Building Operating Management

Look Out for Automation Pitfalls

Steering Clear of Common Mistakes can help facility executives achieve the expected benefits of systems integration projects

By James Piper   Building Automation

Facility executives thinking about integrating systems can count on powerful, user-friendly technology that offers a wide range of tools and capabilities. What’s open to question, however, is whether these benefits will translate into improved performance.

Too often, facility executives are unpleasantly surprised to find that a newly installed system does not perform as expected. It doesn’t have to be that way. Thousands of integrated systems are successfully installed each year — systems that help improve comfort, productivity, flexibility and control.

Many factors contribute to failure. Reviewing some of the most common mistakes can help facility executives avoid the biggest pitfalls.

Not Identifying Needs

Facility executives have many choices when it comes to integrating building functions. There are proprietary systems and systems that conform to accepted interoperability standards. A wide range of functions can be included in the integrated system. Systems can be network-based, hard-wired or wireless. Simply selecting a system or system features based on what someone else has done or what looks good will probably result in a system that is unnecessarily expensive or lacking in performance.

A successful system is one that has been carefully matched to the needs of the facility. A cookie-cutter approach to system design and selection will not work. System capabilities must be matched to facility requirements.

Bring together representatives of those who will be affected by the completed system: management, owners, operating personnel and maintenance personnel. Develop a comprehensive list of the reasons for installing the integrated system. Typical reasons might include high energy costs, poor existing system performance, lack of information sharing or duplication of efforts. Prioritize that list. Only then can facility executives start the process of finding a system.

Throughout the design and installation process, facility executives will have to make decisions that will affect the performance of the completed system. There is a tendency to make those decisions in isolation, thinking that the decision will affect only a small portion of the completed system. But decisions in the integration process almost always have an impact that goes well beyond the immediate. Call it unintended consequences. Even a seemingly minor decision can greatly influence overall performance.

Every integration project has an overall purpose that is tied to the needs of the facility. While decisions may appear to involve only small issues, they may in fact entail opportunities for improving or diminishing the overall performance of the system and the facility. Therefore, all decisions must take into consideration the purpose of the project in the first place. By focusing on the big picture, alternative solutions that improve system performance will frequently surface that otherwise would have been missed.

Focusing on First Costs

Keeping first costs down is an important element in any successful facility project, including integration projects. If initial costs are ignored, the project may simply become too expensive to implement. But keeping first costs low should not be the focus of decisions made in building integration projects.

The first and most important consideration in any decision is what impact that decision has on the overall goals of the project. Having a low-cost but ineffective integration project is counter productive.

One of the problems with most construction processes is that the responsibility for construction is separated from that for operations. Construction managers are primarily interested in completing projects on time and on budget. Operations managers are more interested in long-term performance of the system. What functions will provide a good return on the investment? How can maintenance costs be minimized? What will upgrades cost? These issues will affect long-term performance.

Underestimating Complexity

When looking at options and alternatives, facility executives must evaluate the impact those alternatives will have on long-term performance as well as their impact on first costs. Tradeoffs will have to be made. But ignoring performance to reduce costs can result in an ineffective system.

The success of an integration project depends on more than picking the right components. No system design has reached the level of plug-and-play.

Building automation projects, particularly those that integrate the operations of several functions, bring together a wide range of technologies. But the technologies are generally beyond the expertise of the facility executive and operating staff. These complex technologies are expected to work together seamlessly upon completion of the project. Facility executives are well advised to bring in outside help when needed to evaluate options.

Assuming One Size Fits All

Too often, the same approach is taken to writing integration specifications that is used in writing building construction specifications. Building specifications are very strongly evolutionary; specification writers build on what has been written before, changing to incorporate new materials or processes while modifying the specification to correct for past mistakes. While this process may work well for many construction or renovation projects, it does not work with integration.

Building automation and integration projects must be facility-specific if the needs of the facility are to be met. A one-size-fits-all specification simply will not work. While portions of the specification may be drawn from other automation and integration projects, the majority of the specification must be specifically tailored to the current project.

Incomplete Specifications

Closely related to the one-size-fits-all specifications, incomplete specifications fail to clearly identify what the owner is expecting to get out of the completed system. A complete specification must include at least the following items:

• A scope of work that summarizes what must be provided as part of the system, including shop drawings, as-built drawings, maintenance manuals, commissioning tasks, warranty requirements and operator and maintenance personnel training.

• A description of what technology standards must be adhered to by the system, including system architecture, installation practices and programming capabilities.
• A clear description of the minimum requirements of the system that includes detailed features that the system must provide.

• A complete listing of points that will be included in the system.

• Hardware specifications that set standards for each piece of equipment to be installed as part of the system.

It is this level of detail that will be required to evaluate submittals from bidders as well as to determine if proposed alternatives to the specification meet the requirements of the project.

Ignoring Churn

Facilities once were stable places, rarely changing. Today, few can keep up with the rate of change. Tenants relocate. Functional requirements of building spaces change. Unless the systems that support those changes are flexible, it will be more difficult and costly to keep up with those changes.

The same applies to building automation systems and how they are integrated. As functions change in the facility, the support systems must change along with them. And automation systems supporting those systems must be flexible enough to change without significant cost or downtime.

Consider that the average building system life is 20 to 30 years. The average automation system service life is 10 to 15 years. The average time between space changes is less than five years. Facility executives can no longer assume that systems and their automation support structures will be replaced when the functional requirements of a space change; it is simply too expensive.

Building automation systems must be designed with change in mind. That means modular designs, spare capacity and programmability. Without it, facilities will lose their competitive edge.

Unrealistic Expectations

System integration is a hot topic. But the benefits of integration are sometimes touted without a clear understanding of how integration will actually affect a specific application. This is one of the leading causes of dissatisfaction with the entire process. When the project is completed, owners find that many of the benefits they were promised either did not materialize or never could have been achieved in their operation.

Start with a realistic understanding of what the systems can accomplish. Compare those potential benefits to the particular application under consideration. Use realistic assumptions in calculating the impact of the benefits.

One area where systems frequently fall short of expectations is in energy savings. Most facilities today are on a time-of-day rate structure. Calculating the potential energy savings from a particular system function, such as lighting controls, using an average rate structure will produce inaccurate results.

Another area where benefits fall short of expectations is in the operation and maintenance of the system. In spite of advances in automation and integration, systems are not install-and-forget. They require operators to run them and maintenance personnel to keep them running. Systems will have to be periodically updated as new software is developed. Ignoring these costs when considering system benefits will result in overly optimistic benefit projections.

Inadequate Coordination

Integration projects bring together many different disciplines. Programmers, installers, control experts: All must function together seamlessly if the project is to be a success. Such seamless performance does not simply happen; it must be properly coordinated. Without good coordination, the installation will be poor at best. More likely, it will not function at all.

Good coordination starts with adequate planning. The project schedule must be established with adequate time for each component to be put in place, inspected and tested. Schedules must be coordinated between the various elements of the project to ensure that tasks can be completed on time and without interference. And every step of the process must be fully documented so that what was done and why it was done can be understood by all.

Stopping Before It Is Over

The project is not complete when the contractor says it is complete. The project is complete only when the system owner is satisfied the system performs as expected.

All elements of the system must be tested and confirmed to be functioning properly. The most thorough way of performing this testing and verification is through commissioning. Every point in the system must be tested. Setpoints must be read and calibrated. Controls must be cycled and confirmed. Data sharing must be demonstrated. Without such confirmation of proper operation, the system may perform poorly even though it was a good system properly matched to the application.

Even when the construction is finally over, the project is not over, at least for the facility executive. Contacts get dirty. Controller setpoints drift. Sensors go out of calibration. As these errors accumulate, the accuracy and functionality of the system decrease. Given enough errors, discussions start about replacing the system with one that actually works.

At least once each year, the operation of all points connected to the system must be verified. All operators must be cycled through their full range to verify proper operation. Setpoints must be tested and calibrated if necessary.

These are not all of the potential mistakes that can be made during the implementation of an integration project, just the most common ones. But by avoiding these mistakes, facility executives can help ensure their facility will gain the greatest benefits from the process.

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 to Building Operating Management.

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  posted on 7/1/2005   Article Use Policy

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