Utilizing older buildings for modern business and living can often create huge energy expenses. It’s difficult to be energy efficient without the right structure, and building retrofits are often necessary to improve energy costs.

It’s not smart to approach retrofitting without a plan. You could end up spending far more time and money on your upgrade projects if they aren’t done in the right order. Replacing your lighting before addressing the base electrical system, for example, could lead some of the work to need to be redone.

Why is the order of energy upgrades important, and how can you decide the right order when retrofitting a building? Let’s learn more about approaching energy upgrades today.

Retro Building

What is Building Retrofitting?

Building retrofitting is the process of updating an old building with new appliances, structures, and other needs. This is done rather than building a new facility or home, and it can often be more cost-efficient than building new.

However, retrofitting is an extensive process. Many businesses and homeowners prefer to move into properties that are already upgraded to fit modern needs, but others don’t mind being involved with the process themselves.

Existing buildings do not have the most updated heating and cooling systems. Instead, many buildings consume a huge amount of energy on a daily basis. Updating these buildings is key for the long-term energy efficiency of the world, and it’s an important project to take on for energy conservation.

Retrofitting requires an extensive amount of planning. The whole building must be analyzed and redesigned to suit future needs and energy efficiency goals. Finding the smoothest order of operations is key for a smooth retrofitting process. Energy upgrades, in particular, need to be approached with an order in mind.

Does the Order of Energy Upgrades Matter?

Absolutely. It’s essential to do energy upgrades in the right order. 

Rather than considering energy upgrades as individual projects, it’s best to consider them smaller parts of a whole. Systems that use energy are intertwined. Mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems build the foundation for other appliances such as the HVAC system, dishwashers, and lighting.

Analyzing the entire retrofitting progress to find the right starting point is key. Finding out where things interact will enable the project to be cost and time efficient. Take a look at the following examples to better understand why the order of upgrades is so important.


HVAC upgrades are popular, especially because of the savings generated when updating old buildings. Everyone assumes that updating the HVAC systems will immediately improve energy savings. While that is typically true, the savings generated will not be as substantial without first considering the building envelope.

The building envelope is the way that air moves through the building. Are there leaks? Is the insulation installed properly? Are the air ducts positioned to move air properly? Updating an HVAC system can only do so much if the building’s envelope is not properly sealed. Additionally, energy needs and system demand will be higher without a good envelope, so you want to handle those issues first so that you don’t oversize the installed system.

Another example can be seen in upgrading lighting. Upgrading to LED lighting can create great energy savings and even reduce heat generation within the building. In fact, energy experts recommend updating lighting before HVAC, especially in large facilities. Bulbs generate enough heat to make a difference in the heating and cooling; updating to LED first ensures a smoother HVAC upgrade.

Ordering Your Upgrades When Retrofitting: A Guide

Where do you begin when retrofitting a building?

The “whole-building” planning approach is best. Rather than considering individual projects as they come to mind, think long-term about the retrofitting process. Consider all energy upgrades that should be made and how they fit together.

Every property shows different needs, and property owners must evaluate the property to know the right choice. While there are some generalities that apply, remember to be flexible. Your energy upgrades will work together and move forward without issue if you create an overall plan for the retrofitting process.

#1: Start with an Energy Evaluation

We recommend first having an energy evaluation done on the building. Retrofitting may feel like a case of just replacing what is already there, but many structures were not built with modern energy efficiency in mind. The best way to ensure all energy measures are accounted for is for the building to be audited.

Energy evaluations measure the amount of energy used while identifying specific ways to improve energy efficiency. Infrared cameras, inspections, blower doors, and more will allow you to see exactly what can be done to make energy upgrades.

While you can do an energy audit yourself, it may be beneficial to bring in an expert. Since you will be setting up your entire retrofitting plan based on these results, it is well worth the investment.

#2: Look at Envelope Upgrades

Audits of older buildings nearly always reveal issues with the building’s envelope. Degraded insulation, air leaks, and incandescent lighting are a few common problems contributing to poor heating and cooling.

Focusing on envelope upgrades before moving into specific area upgrades increases the overall energy savings generated throughout the project.

#3: Seek Out Complementary Projects

Once you have a list of energy projects that need to be done, start to consider which projects are complementary. 

For example, LED lighting might be on your list of energy upgrades. Updating to LED lighting, especially if an older building is still using incandescent lighting, is a sure way to reduce energy use. However, you want to look at the electrical system as a whole before changing out lighting fixtures and controls. If the wires will need to be updated, this should be done concurrently with the overall lighting update.

Finding complementary projects allows you to plan energy upgrades logically, creating the greatest savings.

LED lighting

#4: Order of Common Upgrades

Many older buildings share issues. The most common energy upgrades have been addressed time and time again, and experts have a good idea of where to start when handling these areas. Learning about the usual order of common upgrades can help you structure your retrofitting plan.

Electrical Issues

In most cases, limiting issues when upgrading energy in your home needs to start with electrical upgrades. Automatic lighting controls are great for reducing energy consumption, but these efforts go to waste if the home’s wiring, lighting fixtures, and light bulbs are all causing energy loss. The same goes for commercial properties with electrical systems such as key card lock systems, security camera wiring, or alarm wiring.

Plan for electrical issues by following the flow of electricity from where it enters the property. Working in this order will help generate savings. 

Water Issues

If the property being retrofitted needs an updated water heater, it’s important to first address leaks. Leaks and other plumbing issues lead to wastewater. In particular, wasted hot water. Hot water is heated with energy. You cannot become truly energy efficient without first fixing these plumbing issues.

All Air Leaks

Sealing the property’s envelope as much as possible is a must for all energy upgrades. Caulking and sealing all air leaks prevents warm air from coming in or getting out when trying to cool and heat the building. Savings from eliminating these drafts alone can be up to 30%. Doing these changes first makes sense to ensure the most savings.

Doors and Windows before HVAC

It’s often recommended that doors and windows are replaced and resealed before upgrading HVAC systems. These upgrades can reduce air from escaping and even reduce heat loss by up to 50%. Upgrading your HVAC system before making changes to doors and windows can lead to an oversized upgrade. Choose the order of operations wisely.

Retrofitting: An Exercise in Planning

There’s no doubt that retrofitting a building can be a huge project. Managing a project of this scale is complicated, and there’s no doubt that planning out energy upgrades is equally difficult.

It’s essential, however, that you do not proceed without a plan when improving efficiency. Optimal combinations of upgrades will streamline the retrofitting process while also improving the building’s energy savings. What’s not to love about that?