report. Use the same terminology so your reader is not confused. Make sure that you use the same values. Do not use two different load factors for the same piece of equipment in different recommendations. For example, you might calculate the loss of energy due to leaks from an air compressor in one recommendation and the energy savings due to replacing the air compressor motor with a high efficiency motor in another recommendation. If you use different load factors or different motor efficiencies in each recommendation, your results will not be consistent or accurate.

Proofread your report carefully. Typographical and spelling errors devalue an otherwise good product. With computer spell checkers, there is very little excuse for misspelled words. Your nontechnical readers are likely to notice this type of error, and they will wonder if your technical calculations are similarly flawed. Textual errors can also sometimes change the meaning of a sentence—if you say “Do not…” instead of “Do…,” you have made a major mistake.

REPORT SECTIONS

We found that the following report format met our clients’ needs and fit our definition of a user-friendly report.

Executive Summary

The audit report starts with an executive summary, which lists the recommended energy conservation measures and shows the implementation cost and dollar savings amount. This section is intended for the readers who only want to see the bottom line. Although the executive summary can be as simple as a short table, you may add brief text to explain the recommendations and include any special information needed to implement the recommendations. We copied the executive summary on colored paper so that it stood out from the rest of the report.

Energy Management Plan

Following the executive summary, we provided some information to the decision makers on how to set up an energy management program in their facility. We viewed this section as one that encouraged implementation of our report, so we tried to make it as helpful as possible.

Energy Action Plan. In this subsection, we described the steps that a company should consider in order to start implementing our recommendations.

Energy Financing Options. We also included a short discussion of the ways that a company can pay for the recommendations. We covered the traditional use of company capital, loans for small businesses, utility incentive programs, and the shared savings approach of the energy service companies.

Maintenance Recommendations. We did not usually make formal maintenance recommendations in the technical supplement because the savings are not often easy to quantify. However, in this section of the report, we provided energy-savings maintenance checklists for lighting, heating/ventilation/air-conditioning, and boilers.

The Technical Supplement

The technical supplement is the part of the report that contains the specific information about the facility and the audit recommendations. Our technical supplement had two main sections: one included our assumptions and general calculations and the other described the recommendations in detail, including the calculations and methodology. We sometimes included a third section that described measures we had analyzed and determined were not cost-effective or that had payback times beyond the client’s current planning horizon.

Standard Calculations and Assumptions

This section was briefly described above when we discussed the importance of explaining assumptions. Here we provided the reader with the basis for understanding many of our calculations and assumptions. We included a short description of the facility: square footage (both air conditioned and unconditioned areas), materials of construction, type and level of insulation, etc. If we were dividing the facility into subareas, we described those areas and assigned each an area number that was then used throughout the recommendation section.

Standard values calculated in this section included operating hours, the average cost of electricity, the demand rate, the off-peak cost of electricity, and the calculation of the fraction of air conditioning load attributable to lighting. When we calculated a value in this section, we labeled the variable with an identifier that remained the same throughout the rest of the report. For example, operating hours was OH wherever it was used; demand rate was DR.

Audit Recommendations

This section contained a discussion of each of the energy management opportunities we had determined were cost-effective. Each energy management recommendation (or EMR) that was capsulized in the executive summary was described in depth here.

Again, we tried to make the EMRs user-friendly. To do this, we put the narrative discussion at the beginning of the recommendation and left the technical calculations for the very end. This way, we allowed the readers to decide for themselves whether they wanted to wade through the specific calculations.

Each EMR started with a table that summarized the energy, demand, and cost savings, implementation cost, and simple payback period. Then we wrote a short narrative section that provided some brief background information about the recommended measure and explained how it should be implemented at this facility. If we were recommending installation of more than one item (lights, motors, air conditioning units, etc.), we often used a table to break down the savings by unit or by area.

The final section of each EMR was the calculation section. Here we explained the methodology that we used to arrive at our savings estimates. We provided the equations and showed how the calculations were performed so that our clients could see what we had done. If they wanted to change our assumptions, they could. If some of the data we had used was incorrect, they could replace it with the correct data and recalculate the results. However, by placing the calculations away from the rest of the discussion rather than intermingling the two, we didn’t scare off the readers who needed to look at the other information.


SHORT FORM AUDIT REPORT

Many energy auditors use a short form audit report. A short report is essential when the cost of the audit is a factor. Writing a long report can be time-consuming and it increases the cost of an audit.

The short form report is useful when an on-the-spot audit report is required because the auditor can use a laptop computer to generate it. It is also an excellent format for preliminary audit reports when the company will have to do further analysis before implementing most of the recommendations.

However, some short form audit reports have drawbacks. When a report is ultra-short and only provides the basic numbers, the reader will not have a memory crutch if he returns to the report sometime after the auditor has left. Because some clients do not implement the recommendations immediately but wait until they gather the necessary capital, an ultra-short form report may lose its value. Therefore, some explanatory text is a critical component of a user-friendly short form report. The executive summary described above could serve as a model short form audit report.

FEEDBACK

Customer feedback is as appropriate in energy auditing as in any other endeavor. An easy way to get feedback is to give the customer a questionnaire to evaluate the audit service and the report. In our feedback form, we listed each section of the report and asked the client to rate each section on a scale of 1-10, with 1 being poor and 10 being excellent. We asked for a rating based on whether the section was easy to read and we asked for a second rating of the likelihood that our recommendations would be implemented. (We also asked for any additional comments, but seldom got those.)

The questionnaire must be easy to fill out. If it takes too much time to read and fill out, the clients won’t take the time to return it. We used to send the questionnaire along with the report, but those were seldom returned. We decided to wait for a month and then send the questionnaire as a follow-up to the audit. We had a much greater return rate when we used this method.

CONCLUSION

Many audit reports are not user-friendly. Most often they are either lengthy documents full of explanations, justifications, and calculations or they are very short with little backup information. If a report is so long that it intimidates your readers by its very size, they may set it aside to read when they have more time. If it is so short that needed information is lacking, the readers may not believe the results.

Writing a user-friendly audit report is an important step in promoting implementation of audit recommendations. If you adopt some of these report-writing suggestions, you should be able to produce your own successful user-friendly energy audit report.

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