Building Operating Management

Building the BAS Team

The facility executive must enlist the support of a cross-functional team to find and justify the most effective automation option

By James Piper   Building Automation

Perhaps more than any other building system, a building automation system (BAS) requires a significant investment of time and resources if it is to be implemented effectively. A BAS installation requires the involvement of a range of different players both within and outside of the organization if the project is to meet the needs of the owner and be completed on time and within budget.

The facility executive must assemble a project team consisting of representatives from engineering, facility management, operations, financial management and corporate management. Depending on the scope of the project and the availability of in-house expertise, additional outside consulting support is frequently required.

Simply involving a wide range of groups will not guarantee success. Team members must be capable of putting aside the numerous turf battles that occur frequently in organizations. Differences in goals and design philosophies can become serious stumbling blocks to moving the project forward. Therefore, it is essential that team members be selected on the basis of both their expertise and their ability to communicate and work effectively with other team members.

Key project roles, such as who has overall responsibility for the project, who is responsible for keeping the work on schedule and who is best suited for tracking project details, must be assigned to the most appropriate project team member at the start of the project.

Identifying Needs

The most important planning step is identifying the building automation needs of the facility. It also is the step most frequently skipped. Too often, it is simply assumed that each BAS is equally capable of automating all functions in the facility. Further, it is assumed that all facilities will benefit equally from automation. But building automation systems are not one size fits all. There are a wide range of functions that can be performed by the systems, and some systems are more capable in certain areas than others.

Failing to identify the facility needs first will increase the chances that the BAS will be overly expensive or will fail to live up to expectations.

The project team should start by listing the reasons why the system is being installed. Different members will have different reasons and project goals, but it is important that they all be incorporated into the project scope and plans.

Corporate managers need to identify specific goals, such as reduced annual operating expenses. Financial managers should identify the rate of return that is needed to ensure funding for the project. Maintenance managers need to identify their information needs. Engineering managers will have to identify the building systems that are to be connected to the system.

For larger and more complex facilities, the project team may benefit from the use of an outside consultant in needs analysis. Consultants who are experienced in BAS installation and operation, and who are not affiliated with one system manufacturer, can help identify needs that individual team members might not be aware of. They can also help determine which needs are the highest priorities.

Analyzing Options

It’s crucial to keep facility needs in mind when reviewing BAS options. It is very easy to be swayed by flashy system features during presentations by BAS vendors and visits to installation sites. But team members must remember that, while some BAS features may be impressive during a demonstration, they will not be very useful or practical if they do not address the needs of the facility. A mismatched BAS can even hinder operations.

The analysis process should start with a review of systems currently being marketed. Make a checklist of features required for the facility, identifying which ones are offered by which manufacturer. Determine how long each system has been on the market. A typical BAS has a marketing life of approximately five years before it is replaced with a new system. Facilities do not want to be the first or the last to purchase a particular system. Buying too early in a system’s life means that the facility often ends up being a test site for the manufacturer while system bugs are worked out. Buying late in the system’s life can result in rapid obsolescence should support for the system be discontinued.

For each system being reviewed, the team should determine how long the manufacturer has been in the building automation system business. How many systems have they installed? How many systems of the type being considered are currently operating? How often have upgrades been issued? What was the cost of those upgrades? Are company representatives and service personnel located close to the facility?

Hitting the Road

When the team has identified systems that would work, at least one site visit should be scheduled for each one. Sites should be similar in size and operation to the site where the system will be installed. Ideally, the system will have been in operation for at least one year. Site visits should be arranged directly with the owners of those systems and should be made independent of the system manufacturer.

The purpose of the site visit is to allow team members to gather sufficient independent information to determine how well a given BAS would meet the needs of their facility. To be effective, as many members of the team as possible should visit each site, including representatives from facility management, engineering, operations and finance.

Facility executives should meet with their counterparts at the site to determine the overall satisfaction with the BAS. Does it perform as expected? How satisfied are they with the performance of the manufacturer? Was the system installed on time and within budget? If there was an existing building automation system, who was responsible for migrating the data from that system to the new one? How successful was that migration?

Engineering members of the team should focus on the system itself. What building equipment is connected to the system? What functions does the system perform? How similar are those systems and equipment to the ones at their site? What changes had to be made to the building equipment and systems in order to interface them with the new BAS? How effective is the interface to the building equipment and systems? Is the system’s cabling infrastructure compatible with the existing cabling infrastructure at their site? Was equipment properly installed?

Maintenance personnel will be a primary user of the data generated by the system. Equipment operating histories, system trends, error logs, maintenance costs: All of these can be used by maintenance personnel in diagnosing equipment problems in the facility. What are the diagnostic capabilities of the system? Is information easy to compile? Can building equipment inventories be tied to maintenance records? Can maintenance costs be identified for different building systems?

Operations and Finance

Building operations personnel will be the front-line users of the system, entering data, retrieving data, running reports, changing system operating schedules and parameters, initiating control actions, and responding to system alarms and errors. One of the most important considerations then is the system interface. How effective is the interface? Is it easy to learn and use? Are commands intuitive? How difficult is it to access information?

Finally, financial managers need to meet with their counterparts to review the system cost data and the impact that the system has had on operating costs. What was the total cost of the installed system? How many change orders were required and what were their costs? If the system has been in operation for more than one year, what has its impact been on operating costs? What is the annual cost of the staff members, including operators and maintenance personnel, required to run the system? What is the cost of the annual maintenance contract required to support the system?

Selling the System

Setting goals, identifying needs and selecting a suitable system for the application are all necessary steps, but the project team must take one more key step. To obtain funding, it must assemble the necessary information in a form that the organization’s financial managers normally use when reviewing funding requests.

Senior managers will need information about the BAS so that they can make a comparison with other projects requesting funding. Generally, presentations that fail are ones that stress the technical aspects of the system. Investment decisions will be made from a financial standpoint, not a technical one. It is important that the project team present information in a format that senior management expects and prefers, whether that is cash flow analysis, simple payback, net present value, internal rate of return, or some other method of evaluating investments.

At this point, the financial managers who are members of the team must take the lead. They are most familiar with what will be required to sell the project to senior management. And understanding how those decisions are made will improve the chances for success.

Estimates of the savings that will be produced by the BAS should be produced by various team members. While manufacturers can give advice on savings, it is not recommended that they be relied on for accurate savings estimates. Team members know how the facility operates; their experience is far more important and accurate in estimating savings than any rules of thumb that would be used by vendors.

Careful planning by a broad-based team is the best way that the process of selecting a BAS can be managed. And while the process will require a significant amount of time and energy on the part of team members, the end result will be a system that is affordable and effective.

Contributing editor James Piper is a writer and consultant with more than 25 years of experience in the facilities field.

Technology Homework is First Step

Direct mail marketers will sometimes include a piece with a headline that says, “Don’t read this unless you’ve decided not to. . .” There’s a similar message for facility executives who haven’t examined building automation options in a while and who think that integrated systems are cumbersome, inflexible or otherwise more trouble than they’re worth. That may have been true of systems in the past, but times have changed. Ongoing education is the first step in the process of evaluating automation options — a key step for facility members of the BAS planning team.

“The technology has come so far,” says Robert Blevins, director of engineering for South Mississippi State Hospital. “It can give us real-time solutions to problems. It can give us flexibility in managing people and equipment. Make sure you’re aware of current technology and what it can do for you. Look at what’s available and upgrade to the best technology your budget can afford.”

— Edward Sullivan, editor

Training is Key to Getting Value from System

The importance of getting the right people involved in a BAS project does not end when the system is selected. It’s crucial to provide training for the staff that will be using the BAS. “If people don’t know how to operate a system, it’s worthless,” says Jim Cooke, national facility operations director for Toyota Motors Sales USA.

When it comes to training, it's important for facility executives to determine the responsibilities specific people will have and to give them the right level of training. For example, having the right people trained to reprogram the system is important to Toyota. “We can do our own programming,” Cooke says. “We’re taking the standard program and customizing it without spending too much money.” But more training is not necessarily better. “We don’t want local technicians tweaking things without touching base with somebody else,” says Cooke. It’s crucial that decisions about changes to the BAS program be made by a person who knows how to interpret data coming from the system.

An overlooked component of training is the need to sell the new system to users. “Change is not always readily accepted,” says Jim D’Orazio, senior vice president for the facility resources group at Grubb & Ellis. “But that doesn’t mean people are trying to be resistant. They sometimes assume that steady state is best practice. It can be eye-opening to show them how improvements can be made.”

Another way to win support for a new system is to show users how it will make their lives easier. “You’ve got to give people a tool, not an administrative burden,” says D’Orazio. “If you can’t make the information actionable, it’s just noise.”

And it's not just software that can make life easier. Ray Miller, assistant director of facilities and maintenance for the University Student Union Inc., on the campus of California State University — Northridge, bought personal digital assistants to replace the laptops his technicians used to carry. The laptops were sometimes awkward to use in the field. “Now when someone goes up on the roof, he just takes this hand-held device up with him,” says Miller. The device can plug in anywhere the laptop could. And it’s a powerful tool. “You can put a 300-ton chiller through its paces with this little computer,” he says.

— ES

Vendors Must be Team Players, Too

Because there is no cookie-cutter approach to the integration of existing systems, the process can be fraught with uncertainties. That makes candor an important quality in any vendor associated with the project.

“No one can give you a 100 percent guarantee,” says Jim D’Orazio, senior vice president for the facility resource group of Grubb & Ellis. He looks for vendors to be willing to reveal what kinds of integration they’ve been successful with and what’s still in the beta mode. “The worst thing is to hook it up and have someone say, ‘Gee, we don’t know why it doesn’t work.’”

An important part of the relationship has to be a willingness to share risks, says D’Orazio. Getting to that point requires a true business partner, and D’Orazio says Grubb & Ellis spends a good amount of time evaluating companies to make sure that overused term applies. “We want to make sure all the right things are in place,” says D’Orazio.

— ES

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  posted on 1/1/2003   Article Use Policy