Making Building Automation Work
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Building automation systems (BAS) offer institutional and commercial facilities a host of features and functions that can improve both the energy efficiency of HVAC systems and components and enhance the comfort of occupants. The key to achieving these twin goals for maintenance and engineering managers is to understand the needs of their facilities, as well as the offerings of new-generation BAS. With this information in hand, managers can ensure that the organization’s investment in BAS technology pays both short- and long-term dividends.
By reviewing the capabilities of an existing BAS, managers can better understand in what ways the existing system is not used to its full potential. For example, functions included in the original system might not have been needed when it was first installed, while managers might have decided that other functions required too much effort to be worthwhile. So before managers decide to invest in a new system to gain greater system capabilities, they need to be sure the capabilities are not already available in the existing system.
The review of existing capabilities must extend to the building systems and components with which the BAS will interface. Being able to control the operation of HVAC equipment is necessary if managing facility energy use is a primary goal of the system. But if HVAC systems do not have the controls of the type and level of sophistication required, then the energy savings impact of the new system will not reach its full potential.
Questions to consider
Not all BAS installations succeed. Some are too complex, while others lack features the department needs. One major difference between success and failure is the effort put into investigating facility needs. Managers who ask the right questions stand a better chance of getting a fully functional and cost-effective system.
The most important — and often, most overlooked step in BAS planning — is getting a clear understanding of the organization’s needs. Managers who skip this step might be easily impressed by technology but will lose focus on their goals. As a result, many end up with a system that is overly expensive or that underperforms.
A BAS can perform a range of functions, including energy management, facility management and maintenance management. To start, identify the functions most important to the organization. That step will determine the type of system installed and the number and types of points that will connect to that system.
If the facility already is using a BAS, the department will need to transfer large volumes of data into the new system. Even if no BAS exists, the department will have to enter data from paper records into the new system in order to take full advantage of it. It might be possible to import much of the data into the new system automatically, saving many hours of data entry. If the department cannot import the data automatically, however, the department will have to devote resources to manual data entry.
One essential step is to identify data that must be transferred to the new BAS. Then work with the system vendor to determine if they can automate parts of the transfer process. If the data must be entered manually, managers will have to assign responsibility for its entry and verification.
A closer look at needs
Too often, managers specify a new BAS based on the “wow” factor. They take part in a demonstration of the technology that includes all of the bells and whistles of a new-generation system, and they by into it.
New-generation systems are powerful and offer features and functions unheard of a decade ago. The graphics can present an impressive picture of activities going on within different areas of the facility. But those capabilities will only benefit the organization and the department if they meet a specific need. Investing in impressive yet unnecessary system capabilities is simply a waste of money.
One essential step for managers is to perform a function assessment. A BAS can perform a range of tasks and processes, including energy management, HVAC system operation, security management, asset management and financial analysis. Managers need to examine the precise way the existing BAS performs those functions. Can the systems performing those functions transfer data seamlessly, or do technicians have to manually enter data from one system into another system?
Managers also need to identify any additional functions that would streamline operations and enhance energy efficiency. System designs and capabilities improved tremendously in recent years. Developers have added new functions and upgraded and enhanced old ones. Managers must take a close look at the way the facility operates, the functions the systems are performing, and the way a BAS might support or enhance those operations.
BAS and diagnostics
Many institutional and commercial facilities have implemented extensive preventive and predictive maintenance programs in recent years. Still, many operating problems remain undetected. Properly specified, installed and operated, a BAS can benefit an organization by catching some of these problems. But a BAS only recognizes the conditions it has been programmed to recognize. Many common operational problems — deteriorated equipment, improperly calibrated sensors, poor installations, and poor past maintenance practices — go undetected.
Advances in BAS monitoring and diagnostics are helping front-line technicians with the early detection and identification of problems that otherwise might go undetected. Improved communications between building components and system interoperability, combined with advanced diagnostic technology developed by system manufacturers, have given technicians powerful maintenance tools.
These systems collect and store data from systems and components, enabling managers to compare it to the historic norm for that item or to norms provided by the system manufacturer. When they detect variances from normal operation, the system can identify the variance, help technicians isolate its cause, and then suggest corrective action.
One significant benefit from advances in BAS monitoring and diagnostic technology is lower whole-building energy use. Demonstration programs have shown an average reduction in overall energy use of 15 percent. The typical energy payback for BAS monitoring and diagnostic systems ranges from six months to two years.
Another benefit of the technology is the ability to identify undetected problems. Every facility has its own such operational problems that result from errors in design, installation, equipment or maintenance. Technicians might not detect these problems, but they affect operations through higher energy and operating costs and reduced equipment service life.
BAS monitoring and diagnostic technology can streamline overall operation by reducing response time. When a problem occurs, time passes before someone calls in a service request. With a BAS that provides ongoing monitoring and diagnostic technology, technicians can detect and address a relatively minor problem before if becomes a larger, potentially more expensive issue.
James Piper, P.E., is a national facilities consultant based in Bowie Md. He has more than 30 years of experience solving facilities management and maintenance issues.