How green is your cabling and how would you know?

For many trades in the construction industry, the approval this past summer of the United States Green Building Council's (www.usgbc.org) LEED v4 rating system is worthy of strict attention.

From the October, 2013 Issue of Cabling Installation & Maintenance Magazine

With multiple perspectives on what makes a system environmentally friendly, several groups have their own individual views.

by Patrick McLaughlin

For many trades in the construction industry, the approval this past summer of the United States Green Building Council's (www.usgbc.org) LEED v4 rating system is worthy of strict attention. Those that provide products, systems and services to property owners vying for the USGBC's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) status meticulously follow the program's requirements in a quest to earn the recognition that has become a prestigious symbol of sustainability and environmental stewardship.

In early July the USGBC announced its membership voted to adopt LEED v4, its latest revision to the rating system. In a statement, LEED Steering Committee chair Joel Ann Todd boasted, "There are 46 countries and territories around the world and all 50 U.S. states represented in the voting pool for LEED v4 … The rating system must earn a significant percentage of the overall vote as well as a majority approval from each of the various LEED stakeholder groups. This ensures that rating system approval represents the full diversity of USGBC's membership." In the same statement USGBC reported that the final overall vote had 86 percent favoring the adoption of LEED v4; the vote included a 90-percent approval from the user category, a 77-percent approval from the general interest category and an 89-percent approval from the producer category.

An awareness and education campaign is underway, and the USGBC will accept applications under the previous, LEED 2009, criteria only until June 1, 2015. After that time LEED v4 will be accepted exclusively. USGBC senior vice president of LEED, Scott Horst, said, "This newest version of LEED challenges the market to make the next leap toward better, cleaner, healthier buildings."

Follow LEED?

So the differences between LEED 2009 and LEED v4 are a front-burner issue for many construction trades. But not all. As we have documented in the magazine and on our website, the essential nonexistence of cabling-related considerations in the LEED program has left the cabling industry on the outside looking in when it comes to LEED.

After some on-again, off-again discussions between the USGBC and trade groups associated with the cabling and information-technology systems (ITS) industry, several ITS-industry groups joined to develop the STEP Foundation (www.thestepfoundation.org). STEP is an acronym for Sustainable Technology Environments Program, and its founding organizations include the Telecommunications Industry Association, InfoComm and CompTIA.

Sentiments about being left out of established building-ratings systems are evident in the foundation's straightforward answer to the question, "Why STEP?" in the FAQ section of its own website. "Sustainability is good business but only if business is part of the process," the foundation says. "We don't have a seat at the table." It continues, "Existing rating systems have not included audiovisual, communications, information technology, security or building automation systems. Building codes and standards are changing and we are not part of the process."

The foundation has established its own rating system and has been actively recruiting pilot projects under the system. It has also drafted a STEP Manual, the foreword of which says, "STEP-rated projects will establish the technology industry benchmark for sustainable energy and materials practices, while relaying to building occupants that the building owner has carefully developed the project to meet the high standards of STEP. It also announces that the technology team of manufacturers, integrators, designers, VARs, programmers and others has created additional value by meeting STEP criteria."

In September, the STEP Foundation announced it formed and convened the STEP Rating System for Manufacturers Group. "The objective of the group is to capture, record and applaud manufacturers' sustainability practices and initiatives, while encouraging manufacturers, suppliers, distributors, system integrators and VARs to grow their sustainability programs and exceed building owner and user expectations in commercial building materials and equipment. The manufacturers' rating system is designed to be a standardized, fair, consistent and transparent corporate recognition program."

The Manufacturers Group includes companies from the AV industry, communications cable and connectivity manufacturers, and suppliers of plastics and other materials that are used in the production of cable and many other products. DuPont's regulatory affairs manager Fred Dawson chairs the group.

Media considerations

The initial rating system established by the STEP Foundation does not favor any media type over another (e.g. fiber, twisted-pair copper, wireless). Rather, it includes requirements like "Specify products which restrict the inclusion of hazardous materials," "Identify opportunities for integrated building technology and energy management," and "Employ design strategies to optimize infrastructure for sustainability"--undertakings that may be enhanced by one medium or another.

While the STEP Foundation's system shows no favor, proponents of certain media types have seized the opportunity to point out the environmental advantages of certain media choices--irrespective of whether or not a project is aiming for recognition from the STEP Foundation. General Cable (www.generalcable.com) introduced a halogen-free cable line called 17 Free in early 2010. As the company explained at the time of the introduction, the 17 Free name comes from the fact that halogens are in Group 17 of the Periodic Table of Elements. The cables are halogen-free, or Group 17-free, as they contain no chlorine, fluorine, bromine or iodine.

Recently, advocates of passive optical LAN (POL) architectures have emphasized those systems' environmental advantages as one of many reasons to consider implementation. In April of this year we published an article in which 3M's Loni L. Le Van-Etter and Berk-Tek's Alfred Flores, writing on behalf of the TIA Fiber Optic Technology Consortium (www.tiafotc.org), made the following statements: "Optical networks lower energy consumption," "Optical-fiber networks help reduce water and lower TCO," "Optical fiber supports sustainable architectures." Adding detail to that last statement, the authors explained, "The high bandwidth and long link lengths supported by fiber networks enable LAN architectures that minimize the use of electronics--saving energy, reducing the materials needed, and creating a network with the bandwidth to support future applications." They said that both POL and fiber-to-the-telecom-enclosure architectures provide benefits in these ways.

More recently, the Association for Passive Optical LAN (www.apolanglobal.org) announced its formation and in doing so, included the comment, "Passive optical LAN saves money, energy and space." The APOLAN is a burgeoning organization, actively recruiting members and likely to have an information campaign of its own before long.

Despite the existence and widespread recognition of USGBC's LEED as the preeminent "green building" program, professionals in the cabling and other technology industries have been left to establish their own benchmarks for technology systems' sustainability characteristics. Without recognition in LEED, the industry has looked to the STEP Foundation to establish and administer such a system. As STEP takes strides toward widespread adoption, technology projects continue to be carried out and stakeholders interested in their systems' sustainability have multiple and varied considerations to make about how to accomplish such an objective. ::

Patrick McLaughlin is our chief editor.

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