Building Automation for Efficiency


As recently as 10 years ago, building automation systems were little more than a method of overseeing the operation of building control systems. Today, building automation systems manage and integrate different types of applications such as HVAC, lighting, and blind controls to become smarter, improve user comfort, and increase efficiency.

In addition to controlling environmental parameters, they are used to enhance safety protocols and manage building processes. They can shut off office equipment, computers, vending machines, lighting, and other equipment during non-working or non-peak hours. They can also schedule room temperature changes based on time of day or occupancy.

One outcome of effective use of BAS, whether a direct goal or indirect result, is energy efficiency: saving on energy costs. Another outcome is reduced operating costs. Furthermore, they can increase the life of the various systems within a building—another cost savings.

Recent studies indicate that use of a building automation system can reduce utility and operating costs by up to 15%. More specifically, using BAS to adjust the thermostat and lights based on time of day, occupancy, or usage patterns contributes to overall energy savings of up to 30%, while the ability to shut down office equipment during non-working hours can save up to $300 a year per each piece of equipment.

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Credit: Lucid
Lucid’s dashboard

Energy Management
A trend towards using automation to be more energy efficient can be seen with the growing customer demand for energy management software as demand for more granular control is increasing. However, Aanal Bhagat, market intelligence analyst with BSRIA Inc. (USA), says that “the need for energy efficiency is partly enforced by legislation such as California Title 24, which has led to the need for energy management and, in turn, a rise in energy management software. Customers are looking for more advanced energy analytics to reduce both the cost of energy as well as operational costs.”

Whether mandated or driven by either customer demand or a desire to reduce costs and save energy, the US energy management software market was valued at $9 million in 2017 and is predicted to increase in the next few years, according to BSRIA’s latest USA Building Automation and Control Systems report.

While many manufacturers provide basic energy management solutions as part of their overall building automation packages, Bhagat says that some provide advanced platforms for deeper energy analytics.

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Redefining Terms
The definition of automation is changing, claims Tom Schircliff of Intelligent Buildings. “Do you mean only BAS—building automation system—or AI—artificial intelligence—or DDC—direct digital control?”

For 30 years, BAS was automation, he continues. “You could program your HVAC and the lights.” Middleware was the next step, he says. “The HVAC system could talk to the elevator and the lights.”

After that, it was the Internet of Things. “The IoT was not just air conditioning, elevator, access, and lighting,” says Schircliff. “iPhone apps in the building could configure the environment to the customer, providing more data and more analytics.” Because of all the additional information, he says it’s not just building controls any longer. “Now you’re obligated to deal with more than energy efficiency. Because you know who’s in the building, you have to consider productivity.”

When you’re talking about energy efficiency and dealing with the IoT and productivity, you can’t confine yourself to energy efficiency, Schircliff believes. “Many energy solution companies struggle because lower operating costs is their only focus. But when does efficiency become inefficient?”

More importantly, perhaps, how do you measure energy efficiency? Historically, calculations used BTUs per square foot, but how energy-intense is the space? Three hundred square feet per person was the norm, but these days three to four times more people work in the same space. The BTUs may go up, but it can still be more efficient. For example, a company may not use all the floors available. Therefore, even if the energy intensity per square foot goes up, you could still be more energy efficient.

Alternatively, some employees may work at home a few days a week or even full-time. Is energy efficiency determined per square foot, per person, or per company? “It can be counter-productive,” states Schircliff, yet spatial planning, management, and use are not topics often taken into consideration when calculating energy efficiency. “Look at your energy bill, but consider all aspects, such as energy use per head count—the number of people in the building, the community, and the number of hours per day they work.”

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Credit: Lucid
Lucid’s heatmap display

Integrating Efficiency
Echoing the sentiment that all BAS used to do was temperature control and security, Tom Rule, business line manager for business automation software for the Americas region, Siemens Building Technologies, says today’s solution is the transformation of BAS software into a building automation software platform through integration with HVAC, lights, video, access control, and data exchange with other utilities. “It takes the software to a higher level,” he says.

The Desigo CC Integrated Building Management Platform features a single control for HVAC, lighting, access control, video, metering, and data exchange with other software for total room automation. It also provides occupancy information through motion detectors, video integration, infrared, or other options, and uses visual tools and advanced logic to make sure the equipment is running well.

It’s not easy, and it requires domain and application knowledge to achieve—a difficult task, considering that “most installers are HVAC or video people,” states Rule. “You have to tie the systems together and make them work. It’s tricky to do.”

The benefit of integration lies in scheduling. “The more integration you have, the less duplication of efforts,” explains Rule. A common schedule is used system-wide, adding operational efficiency. Instead of having to set schedules in separate software platforms for different systems, it can all be done in one place.

Rule says, “An automation system pulls from external schedule packages such as a college classroom schedule, airport gate flight information, hotel reservations, or hospital procedures schedule and patient check-in. You enter the information into the schedule once only.” That saves time and reduces errors.

It also means the building manager is only conditioning the spaces when they’re used, and if the schedule changes, it’s easy to make alterations—even remotely. For example, Rule says, the lights in a school go off automatically at a preset time, but if the school board meets once a month, the lights can be adjusted remotely with a cell phone, mobile app, or through the cloud to leave them on later. “When it’s easy to change, it gets done.”

That kind of operational efficiency leads to energy efficiency, Rule says. “You can integrate HVAC and lighting to cover a broader swath of energy use.” Lights and HVAC make up the major building energy users. Being able to leverage them through one system adds to efficiency.

Rule explains that they write rules for reactions, macros, and custom scripting to identify faults, efficiency losses, and performance degradation, but says that the rules are rather generic to cover across broad areas. “We’re at the stage where we do well at writing expert rules for recognizing faults. Next is machine learning, based on patterns and trends. The software will automatically recognize faults without written rules.”

As part of the shift from expert rules to machine learning/artificial intelligence, Siemens is tagging mechanisms for recognition. “The sensors provide the numbers,” explains Rule. “The software recognizes what the points mean and ascribes values. The software recognizes the equipment and knows the expected performance levels. If the level is greater or less than the set point, then the software makes recommendations.”

For example, if a fan belt is slipping in an air handler, the software will recognize it, provide the part number, and order the part. “It will analyze the equipment and recommend equipment maintenance, repair, or replacement to save energy and costs,” elaborates Rule. “It’s difficult to do [when writing] rules, but AI might get there.”

Advancing from rules-based to AI is a slow evolution, Rule believes. “In the end, it comes down to the same pieces of mechanical equipment—chillers and boilers—and occupancy.”

The direction of building automation, Rule believes, is trending toward leverage of cloud technology.

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Credit: iStock/awanlubfah

Metering devices and sensors speak to the cloud and data platforms for reporting. Some customers still try to connect to a BMS system, but Vladi Shunturov, founder and president of Lucid, thinks that builds complexity. “The problem with projects through BMS instead of with a smart meter pushing to the cloud is that with the cloud, only one thing can break.” Lucid works with some BMS providers, but he maintains that there is no secure, good way to get data with some gateways.

Lucid’s focus is on helping the owner/operator leverage data, which, in turn, helps to reduce costs, streamline time, increase productivity, and improve efficiency. “Data is so vast and laborious; there’s a lot of data for data’s sake. We make it easy to get insight.” The first step is to figure out the business problem you want to solve before you choose a system and collect data. Shunturov says, “If you want to collect data, you need a data strategy.”

For building managers and engineers, Shunturov says systems were a natural place to put devices, but with the IoT trend came a move away from complex centralized systems. The industry is responsive to open protocols. However, by modern standards, he believes most are not really an open system due to the complexity. “There’s a barrier.”

Building managers want to eliminate costs and time for basic connectivity and monitoring. Shunturov estimates that there is 30% waste on average in buildings, but he says it’s possible to reduce that to 18% with granular information that helps managers make decisions and ensure systems are set up correctly and working efficiently. BAS used to be “just the thermostat,” he reflects. Now, it connects with EB chargers, lighting control, HVAC control, and occupancy sensors. It connects with billing and metering to manage energy, the sub-metering industry to study granular data, the building system to optimize it, and maintenance to create a workflow system for adjusting the data to determine which assets and buildings are causing costs.

Lucid works with 200 universities, as well as commercial and corporate buildings, in fields such as biotech and media, like LinkedIn, McKesson, and Google. “McKesson saved energy with the system,” recalls Shunturov, “but they wanted to be more strategic and use the manufacturing data. They wanted to know the energy intensity of their manufacturing lines—the cost of kilowatt-hours—in order to choose the best facility to manufacture drugs.”

Analytics are often done in silos. Shunturov advises considering complete visibility in order to determine the full return on investment. For example, HVAC circulation can impact employee health, so it’s important to gather data on “sick” days. In addition, he estimates that 60% of office spaces are not used or are under-utilized, which can make the difference between $3 per square foot for energy or $300 per square foot for staff.

“Energy is a starting point,” concludes Shunturov. “Getting data is affordable now, but it’s a proxy for so much more.”

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Credit: iStock/ktsimage

Filtering Out the Noise
Automation in commercial buildings provides two primary benefits, according to Derek McGarry, head building performance engineer with Abundant Power: control and visibility. “Without automated control, many building systems tend to be left to run 24/7. Without automated visibility, facility managers must be physically present to diagnose complaints from tenants.”

But today’s automation systems are able to take advantage of a new aspect of visibility: automated fault detection. Instead of relying on an occupant to alert the building manager when something goes wrong, automated fault detection continuously monitors the health of the systems and alerts the operators when performance is poor or issues arise. McGarry believes that modern control systems, when partnered with automated fault detection, are transforming the facility management industry in a way similar to how security cameras transformed that industry. “Facility managers can now manage more buildings in an even smarter way,” he concludes.

Even new buildings can find value in monitoring-based commissioning, according to Abundant. Capitol Towers I in Charlotte, NC, is part of a multi-use development that achieved LEED-Gold certification during construction in 2016 by incorporating industry-leading strategies and components for high performance. Nevertheless, the building owners wanted to subvert any potential issues during the warranty phase.

“By monitoring their building management system and employing custom algorithms to the data, we were able to identify issues causing inefficiencies,” says McGarry. Abundant Power monitored the facility’s HVAC control system and identified multiple issues, filtering out the “noise” of overwhelming data that can obscure the important information to identify issues such as a bad space sensor that caused an entire floor and the condenser water system to run at all times. Once identified, they were brought to the attention of the contractor and resolved at no additional cost to the owner.

Because the chief engineer was worried about a plenum fan, Abundant developed an algorithm to identify stuck relays. More than 100 units were flagged by the algorithm, saving valuable search time. The algorithm continues to monitor.

These improvements helped the building achieve an Energy Star rating of 97, along with projected energy savings of $26,100 a year. In addition, the changes allowed Capitol Towers to double their occupancy while reducing their energy consumption. As a result, the facility’s comfort score, a measure of accuracy of the desired temperature, rose to 99%, and the asset health score, a measure of the intensity of problems being detected, rose to 92%.

Reporting for Duty
Graphics are usually built by individual systems, such as air-handling units, chilled water, hot water, and variable-air-volume units. But graphics rarely give a complete overview of the entire system. An air handling unit serving 50 variable-air-volume units, for example, has its own graphic and each of those 50 rooms has an individual graphic. Being able to see the bigger picture makes things much easier for the building manager.

Siemens’ platform has improved graphics technology. The user-friendly dashboards are more meaningful, with color changes indicating issues, Rule explains. That provides a holistic view of the grid, allowing building managers to see what’s going on in the building. “They can see which equipment needs repair. For example, if Chiller 1 is drawing X-much power and Chiller 2 is drawing X-plus power, it’s an indication that Chiller 2 has an issue.”

Being able to see which coils aren’t transferring as much heat allows the building manager to be proactive. The system recognizes faults for predictive maintenance, so the building manager can repair or replace equipment that’s beginning to fail. The system can also identify performance changes over time and spot trends. Comparing current energy usage and historical energy usage indicates where efficiencies have been gained.

Links to access other systems and information about the systems can be added to the graphics. Operators can also run a report on temperatures that includes a link from the floor plan graphic, set alarms when the temperature deviates from the setpoint, and build virtual points and calculations for minimum, maximum, and average room temperatures for a given area or floor.

There’s a point on the spectrum when efficiency hurts other things. “You can turn off the lights and the heat, but then it’s too uncomfortable to work,” points out Schircliff. “Be aware of what goes on around energy efficiency.”

Who is driving the conversation, he asks? For example, at an infectious disease lab, do you care about energy efficiency or do you just want your cooler to work? Schircliff mentions a “major bank” that Intelligent Buildings worked with. The bank bypassed saving $100,000 in energy efficiency because they didn’t want the disruption, change, or the distraction of an upgrade.

Real estate is just a tool for what your business wants to accomplish, Schircliff theorizes. He refers to a federal building in San Francisco that was engineered for natural ventilation, with operable windows and a concrete structure that releases cool air. “It had to be an open floor plan, but the employees wanted privacy, so they built enclosures. But that ruined the engineering, so the building manager had to add portable air conditioning. They didn’t look at how the building was used.”

Green practices are sometimes done artificially for sustainability, but it isn’t always sustainable. “It must have other benefits or it won’t last,” states Schircliff. “The answer is more readily available technology for energy efficiency than ever, but it must balance the rest of the business for that.”

He says it’s a test of a business owner’s willingness to improve. “If they’re passionate about operational efficiency, they need to understand the other aspects of operation: carbon dioxide, air ventilation, density of people, how the space is used, HVAC issues, and telecommuting. You have to have a wrench and a laptop.”

A lot of building managers spend money to be sustainable, but they end up compromising productivity and energy efficiency. “The industry suffers from being too technical-minded sometimes. It has to be a balance.” De Bug Web

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