Talk to many facility executives who have installed building automation systems recently, and they’ll report the systems are helping reduce energy use, increase comfort and safety, and improve system performance — all while making it easier to manage maintenance costs. Many have recovered the cost of the system in less than five years.
But not all BAS installations are successful. Some are too complicated. Others lack features the facility needs. One big difference between success and failure is the effort put into investigating facility needs. Facility executives who ask the right questions have a much higher chance of ending up with a fully functional, cost-effective system.
The most important and most often overlooked step in BAS planning is getting a clear understanding of the organization’s needs. Facility executives who skip this step may be easily impressed by technology and can lose focus on what they are trying to accomplish. Many end up with a system that is overly expensive or one that underperforms.
BAS can perform a range of functions, including energy management, facility management and maintenance management. To start, identify the ones most important to the facility. That will largely determine the type of system installed and the number and type of points to be connected to that system.
For energy management, the system will require a large number of monitoring and control points to implement and track energy conservation strategies. For facility management, the system will require connection to lighting and HVAC systems so they can be controlled in accordance with occupancy. For maintenance management, the system will require a large number of monitoring points on both primary and secondary HVAC and electrical equipment so sufficient data can be gathered to identify potential problems as they develop.
Once functions have been identified, establish goals for the new system. These might include a 20 percent reduction in energy use, a 50 percent reduction in time spent performing breakdown maintenance, a 90 percent reduction in occupant comfort complaints, or a reduction in maintenance task backlog from five to two days. Clearly defined goals help identify not only points to be connected to the system, but also data that will need to be made available by the system.
Another frequently overlooked aspect of BAS planning is staff. The systems are not “set it and forget it.” Staff will be needed to operate and maintain the BAS. When the system becomes operational, additional staff will likely be required to correct control system deficiencies identified by the new system. And with the increased capabilities of the new system come additional tasks that will call for additional staffing.
Staffing must be addressed early in planning. A BAS needs well-trained technicians and operators. Allow sufficient time to find qualified personnel. Waiting until the system is completed will delay start up, hamper operations and deny facility executives the expertise they need to oversee the system installation. A lack of adequate staff severely limits potential BAS benefits.
Facility executives should also address what part of the organization will be responsible for running and maintaining the system. In most cases, the choice is between energy management and maintenance management. The choice will depend on the primary goals for the system. It is important that personnel responsible for achieving the goals of the BAS be the ones who operate and maintain it. Separating those who are expected to achieve the goals from the tools they need to achieve them will only lead to conflict and downgraded performance.
If there is an existing BAS, large volumes of data will need to be transferred to the new system. Even if there is no existing BAS, facility executives will have reams of paper records to be transferred into the new system if they are to take full advantage of it. It is important to consider how this transfer will take place. Otherwise, the records of system operation and maintenance activities will be lost to the new system.
It may be possible to import much of the data automatically into the new system, saving many hours of data entry. If data cannot be automatically imported, however, resources must be devoted to manual data entry.
The first step is to identify data that must be transferred to the new system. Then work with the system vendor to determine if portions of the transfer can be automated. If the data must be entered manually, responsibility must be assigned for its entry and verification.
Most facilities already have some form of BAS. One of the most difficult questions that facility executives face is what to do with the existing system or systems. These systems represent a major investment in automation equipment, infrastructure and staff training. Although they may not be failing, they may lack capabilities, such as system integration, now needed by the facility.
One option is to keep the existing system and install a gateway to connect the new BAS to existing components. Using as much of the old system as possible reduces installation time and costs. However, an existing system may not be fully interoperable with the new one, limiting data transfer and reducing overall system capabilities.
What’s more, existing systems may have inherent problems. As systems age, components go out of calibration, fail outright and must be replaced. In some cases, manufacturers stop supporting older systems. Then there is no choice but to undertake an upgrade that may involve replacing software and hardware — negating the savings from retaining the legacy system.
The capabilities of the existing system may also be a problem. Depending on how those systems were designed and the tasks they were intended to perform, there may be serious accuracy issues with sensors. If the new system is being installed to promote energy conservation or comfort, even a 2-degree error in sensing temperature will have a significant effect on both energy use and comfort. Legacy systems may never have been intended to provide the level of service that is now demanded.
Another option is to replace the existing system with an entirely new system. In general, total replacement will increase installation costs, but may result in lower operating costs in the long term. A new system certainly will have greatly enhanced software that can perform functions not available in older systems. New software, particularly with the use of an enhanced interface, is easier to learn and use. And the sharp drop in computing costs means that new systems can deliver more processing power at a lower cost.
If there are existing BAS components in the facility, such as a computer-based fire safety system or maintenance management system, identify those systems. Evaluate each system’s effectiveness in meeting the long-term goals of the facility. Review the maintenance records of those systems and evaluate their overall condition. Identify what data those systems are collecting and how the data will need to be integrated into the new system. Identify the network infrastructure that supports the existing systems and determine if it is compatible with the new system.
By going through this process, facility executives will be able to identify legacy systems that can remain in use and those that must be replaced.
Interoperability, made possible with the use of open system architecture, is a hot topic. Nevertheless, the vast majority of BAS in operation today are proprietary systems. While there are clear advantages to open architecture and interoperability, the decision must be based on what will produce the most benefit to the facility given its BAS needs and capabilities.
One big reason proprietary systems remain popular is that many facility executives prefer dealing with a single vendor, typically one they are comfortable working with. With proprietary systems, one vendor selects and installs all hardware and software, and is responsible for making the system work. That same vendor is responsible for all system upgrades.
In contrast, open architecture systems involve multiple vendors. Facility executives provide a more detailed specification, closer oversight during construction, and more expertise when it comes to considering future system upgrades. When things do not work as intended, it may not be clear exactly what the problem is or who is responsible for correcting it.
Which type of system is more expensive to install? That’s open to debate. But there is no question that open architecture systems will require a larger investment on the part of the facility executive in terms of staff time and expertise. What is important is that the decision be made on the basis of the facility’s needs and capabilities. No other issue will have a greater impact on the life-cycle costs and benefits.
Commissioning a new BAS requires a significant investment of time and money. Requirements should include:
The average energy savings produced by commissioned BAS is at least 20 percent greater than for systems where commissioning was bypassed. Skipping commissioning on the assumption that a BAS is self-checking reduces system capabilities while increasing both energy and maintenance costs over the life of the system.
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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