Automation Roadmap

When it’s time to upgrade automation capabilities, effective project management is the route to cost and performance benefits.

By James Piper  

Upgrading an existing building automation system — or installing a building automation system into an existing facility — is no small undertaking. It requires a major commitment on the part of the entire organization in terms of time, resources and understanding.

Facility executives who have gone through the process know that there will be setbacks and times when they wonder why they ever started down this path. But those who understand the nature of the process and develop a comprehensive plan for implementing the upgrade find that the benefits are well worth the effort.

There are plenty of reasons for facility executives to install a building automation system in facilities that don’t have one. Increased operating efficiency, improved maintenance operations, better security control, enhanced occupant comfort and reduced overall operating costs — all are frequently cited benefits of a building automation system.

There are equally important benefits to upgrading older building automation systems. Today’s systems provide more capabilities at lower cost and more efficiency than ever before. The systems can seamlessly tie together facility operations that most older systems could only address independently. And with interoperability and adherence to industrywide standards now more common, these increased capabilities can be provided at a much lower cost both in terms of installation and operation.

As a result, facility executives can afford to tie together many building systems and components that were excluded from earlier generation systems simply because of cost. For example, studies of existing building automation system installations show that, on the average, only ten percent of a facility’s HVAC equipment has been connected to the system. An upgrade today will allow facility executives to include many more systems and components, increasing the potential benefits of the system.

Equally important, many owners of older systems are finding that their systems are reaching the end of their effective service lives. Replacement components are getting expensive and difficult to find. In the time since the system was installed, the system manufacturer has introduced one or more new generations of the system and may no longer be willing or able to support the older system.

Assemble the Team

The key to a successful upgrade program for both new and existing users of the systems is understanding the process requirements and developing a realistic plan for implementation. Successful implementation will require drawing on expertise from different areas and disciplines within an organization, including facility management, maintenance and operations,

engineering, management information systems, financial management and corporate management. Depending on the level of in-house expertise and the scope of the project, outside consulting help may also be required.

When evaluating potential team members, it is important to look beyond just expertise. Team members must be able to devote a significant amount of time and energy to the upgrade project. Throughout the process, team members will be faced with a range of demands and never-ending deadlines. The most knowledgeable people in the organization will be of little value if they do not have the time or motivation to effectively participate.

Team members also must be able to communicate effectively, not only with each other, but also with others in the facility. That way, the team will be able to make use of the knowledge and experience of building occupants and others who will use the system. Effective communications will also help to reduce the chances that turf battles and fights over system features will interfere with the progress of the upgrade project.

Identify the Goals

Once the team has been assembled, their first task is to determine the automation needs of the facility. Too often this step is overlooked or bypassed on the assumption that any automation is good, and the more automation there is, the better. But all facilities are not alike, nor are their automation needs. There is no such thing as one-size-fits-all when it comes to building automation systems. Failing to consider the facility’s needs most likely will result in the organization purchasing a system that is oversized and unnecessarily expensive, or undersized and lacking needed capabilities.

Start by listing the tasks that the upgraded system should perform. For example, one of the primary reasons systems are installed or upgraded is to improve the energy efficiency of the facility. This means that the system being installed should have the ability to control the operation of all energy-using systems within the facility, including central plant equipment, HVAC systems, lighting systems and building transportation systems. The system should be able to monitor energy use at the facility boundary and at all major energy-using systems within the facility. If the facility has multiple buildings, the system should be able to monitor energy use at each building as well.

Beyond energy efficiency, the team needs to determine what other tasks the upgraded system should perform, such as energy accounting and billing, maintenance scheduling, inventory management, security management, access control, and fire and life safety monitoring. One of the benefits of the latest generation of building automation systems is that they can integrate all of these tasks into a single information-sharing operation.

In identifying tasks that the system is to perform, team members must realistically understand the role that building automation systems can play. They must also understand that the systems are powerful but do have limitations. Expecting too little out of an upgraded system will be just as disappointing in the long run as expecting too much.

Even with very high levels of expertise in-house, most organizations will require outside assistance. There will be issues with interoperability, system architecture, communications protocol and system integration techniques that typically are best addressed by someone familiar with the options. When soliciting outside assistance, it is important that the person or organization selected be independent from all building automation system manufacturers.

Evaluate the Systems

After expectations are established, team members need to review the options. Presentations by system manufacturers can give an overview of system capabilities, but they should be approached with caution. These presentations frequently focus on bells and whistles of a particular system and often serve as a distraction from what the facility needs.

Proposed systems need to be evaluated on a number of factors that will affect performance in the facility. For example, the reputation and the level of support offered by the system manufacturer and installer are important factors to consider, but there is more than just the national reputation that is important. Equally important is the reputation of the local representatives for the manufacturer and installer. They are the ones that the facility will be dealing with during and following the upgrade process. Their performance will have the greatest impact on the project.

When the list of candidate systems is narrowed down, team members should arrange visits to sites where the systems have been operating for at least one year. Team members should speak directly with those who operate and maintain the system to gain an understanding of how well the system has met the expectations of the users and to determine how well the installation has been supported by the manufacturer both during and after installation.

Additionally, the on-site visit should be used to address other support issues that will affect the upgrade. What has been the manufacturer’s response when a problem occurs? How often have software upgrades been made available and how much have they cost? What training programs were provided by the manufacturer and how effective were they? In the long run, these issues will significantly influence the performance of any upgrade project.

Another issue to consider is how long the system has been on the market. Rapid improvements in technology are driving a fast rate of change in the industry. As a result, most building automation system models have a manufacturer’s life of about five years before they are significantly upgraded or replaced with a new generation system with additional capabilities. Facility executives do not want to be the first or the last facility to purchase a particular model. Being the first makes the facility the test case. Being the last means that investment in upgrades will be required fairly soon.

Upgrading to a building automation system or upgrading an existing system is not a task that should be entered into lightly. It is one that requires a deep commitment on the part of the organization, and the level of dedication on the part of those responsible for the upgrade. While the work may be hard, the benefits of the successful upgrade will help facilities to control costs while improving service.

Installation Isn’t the Last Step

When evaluating alternatives, the building automation planning team must also consider activities that will take place once the system has been installed. One of these activities is commissioning. Commissioning offers owners a means of verifying that they are getting what they paid for. But commissioning also offers other benefits. It has been found that facilities that have gone through a thorough commissioning process for building automation systems are able to produce facility wide energy savings of 20 percent or more relative to facilities that haven’t commissioned their systems. Commissioning also reduces maintenance costs as a result of better troubleshooting capabilities.

Every item installed in or connected to the system must be tested and verified. Set points must be read and calibrated. Controls must be cycled and confirmed. The ability to share data across the system must be demonstrated. Without this testing and verification, the system probably won’t live up to its capabilities. Even worse, system operators and managers may never know that the system has the potential to perform better.

Another post-installation consideration that must be evaluated when looking at alternative systems is documentation. Team members should ask about the documentation provided with the system. That documentation should — at a minimum — include a complete set of O&M manuals, as-built drawings and manufacturer’s product information sheets. Without this documentation, it will be difficult to modify or even maintain the system over time.

Finally, the team should address the issue of change. Facilities today are not static. As a result, the systems that support the operations in those facilities cannot be static. Those who will be managing the operation of the building automation system should keep this in mind when considering staffing levels. As requirements within the facility change, the organization should have the ability to modify the system to match those changes. If not, the system can rapidly become obsolete.

— James Piper

It’s All About The People

During the planning process for a new building automation system, it’s crucial to identify staffing requirements for the system once it has been put in place. Building automation systems cannot be installed and forgotten if they are to be effective. While the systems will improve maintenance and operating efficiency, they will require staffing support. Operators will be needed to oversee the system, schedule equipment run times, change HVAC system operating parameters and access and review data generated by the system.

Maintenance technicians will be needed to fix problems with the system’s operation when they occur. Facility executives can expect that there will be ongoing problems, such as sensors going out of calibration and failed controllers. Unless these problems are identified quickly and corrected, the building automation system will gradually lose its effectiveness.

— James Piper

James Piper, PhD, PE, is a writer and consultant who has more than 25 years of experience in facilities management. He is a contributing editor for Building Operating Management.

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  posted on 3/1/2007   Article Use Policy

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