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Building automation systems (BAS) are important to keeping institutional and commercial facilities up and running efficiently. But how much do maintenance and engineering managers know about their BAS?
Managers can often misunderstand, overlook and misuse their systems, sometimes to the point of avoiding them all together.
When managers think about BAS, they generally consider them as a way to automate the functions of a building, says Todd Lash, building automation products unit head for Siemens Smart Infrastructure USA.
“They typically think of the more simplistic functionality, such as turning equipment on and off,” Lash says. “Beyond that, building automation systems become more of a mystery as to what it does. The other topic people always talk about is building data, but very few people know how to use the data a building produces. Or more importantly, they don’t know how to visualize that data to make better, more actionable building decisions.”
But when a BAS is used to its full potential, it becomes a value to the business and enables managers to turn buildings into assets. As Lash points out, when used correctly, BAS becomes the nervous system of the building and integrates the building into the business functions for both the occupants and building owners.
“Building automation systems have revolutionized how we improve the functionality of a building all while taking occupant and tenant experiences to the next level,” Lash says. “A BAS can help take vital building data, visualize it through graphs and dashboards, to pinpoint key information. It gives users the ability to make better decisions on how the building is running, and these insights can span across every aspect of building operations.”
From one interface, managers can monitor everything and make changes, from something as simple as seeing a piece of equipment running when it should not be to the system recognizing that a valve is closed when it should be open.
A BAS can also help achieve more complex goals, like reducing energy use, saving money on utilities, improving HVAC equipment maintenance and uptime, and supporting sustainability efforts, Lash says. A BAS also can monitor equipment performance and send alerts to operators if maintenance is required, allowing managers to use proactive maintenance strategies that typically can save money over the long term.
“Beyond the business case, building automation systems also benefit tenants and occupants,” Lash says. “These systems are made to optimize occupant well-being, comfort and productivity in numerous ways.
“A great example is using a BAS to improve indoor air quality, which has been shown to improve employee productivity and quality of work. It can also enhance other aspects of well-being that provide convenience to occupants while saving energy when areas of a building are not in use.”
BAS can offer additional benefits, including greater energy efficiency, lower operating and maintenance costs, better indoor air quality, greater occupant comfort and increased productivity. The systems are designed to make a facility manager’s job easier, says Charles Miltiades, director of controls products and solutions for Mitsubishi HVAC.
“Building automation systems are sometimes misunderstood as solutions for design and installation issues instead of a way to optimize building management and performance,” Miltiades says. “While BAS can provide relief in some scenarios, nothing replaces a good design and installation of the building’s mechanical and envelope systems.”
Most architects and developers see a building as a machine that should be designed to help the companies that occupy it do business better and more efficiently. BAS can be essential for managers responsible for controlling large buildings.
Miltiades says managers can use the BAS to optimize building management and improve awareness of building performance and system status. Although a BAS can help improve building performance, managers should avoid using automation to work around issues requiring remedy. Managers should also pay close attention to any building systems operating outside of a BAS.
“Building automation systems can be essential for facility managers responsible for controlling large buildings,” Miltiades says. “For example, BAS will help managers stay on top of mechanical and maintenance issues and limit the risk of expensive future repairs.”
Managers in some cases use BAS to create workarounds for problems caused by a system’s design or installation. This can be a misuse of BAS if the workaround merely masks the issue and delays remedial action, Miltiades says.
“In other instances, some facility managers misuse BAS by clearing and ignoring notifications and maintenance reminders,” Miltiades says. “Failing to take action on maintenance reminders, for example, can create risks and hazards for occupants and the building owner.”
Because of BAS complexity, users do not always understand them, Lash says. A control program might be set up to be highly optimized for a region or a season, but if a user does not understand the programming or what is happening within the larger system and decides to manually override the program, they quickly lose the benefit of the automation and the enhanced building productivity that came with it.
“For example, individuals who lack proper understanding or training on how to operate a building automation system risk making mistakes exponentially,” Lash says. “If someone were to set a piece of equipment to heat in the summertime when it should be cooling, that individual can make that same misstep for every piece of equipment in the building with just one click. Without the right training and education on both building automation systems and the understanding of how a building should be functioning in an ideal environment, it can become very easy for an operator to make the wrong decision.”
Lash says managers need to take the time to understand the inner workings of a building and its HVAC system, and they should learn how all the components work together. When a BAS is added on top of everything else, managers must take part in the necessary training needed to fully understand the system and the programming required.
“Beyond that, (managers should) think through how your building is affected by regional or seasonal temperatures, sunlight exposure in certain areas or at specific times, as well as how the building is occupied,” Lash says. “Use your building automation system to optimize or correct for these specific conditions to optimize efficiency and building productivity, so your buildings are true assets. Finally, be sure to choose an automation partner that understands your goals and can support you at every stage of the building’s evolution.”
Maura Keller is a freelance writer based in Plymouth, Minnesota.