As the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Energy Star Portfolio Manager becomes the de facto gauge for compliance with rules related to building energy efficiency in California and across the nation, that no-cost energy- and water-use benchmarking online tool is set to have a more user-friendly look and more robust and flexible data-handling capabilities when the system comes back online, set for this week.

Energy Star Portfolio Manager went offline June 26 to move tens of millions of data points from the previous system to the new one and check for problems. It is set to come back online Wednesday.

"The Portfolio Manager upgrade has huge potential for helping building owners and operators accelerate their energy and cost savings," the EPA said in a statement.Changes with the upgrade

Upgrades (energystar.gov/PMUpgrade) were based on feedback from more than 190 users in 2010 that Portfolio Manager be easier to enter building and utility information manually and automatically, process information for reports more quickly, have more types of buildings to choose from and make it easier to share data with multiple people at once.

One of the biggest requests for changes to the system from that user survey was in making the system easier to use, and Intuit's TurboTax software for income-tax return preparation was a frequently mentioned standard for usability. Noting that, designers of the upgraded system created software "wizards" that ask leading questions about what the user is trying to accomplish, allow selection of multiple energy sources at once and create graphical reports on performance.

While the EPA insists previous Portfolio Manager data won't be lost in the move to the new system and that Energy Star scoring methodology won't change, the agency said statements of energy performance from Portfolio Manager may have "small changes" in metrics because of updated reference factors for energy sources, greenhouse-gas emissions and weather data. The agency performance statements from the previous system won't be available.

The new system now has more than 80 building types based on the U.S. Energy Information Administration's 2003 Commercial Buildings Energy Consumption Survey, rather than a number of "other" catch-all groupings.

The data migration was done automatically, matching words in building types with the new, more-specific categories, so the EPA is recommending property owners check property types after the upgrade. For example, the "Other--Fire/Police" previous building type would be mapped to "Police Station" or "Fire Station" types, based on such words being found in the property description, else to the "Other--Public Order & Safety" type, if there was ambiguity.

However, building types added to the system after the upgrade won't be able to get an Energy Star score, as additions were before, according to the EPA.

A significant change for operators of data centers is that now they will have to supply usage information from meters. Since mid-2010, the software allowed for data center energy-use estimates.

Another new feature will be the ability to enter information on Canadian buildings. The EPA and Natural Resources Canada struck a development and research agreement to allow Portfolio Manager to be used north of the border, including weather and energy source, metric conversion, French language and interchange of international utility data, including from beyond the U.S. and Canada.Demand drives software upgrade

Originally released in 2000, Portfolio Manager now is used by more than 70,000 individual accounts to measure, track, assess and report on the energy and water performance of more than 300,000 U.S. commercial buildings, or nearly 40 percent of the nation's 30 billion square feet commercial building space, according to the agency.

The system is used for setting property-investment priorities, identifying under-performing buildings, verifying efficiency improvements and receiving Energy Star certification if the building was rated at least a 75 on the 100-point scale, which means that a building performs better than 75 percent of similar buildings in the nation. More than 20,000 buildings and 1.4 million homes nationwide have been Energy Star--certified. More than a dozen office and school buildings in North Bay counties have received certifications for one or more years.

The number of buildings in the system has surged by more than 10 times in the past 10 years, propelled by a number of city and state laws that require energy benchmarking information to be disclosed on commercial and residential buildings. Among the stated goals of the measures are to give prospective tenants and buyers information on total occupancy or operating cost and encourage property upgrades to boost efficiency.

The benchmarking reports also can be used in documentation for certification under certain Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, building-rating standards.

Among the state and city laws mandating Portfolio Manager benchmarking documentation for real estate transactions is California Energy Commission's new Nonresidential Energy Use Disclosure Program, better known by its main enacting legislation, Assembly Bill 1103 (www.energy.ca.gov/ab1103). Building owners must profile a Portfolio Manager statement of energy performance and other documentation before a full-building lease, sale or financing. Beginning of enforcement was pushed back to Sept. 1 from July 1 because of the Portfolio Manager upgrade.