Advances in Building Automation Controls


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Before officials in Hamilton County, Ohio, contracted with Ameresco two years ago for updates to its energy infrastructure at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati, the facility already had a building automation system (BAS) and lighting controls.

“The new systems upgrade and retro-commissioning designs allow us better control of individual areas of the stadium, resulting in additional energy savings over the previous systems,” says Joe Feldkamp, Hamilton County director for stadia and parking.

Reducing energy consumption through building automation controls is the bottom line for facility owners and operators. For Hamilton County, it meant the ability to integrate new energy-efficient ventilation algorithms, take advantage of recent code updates for demand-controlled ventilation, and address building pressure control deficiencies to optimize energy 
recovery and savings, says Feldkamp. “Overall, the systems are better coordinated, detailed, and user-friendly,” he says.

Feldkamp notes that although the county experienced significant upfront capital costs, “there is a level of comfort knowing that equipment is new after 15 to 16 years of operation, that the staff of Ameresco will be familiar with our systems, and that their personnel is knowledgeable and can discuss any issues that arise with our professional onsite staff.”

The BAS upgrade at Paul Brown Stadium has a strict return on investment (ROI) of 5.2 percent, not accounting for the ancillary savings associated with the mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP) system changes; lighting upgrades; electric-to-gas heating changes; hybrid boiler upgrades; and water conservation values for the project, says Feldkamp. Not only is the building monitored in many more specific areas, “the real savings are obvious with utilities and can be documented for other decision-makers and stakeholders,” he says.

Ameresco also started a relationship with the county’s local MEP professional services contractor, he adds. “They too have a vested interest in our new BAS and are familiar with the project and expected results,” says Feldkamp. “The Measurement and Verification portion of the Ameresco contract also ensures for the first couple of years of the project that a third-party agent is monitoring and suggesting additional measures to keep the energy savings and ease of use of the system intact and guaranteed.”

The Hamilton County Board of Commissioners has embarked on new strategies to manage its public assets in ways that ensure long-term sustainability, says Feldkamp. “The Board recognizes that asset age and condition affect the core mission its facilities have in serving the citizens of Hamilton County,” he says. “Hamilton County and the Ameresco team have enjoyed a successful partnership over the past several years.” Hamilton County has already entered into four other Energy Services Agreements addressing the county’s needs.

“Building upon this success, Ameresco has worked in conjunction with the Hamilton County administration and the leadership of the Cincinnati Reds in addressing strategic efficiencies at Great American Ball Park as well as Paul Brown Stadium,” says Feldkamp.

“With an initial cost of approximately $11.6 million, the Great American Ball Park project involved comprehensive LED lighting retrofits, energy efficiency and sustainability improvements to both stadiums, and LED field lighting.”

A significant portion of the project cost and savings were associated with updates to the building automation systems at both facilities, affording the opportunity to implement capital-intensive measures such as strategic mechanical improvements, Feldkamp adds.

Numerous advances in building automation controls are making them viable options for building owners and operators. McKesson operates 2,350 buildings in 1,200 facilities across six different business units, each functioning as its own entity. Challenges have come in integrating data from at least seven systems across business units, hundreds of buildings, and thousands of utility accounts, as well as in sourcing the technology to do so in a way that effectively engages both internal and external stakeholders.

In finding a platform that could integrate with new systems it will add in the future as its portfolio expands, McKesson facilities officials chose to roll out an enterprise facilities management system. The company selected CBRE as its integrated facilities management vendor and Lucid’s BuildingOS as its enterprise energy management platform, introducing it in multiple phases with the first being smart meter and utility bill data.

The project began in 2016 and was completed in early 2018. As a result, the facility was able to identify seven percent expected savings across its portfolio, a 14 percent energy reduction, and an advancement of the headquarters building from LEED Gold to Platinum by addressing identified scheduling and equipment issues.

Additionally, the company locked in $90,000 in annual savings by lowering the electricity rate and prioritized more than four million square feet for a lighting retrofit to save more than $1.1 million.

Data from BuildingOS informs high-level decisions on investment priorities as well as day-to-day facility manage­ment decisions. The company also was able to create a portfolio-wide summary of sustainability metrics to track progress on a public dashboard.

In future phases, the company will deploy and integrate extended real-time data, fault detection, lighting controls, and other performance data into the system to develop custom key performance indicators (KPIs) for each of its business units throughout the more than 18 million square feet.

BuildingOS, a building energy management and cloud analytics platform designed to uncover savings and improve performance, is one tool offered by Lucid. Additionally, Lucid’s DGLux is designed as a real-time, data-driven web-based interface featuring a graphical data-driven toolbox to rapidly build visually rich, interactive web applications and dashboards for buildings.

By seamlessly aggregating the various data sources in a building, it enables users to analyze, monitor, and control data and analytics within a single unified display.

Lucid also is working on a more prescriptive approach to fault detection and diagnostics (FDD) that combines both DGLux and BuildingOS. The solution applies more targeted diagnostics to “cut through the time and noise of traditional FDD,” says Amber Artrip, director of demand generation.

“It is designed to combine multiple conditions and symptoms for an accurate diagnosis, to focus on issues that matter, to understand cost and impact, and to prescribe action,” she adds.

In addition to a host of advancements in the core automation base, there is an increasing push to connect edge computing to cloud computing, notes Will Coleman, CEO of Lucid. “There is an increasing need across big enterprises to gain visibility into their operations and systems,” he says. “Part of that is the changing complexion of facility management in the workforce. Part of it is the increasing complexity and sophistication in the systems. These centralized management teams are looking for visibility across their entire portfolio.”

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The T-Mobile Arena on the Las Vegas strip combines advanced technology and solutions into one entertainment package, with the venue hosting up to 160 events yearly. It is the first LEED Gold sports and entertainment facility in Las Vegas. AEG and MGM Resorts International needed to meet a 12- to 18-month time frame to build the arena on time and on budget and worked with Schneider Electric and local contractors to design the building.

The EcoStruxure solution provides the venue with connectivity, sustainability, and efficiency through critical cooling, power and electrical distribution, energy management and environmental control, security access control, and video surveillance.

EcoStruxure offered the arena staff an advanced level of control and the flexibility to meet changing needs, be it more ventilation for fireworks smoke, air conditioning in a certain section of the building, or a new event such as ice hockey.

Kurt Gokbudak, consultant solution architect for Schneider Electric, notes that the wide adoption and utilization of IP-based automation controls is “making for some radical differences in how systems are installed and how people are able to utilize the systems.”

Schneider Electric offers the SmartX MP series of IP-based controllers as part of its EcoStruxure platform. “They offer speeds of communication that are orders of magnitude faster than what has been the predominant form of technology,” says Gokbudak. “People are able to use these IP-based controllers to gather and utilize a lot more information from their building automation systems.

“The advantage of being able to use analytics is we are able to do all sorts of intelligent monitoring, intelligent preventative maintenance, and keep the building owners and operators apprised of how their buildings are functioning and if there are issues,” he says. “They can be alerted to these issues oftentimes before there has been an impact on human comfort or energy performance of the facility.”

One of the advantages of IP-based technology is that systems such as those offered by Schneider Electric are able to communicate much faster, “so we can gather more data from a technology point of view and in some cases utilize existing IP networks. That can result in reduced system installation costs as well as giving us the capability to import all of the information from our systems into modern analytics platforms.”

Data analytics and wireless communications are becoming the norm, notes Jeremy Scott, director of project development at Ameresco. “Running wires throughout buildings can get expensive, especially when you have difficult areas to traverse like hard ceiling in lieu of drop ceilings,” he says. “Running a wireless network can help to eliminate or at leastminimize the amount of wiring that needs to be run.” Another option: using existing wireless or ethernet networks rather than installing a dedicated building automatic network between controllers and control points, says Scott.

“Some manufacturers are taking advantage of open protocol specifications such as BACnet/IP that allow building automation equipment to connect to a building’s existing IP network,” he adds. While this strategy can eliminate the need to run a new network, it can require buy-in from IT to deal with security and network maintenance concerns, notes Scott.

“As for data analytics, this feature can add a whole new dimension to how efficiently a building can be controlled,” he says. “Typically, a building with controls is commissioned to operate a certain way and the building occupants are left to operate and maintain the system.

“Often, these systems can be very complicated and end users resort to overriding systems because really what they need is for the building to be comfortable and minimize occu­pant complaints.”

A traditional control system offers real-time data with the ability to do trending, which to the untrained eye may not be very useful, notes Scott. “With a data analytics package that monitors and trends multiple points instantaneously, user-friendly reports can be created to give end users actionable information to correct problems,” he explains.

“While data analytics has been around for a long time, implementation has been an issue. More companies are expanding into data analytics for building automation controls, which hopefully will result in better implementations and wide acceptance.”

Primary advancements in building automation controls include the use of sensory networks in lighting systems combined with wired and wireless networks, notes Joe Bokelman, market development manager at Hubbell Control Solutions. “These lighting networks are much more pervasive than other building networks because lighting is higher in density and more uniform,” he says. “Automated controls in lighting are commonplace and largely required by most energy codes. The combination of the automated controls with wired and wireless networks provides substantial amounts of performance data about energy use and occupancy trends.”

More advanced capabilities are emerging, including the use of sensor networks in lighting, combined with technologies like Bluetooth to create applications such as wayfinding and asset tracking.

Most automation end users request open systems, which is a driving factor in technological changes, notes Gina Elliott, vice president of EasyIO Americas. “This lessens their dependence on one manufacturer and one contractor that has access to that manufacturer’s product,” she says.

Building owners and operators also have an expectation of more data so IP-based controllers allow access to larger amounts of data from any connected system, she adds. “However, IP controllers also require traditional controls contractors to evolve their knowledge of IT systems, particularly networking, wireless, and security. In addition, we are also seeing more of a distributed architecture and this encourages open systems, best-in-breed choices and expanded IT networks to accom­modate building automation,” says Elliott.

To appreciate the significance of building automation con­trol advancements, one must understand how automation technology has evolved. Building automation systems have been part of the marketplace for more than 30 years and have served as good engines to schedule how equipment runs, notes Gokbudak.

But they were sometimes difficult to track and facility managers would have to manually override equipment, he adds. “A case in point is if someone were to override the air conditioning in a conference room and forget they had done that. Even though the building automation system may be attempting to turn things on or off, that air conditioner may not be going off because somebody has manually forced it on,” says Gokbudak.

“With a modern system, we have the capability to pick up system anomalies with equipment running when it shouldn’t be. We can send a message asking the building manager if he or she is aware that the air conditioning in [a particular] conference room is running.” That offers the ability to track and correct problems earlier, Gokbudak says.

In early systems, a building owner and operator would install a building automation system to control the air conditioning, a separate lighting control system to control the lighting, and maybe a separate access control system to lock and unlock the doors, notes Gokbudak. The integrated system enables a building operator to “fine-tune a building to ensure you’re only providing services to areas where people actually are and [that] you’re not overheating, you’re not overcooling, you’re not lighting or providing services to areas where there are no people,” he adds.

“At its core, automation is really just turning things on and off,” Scott points out. “Many manufacturers have created their own systems and as such created multiple ways of doing the same thing. While two different companies can control a boiler to provide heat to a building, the way these systems communicate can be completely different.”

That can be a challenge in existing buildings when owners and operators want one system to communicate with another, Scott says.

“One part of a building may have system X and another system Y. A building owner wants to be able to control both systems from a single interface,” he adds.

In order to mitigate that challenge, the building automation industry has tried to create standard open-protocol specifications that ensure systems speak the same language with popular protocols such as BACnet, LON, and Modbus, Scott says. “In the early days, manufacturers often picked a protocol and stuck with it,” he adds. “Then they started to offer more than one. Today, BACnet is leading the way as the standard open-protocol specification.”

However, he acknowledges there can still be some challenges getting one BACnet system to communicate with another BACnet system. “There is room for improvement, but the general embrace of one open protocol by the building automation community has greatly helped with retrofitting systems and gives building owners greater flexibility.”

Automation technology started with the signal system and signal interface and ultimately building management systems integrated more systems into those interfaces, notes Lucid’s Coleman. There was an ability to manage commissioning on site and what has evolved is the presence of more “systems of systems” with people connecting BMS to each other, creating supervisory layers, he adds.

“Now, the big challenge is that you have a legacy of a lot of systems that don’t necessarily talk to each other,” he says. “You can go into a big enterprise end user and find that they have six different BMS solution providers in there deployed over several decades. They’re trying to get visibility across all of those systems.”

The current evolution is in fitting all those components together for the bigger view, Coleman says.

Today, the industry is figuring out the appropriate balance between what is done on site and what is done on a network, versus what is done in the cloud, he notes.

“All of these tools giving the ability to connect from the edge to the cloud are enabling a level of analytics and a level of insights that is driving more consistent building management across big portfolios,” says Coleman.

“It’s allowing people to start benchmarking to see where they stand and where each of these sites stands relative to the others. What people are discovering is that there are enormous amounts of untapped cost savings. In many cases, it’s showing where there are buildings that are not supporting the businesses that are operating inside of those buildings.”

Building owners and operators are finding that poor-performing buildings are often invisible, says Coleman. “They get a bill in accounts payable and pay it or get a request and they roll a truck,” he adds. “What they are not seeing is the cost impact on their operations. The more we are driving that evolution to the cloud, [the more] people can start to compare performance across all of these different sites.”

For example, a campus of multiple buildings benefits from advancements in building automation controls in that “the cloud solution and the ability to have that data accessible to anyone at any time who needs to have access makes it so critical,” says Coleman.

The cloud enables users to centralize all of the data streams, normalize them, and make it so that those teams can more effectively manage those facilities and make key cost-saving decisions that impact different sites while balancing that with occupant comfort and different business requirements within that site, says Coleman.

Bokelman points out the cost of sensor technologies used in lighting control — such as in occupancy, light, and power use — has dropped dramatically along with processing power and wireless chipsets.

“This has pushed the use of sensors down to each and every fixture with minimal additional product cost and lower total installed cost,” he adds. “These distributed sensors maximize energy savings by pinpointing when and where lighting is needed as well as show how much is needed — all at the local level without the need for central controllers or complex wiring.”

The use of wireless networks has allowed more devices to be connected across a larger footprint, which contributes more data to software and can generate dashboards of energy use as well as maps of activity and maintenance reports, says Bokelman.

Energy consumption is being largely reduced through the use of building automation control tools and techniques. In using benchmarking as a starting point to understand where their outliers are, building owners and operators are able to “drill down into either the buildings or systems that are on the spectrum and understand what’s going on,” says Coleman. “They are also looking at how they can balance the demands of a site with scheduling.”

They’re using visual management to drive performance, says Coleman. “We may have seen these numbers on a page in the past and those numbers looked fine but when you see it visually you very quickly recognize that you have a building that is not scheduled and you should look at how to drive start-up and shut-down times more cost effectively,” he says. “Or you might look at it and see that the building is drifting, which you might not have detected otherwise because you didn’t have the ability to set it against heating and cooling degree days and normalize that data.”

Scott concurs. “Data analytics is the greatest tool of late 
to help building managers first understand their energy consumption and then target areas to reduce it,” he says. “With data analytics, you can also bring in real-time energy data from building energy meters. Through various analysis tools built into a data analytics package, one can determine not only how much energy a building is using but narrow that down into specific pieces of equipment. With this information, building managers are able to spend their resources better to target energy reduction.”

Using the continuous feedback that energy reporting dashboards provide has allowed building managers to measure and verify the ROI of the system while also allowing them to make ongoing tweaks to the timing, amount, and duration of light in each area, says Bokelman.

Interaction with other building systems such as HVAC has improved the ability to use centralized scheduling for open/closed times and coordinate changes to building operations, he adds. “By using the data generated from the sensors used to activate the lighting, HVAC and other building systems are supplied with more accurate room occupation trendinformation,” says Bokelman. “The granular data provided by the lighting system can accurately confirm when an area is being used as well as when it becomes unoccupied, allowing other systems to micro-adjust its setpoints.”

Integration of multiple systems to work in tandem to combat energy overuse is a technique more progressive compa­nies use, says Elliott. “Integration at the facility level for day-to-day management and reporting is a valuable tool, but when extended to the financial systems, it makes the strategy pervasive and provides accountability at multiple levels,” she adds.

Still, awareness and education are low-cost techniques that pack a big impact, says Elliot, adding that “incentivizing better margins through lower operating expenses as part of employment duties is possible for all managers not only facility managers.” 

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