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Building Automation Systems Can Play a New Role

When facility executives think of the reasons to install or upgrade a building automation system, they typically think of gains in energy efficiency, occupant comfort, and facility staff productivity. But when building systems are integrated under the BAS, the facility can be more resilient as well, say experts.

The current standard for a new building automation system is to integrate everything, says Rawlson King, communications director of the Continental Automated Buildings Association. But the use of advanced BAS is far from universal. Sophisticated BAS are more common and important in critical facilities such as hospitals or data centers, while commercial developers too often see BAS as a corner to cut, says King.

Fire sign

Building occupants have long been told to not use elevators in case of emergency. Today, there is a move to use elevators for evacuation. But if elevators are to be used for that purpose, effective communication with occupants will be important. Dynamic messaging systems could potentially pull useful information from the building automation system to aid in the evacuation effort.

As resilience becomes a higher priority, the BAS represents an opportunity. For example, in areas where two electric utilities supply power, the system can automatically choose the cheaper one — but if one utility goes down, switching to the other is a matter of routine, says Troy Windom, automation manager for Dewberry. In this case, a function designed to reduce energy costs can also improve redundancy. And if the facility has to fall back on its generator, the BAS can automatically shut off non-essential equipment, reducing the amount of electricity needed by the building.

BAS, he says, generally incorporate resilience into their design by distributing functions, so that “if something fails, it’s small enough that you don’t care,” says Paul Ehrlich, president of Building Intelligence Group.

Problems in a smart building can be diagnosed and repaired more quickly than with conventional equipment. In an emergency, the ability to respond more rapidly can translate into a gain in resilience.

Historically, BAS and fire were considered separate systems, but “there’s a growing sentiment that there’s no reason not to combine them, as long as there’s backup power and redundancy in the system,” says Meacham.

Meacham says that integrating BAS and fire protection has intriguing possibilities. For example, given the move to using elevators for occupant evacuation in very tall buildings, it may be time to remove the century-old sign, “In case of fire, do not use elevator” in some facilities. But using elevators for evacuation presents a communication challenge in a high-rise building that needs to evacuate hundreds or thousands of people quickly. “Once people go to an elevator lobby, how long will they wait, with a fire alarm going off?” Mecham asks. “What information do they need to help them decide to wait or use the stairs?” If the technology is reliable enough, a BAS could provide dynamic messaging and evacuation signage as the event unfolds. With the right inputs from sensors, the BAS could use its analytical capabilities to tell occupants where to exit.

“The possibilities are almost boundless” to integrate BAS, fire, security, and maintenance, Windom says. And as technology advances, more and more features will come standard on even entry-level systems. “It’s ubiquitous computing,” says King. “We’re in a world where a microprocessor is placed in everything,” and increasingly, the devices can talk to each other.

It’s important to remember that, once the system is installed, it takes human effort to use it well. “Our systems don’t get used to the full extent,” says Ehrlich. Many control systems predate the move toward green and sustainability, and even those installed in recent years can quickly drift away from optimum settings.

“You have to install the system,” King says, “but you also have to have the human resources in place to maintain the system.”

Weighing Costs and Benefits

It’s one thing to talk about producing more resilient buildings. It’s another to answer the question of who pays for measures to improve resilience, says Robert Solomon, division manager at the National Fire Protection Association. “You start to play that cost-benefit game.”

Organizations that take steps to improve resilience may have trouble determining their return on investment, says Roger Grant, program director at the National Institute of Building Sciences, since it involves postulating a hypothetical event. But ignoring risks because they’re hard to evaluate “isn’t good practice. You have to evaluate how much risk you’re taking on by not doing it,” he says. “You can’t know when something’s going to happen.”

Insurance companies are one group that has a very keen interest in evaluating risks. “That’s going to continue to become more evident to owners,” Grant says. Solomon says that, at present, there is little financial savings on insurance or taxes if a building’s systems are enhanced, although that may change in coming years.

With some building systems, steps that increase resilience reduce ongoing facility costs. For example, a building that uses less energy and water on a daily basis is also, in a passive way, ready to meet disaster more effectively. When the crisis comes, “your need for power and water is going to be lower to begin with,” says Jason Harper, an associate principal at the architecture firm of Perkins and Will. “That pays dividends in emergency situations.”

What’s more, a new building automation or fire alarm system needs less maintenance, doesn’t need hard-to-find parts, and sets off fewer false alarms, while also being more reliable and thereby making the facility more resilient.

“Maintenance costs drop dramatically, simply by having a better building,” Szoke says. “There are ways of getting more robust buildings with current products.”


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