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The maintenance and repair of components of a building automation system (BAS), as well as required software upgrades, can represent a significant portion of a facility’s operations budget. The simple truth is that the technology and components of a BAS simply do not age at the same rate as bricks and mortar (or concrete and steel). But how do you know when it is time to replace that aging building automation system? Where do you start?
Answering these questions can prove to be a perplexing puzzle. When a portfolio of different buildings with varying functions and vastly different equipment and system types is added into the equation, the number of puzzle pieces can jump dramatically. The following offers some insights and some steps to take to solve the challenge of bringing the pieces of the puzzle together.
By the end of 2020, the average age of a commercial building in the United States was just under 53 years old. That is according to analysis from the SMR Research Corporation.
While this statistic is notable, the trend is even more so. For many commercial structures, aging facilities mean aging building systems as well. Aging systems can mean less efficient, less healthy, less environmentally friendly, and more expensive buildings to operate and maintain. Some may view this in a negative light, however, it’s more useful to view this as a significant opportunity to dramatically improve the facilities in these areas.
Isolation leads to missed opportunities
Typically, each building technology system is designed, implemented and operated individually. Systems are controlled and monitored in a siloed manner. The associated collected data is compiled, providing very little actionable intelligence to positively impact a facility’s operations.
The recent exponential growth in the number and type of available Internet of Things (IoT) technologies has enabled access to a greater amount and better quality of building data. However, this does not automatically lead to the desired actionable intelligence. It is the dynamically connected and interoperable systems that put the “smart” into smart buildings. When these latest IoT components are connected to a central, common platform that allows them to work in harmony with information shared through an open-source data platform, smart building systems become collectively intelligent.
Companies can inherit a wide variety of existing building systems in several ways. Through mergers and acquisitions, companies can obtain a portfolio of new properties, typically with vastly different systems. Or a company may outgrow its current space and move to a larger facility. The new facility will utilize systems and applications based on the previous company’s design standards. Even if the systems in place were recently installed, they should be evaluated to determine how they fit with the new company’s standards.
No matter the age or state of the existing building technologies or expansion a company finds itself, the same steps should be taken in evaluating possible improvements to BAS.
Step 1: Identify the Opportunity
Inheriting multiple, mismatched building systems may be viewed as a significant problem. However, the first step is to recognize it is actually a tremendous opportunity to affect real, measurable change. Many facility managers facing this challenge have applied a systematic approach to improve their current building technology systems – and achieve stated initiatives.
The real strength of today’s building technology systems is the ability to share data. Many BAS are aligned with industry standards for internet protocol (IP) devices allowing for the secure transmission of information on building systems and how they interact with one another. When applied correctly, integrated systems offer a more holistic view of building performance. Efficiencies are further realized when the same systems are shared across multiple facilities. Upgrading or replacing equipment and aging automated systems is the opportunity to leverage the latest technology to improve operational efficiencies, increase energy efficiencies, enable tighter security, and facilitate better data diagnostics and analytics.
Step 2: Inventory Existing Systems and Equipment
Before you can improve something, you need to know what you have. Conducting a thorough inventory will also uncover the depth of variation between systems and equipment. It also helps identify what can or cannot be optimized. Before launching this type of study, companies should:
Engage a system-agnostic expert for the types of systems being assessed. Using an existing system’s vendor runs the risk of getting biased results. The expert may suggest minimal upgrades in the hopes of keeping costs down and retaining business. If they suggest a total replacement, there is the possibility that the contract will be lost to an open bidding process. A qualified, third-party building technology consultant is the best option for doing an accurate and thorough assessment.
Include the facilities management team to offer a more complete overview of various systems and equipment.
Include members with practical building networking experience. These are the folks who actually understand how different systems should connect.
The subsequent building technology systems assessment should include facility age, location, computing power, technology infrastructure, compatibility with IoT technologies, and ability to integrate to a common, data-normalized platform. Current and complete as-built documentation is a key component in the inventory and assessment process in the existing facilities.
The underlying question to all of this is, can these systems be upgraded and connected to generate more meaningful and actionable data? The ability to share data is the superpower here scuttled only by the kryptonite of mismatched systems. A detailed survey and complete, accurate inventory will uncover opportunities for improvement.
Step 3: Assessing and Planning
This step could just as easily be called “planning and assessing.” Depending on the size of the company, a master plan may be developed before or after an overall assessment is made. A large company may have a business goal to lower its carbon footprint across many separate facilities. That master plan comes into focus as assets are counted and systems are assessed. A smaller operation may be open to a more general examination to tabulate the various possibilities for improvement. In that case, the assessment comes before the development of a specific plan of action.
In either case, once the survey is completed, key building stakeholders determine the scope of work to be done. The master planning stage is a chance to look beyond existing inventory and systems and identify the true potential for integration. Goals and company vision should be carefully considered at this time. What are the future plans for the company? A solid understanding of the business goals of an organization allows for customized experiences and outcomes to be generated from integrated intelligent systems.
This is also a good time to establish priorities. How important is each possible upgrade to project decision makers? Budget constraints and other potential technological or physical roadblocks tend to surface at this stage. It is best to identify and address these constraints before a project is launched.
Step 4: Master Plan Execution
Whether the building system is being retrofitted, renovated, or replaced, the real magic happens during the transition stage. An experienced consultant can be indispensable to successfully sorting and choreographing the many moving pieces that could take years to put in place.
They can also help answer some basic questions. How can changes be made with minimal disruption to daily operations? Will system upgrades or equipment installation need to occur after work hours? Is there an optimal time of year to transition HVAC or other systems? Are there adequate back-ups to allow for a series of staged transitions? If a system must be disconnected temporarily, can the equipment be operated manually? Hardware, software, physical space, people, health, safety and security are all parts of the implementation puzzle to be considered.
Step 5: Planning for the Future
Technology continues to advance at an incredible rate. It is not unusual to get a new smartphone or computer every two or three years. Most people think nothing of it. It is the price paid to keep up with the latest and greatest. A similar mindset should be adopted by those charged with maintaining BAS.
Today, primary mechanical and electrical equipment designed to last for 30 years will be operated with building technology systems that will be obsolete in a fraction of that time. Creating a regular review of these systems is critical to keep up with – and ahead of – the technology cycle. Technology used in building automation systems today is more complex than ever before. Staying on top of the latest versions of software running equipment can prolong the useful life of the hardware by keeping it running as efficiently as possible. Budgets should include plans for assessing and implementing technology upgrades every few years.
In addition to the benefits already explained, there are other outstanding reasons to retrofit, renovate, or replace aging building systems that go beyond operational efficiencies and cost savings.
In the wake of the social and economic impact of COVID-19, building tenants are looking for a greater sense of security. Now may be the time for building owners and managers to consider adding new forms of technology, including touchless systems to promote hygiene, mobile apps to monitor environmental conditions, sensors to monitor office space and meeting room use, and other health and safety technologies. These additions offer the added benefit of attracting and retaining building occupants.
We also have a social responsibility to do what we can to protect our natural resources. According to a report from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), 39% of all carbon emissions in the world result from building and construction. Operational emissions, such as energy used to heat, cool, or light a building, account for 28%. The remaining 11% comes from embodied carbon emissions—carbon dioxide emissions associated with materials and construction processes throughout the entire lifecycle of a building or infrastructure. Built environment professionals have a duty to provide the best environmental options possible to building owners, who in turn should do their part to protect our future.
So, do you retrofit, upgrade, or replace? The question may seem overwhelming until you step back from the individual pieces and look at the whole picture. What is the current challenge? The problem you see may actually be an even bigger opportunity in disguise. What are your current assets and how do they (or don’t they) work together? Partnering with an impartial expert can help determine an unbiased assessment of the current state of your systems, which can help frame the best solution. Finally, developing a plan of action can break the once overwhelming problem into a manageable set of steps that can yield a bounty of financial, social and environmental benefits.
Steve Brown, certified automation professional, is practice leader for the Automation Group at Environmental Systems Design, Inc.