Get a Grip! The Whys and Wherefores of Building Automation

Maintaining control of large buildings can be a huge challenge. In addition to rising utility costs, some areas can be too hot, some too cold. Lighting levels are frequently inconsistent and misaligned with the work requirements of the area. Ventilation can be great in some areas — evident by alert, energetic workers, and pitiful in others — evident by employees nodding off and watching the clock. And, of course, it’s even worse if you’re trying to manage multiple buildings.

The solution to most* of these challenges is a building automation system (BAS).

If done correctly, a building automation system will deliver greater energy efficiency, lower operating and maintenance costs, better indoor air quality, greater occupant comfort, and productivity.

What CAN be controlled?
  • Lighting
  • Chillers
  • Boilers
  • Air Handling Units (AHUs)
  • Roof-top Units (RTUs)
  • Fan Coil Units (FCUs)
  • Heat Pump Units (HPUs)
  • Variable Air Volume boxes (VAVs)

Other systems that are often controlled and/or brought under a complete automation system include:

  • Power monitoring
  • Security
  • Close circuit video (CCTV)
  • Card and keypad access
  • Fire alarm system
  • Elevators/escalators
  • Plumbing and water monitoring
WHY SHOULD YOU WANT ONE?

Let’s review some of the major benefits a building automation system can provide:

Reduced Utility Costs

When used correctly, building automation systems generally pay for themselves fairly quickly through lower utility bills alone. Simply monitoring building occupancy and allowing the BAS to adjust HVAC use accordingly results in savings of 10% to 30%.  Reductions in peak load and other energy use benefits reduce utility costs even further. (Pay-for-performance agreements such as Energy Performance Contracting or Energy Efficiency-as-a-Service allow companies to use their guaranteed energy savings to pay for their BAS with no upfront capital required.)

Improved Indoor Environment

Thirty years of public health research have demonstrated that improved indoor environmental quality equates to healthier, happier workers. While it’s difficult to quantify, the impact of increased tenant comfort is critically important to building owners and managers. One of the most notable BAS benefits is temperature control. By powering up temperature control systems before occupants arrive and turning them down after everyone leaves, a BAS alleviates frigid morning temperatures in the winter and stifling temperatures during the summer. A more comfortable building means fewer occupant complaints, happier employees, and a more productive business environment.

Increased Productivity

Improved ventilation and air quality boost greater worker productivity and reduce sick time.

Studies conducted by Harvard and SUNY Medical Centers found that doubling ASHRAE (American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers) minimum ventilation rates through energy efficient HVAC systems boosts cognitive function. Workers in well-ventilated, green-certified buildings scored 26.4% higher on cognitive function tests and had 30% fewer sick building symptoms than those in non-certified buildings.  In terms of dollars and cents, we can safely equate decreased sick days into a net impact of about $5.00/square foot and increased in productivity at a net impact of about $20.00/square foot. 

Companies across the U.S. are discovering that, in addition to energy savings, employee productivity increases when lighting is optimized to task and time of day. Research conducted by the American Society of Interior Design found that 68% of workers/employees complain about the lighting in their building. Exposure to blue light has been found to decrease depression, improve mood, energy, alertness, and productivity. For example, tests at the Center for Chronobiology discovered that volunteers exposed to blue-based, LED-backlit computers for five hours in the evening “produced less melatonin, felt less tired, and performed better on tests of attention than those in front of a fluorescent-lit screen of the same size and brightness.”  The opposite is also true – high-intensity fluorescent and dim, poorly-lit spaces negatively affect people’s mood, health, and productivity.

Reduced Maintenance Costs

By reducing demand and start/stop stages, building automation systems reduce wear-and-tear on a buildings energy infrastructure, reducing maintenance costs and extending equipment life. While its main function is to provide control of critical building systems, a BAS also monitors and optimizes its own performance and identify any system or equipment problems. Depending on the issue, the system may attempt to automatically resolve a problem before getting a human involved. Unexpected equipment breakdowns are costly business interruptions. Emergency repairs are also very expensive. Computerized controls monitor equipment status and help you head-off unexpected problems

Simplified Building Operation

BAS provides building management staff with the tools to control a building, but no information about what is going on in that building. Accordingly, building automation systems are often partnered with smart metering or energy management software to detect resource use and other relevant data. Computerized controls and real-time displays provide instant and ongoing feedback on everything that’s happening with the equipment in the building – without having to physically examine the equipment. This saves on costly problem determination visits, avoids business interruptions and simplifies operations.

Additionally, having 24/7 remote access to all of the building’s systems allows for remote control and adjustment of systems from any internet-enabled device

Increased Property Value

Since the value of most commercial buildings is tied to the net operating income. Using a BAS to reduce utility costs increases the net operating income on a dollar-for-dollar basis. Every $0.10/square foot saved in energy could increase the market value of the property by $0.80/square foot.  Reducing energy costs of a 100,000 square foot building by as little as $0.15/square foot could increase its value by as much as $120,000. Furthermore, buildings that include smart metering as part of their BAS can validate their energy usage for regulatory agencies. This opens to door to ENERGY STAR, Tenant Star, or LEED certifications.  Those certifications are highly desirable to many tenants.

WHAT’S INCLUDED?

Sensors: Good sensors are the critical elements of all BAS. They detect resource use and track occupancy, temperature, humidity, ventilation, air quality, ambient light levels, security systems, etc. and transmit that data to the centralized controllers. The more access a BAS has to data, the better it can fine-tune resource allocation in the building throughout the day.

Controllers: are essentially purpose-built computers with both input and output capabilities They act as the “brain” of the BAS. They collect data on from sensors and then send commands to operating systems like HVAC units, lighting systems, security alarms, and other connected systems.

Output Devices: Once the controller sends out a command, actuators and relays respond to implement the action required – such as increasing or decreasing the temperature in a particular part of the building, diming lights in unused areas, or turning on the air conditioning or heat before people come to work.

Terminal Interface: The terminal interface is one of the most important components of the BAS system since building facility managers use it to access relevant data and identify system problems. Users who are uncomfortable with their control systems may not take full advantage of the benefits their building automation project has to offer. Also, a poorly designed user interface may not provide the appropriate analysis or data tools building managers need to discern where and which modifications to make

BEFORE YOU SIGN …

While there are many, many advantages to implementing an effective BAS system, there are a couple of essential factors that building owners should consider when implementing BAS in their properties.

Avoid Proprietary Systems

It’s important for facility and building managers, owners and other stakeholders to work together to identify both short and long-term goals for the BAS. Knowing which systems will be upgraded in the future and where the greatest savings can be achieved are critical considerations.

It’s best to avoid partnering with a firm that manufactures controls to implement your building automation systems project. Proprietary systems may not offer all the features and flexibility facility managers need. Open system controls ensure your building automation system integrates seamlessly with a variety of different products.

Future-Proof Your BAS

Companies should safeguard their investment in energy efficiency by opting for a future-proof system that evolves with time and expands with their organization. The rate at which technology is changing means some systems may become obsolete within a decade after installation.  As such it’s critically important to work with a company that guarantees your system will remain fully optimized, with a  system that is expandable and scalable, adapting to new innovations and company growth.

* Naturally, some people will always be either too hot or too cold.

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