Today’s data-management solutions offer a connected approach toward maximizing smart-building performance.
Technology has transformed the way buildings are operated and managed. From the early days of what we understand today as building automation systems (BAS), the capabilities and usability of these systems has taken a quantum leap.
A BAS is technology installed in new or existing buildings to monitor and control the building’s mechanical and electrical equipment, including lighting, ventilation, power systems and security. When BAS began to come into common use, they tended to be a disconnected series of individual control systems with very limited interoperability.
“When I got into building automation about 10 years ago, the systems were largely proprietary,” recalls Nathan Watkins, a BAS designer who has worked with major universities in the U.S. “The [building automation] ecosystem has matured, and interoperability is much better, so that has opened up a lot of doors.”
The flexibility of current technology means that centralized BAS isn’t just for new buildings. Wireless systems make it possible for retrofit applications to reap the benefits of monitoring and control by a reliable management platform. Building control can begin in one building and then be seamlessly scaled over many building types over a period of time.
Campus Consistency Provides Optimal Results
Managing the data and controls from one building is challenging enough but overseeing the operation of a campus or several buildings spread around different locations presents even greater degrees of difficulty. The kind of technology that offers scalability to grow portfolios, as well as enables managers and operators to process data from multiple systems can have a big impact on how a suite of buildings are run.
“In managing multiple buildings, consistency is important,” Watkins explains. “It’s difficult for occupants when one building functions one way and another works in a different way. Uniform control lets you establish a consistent way for how everything from lights to temperature is controlled across multiple buildings.”
A common example might be that one building in a portfolio has exterior lights set on a photocell control and another has lights set for timed activation. The result can be a sporadic and spotty process of lights coming on in different places. With integrated systems and controls, all lights across the portfolio of buildings can be simply set up to come on together.
“The aesthetics can be important, particularly in a building with a lot of glass,” Watkins says. “You can have occupancy sensors turning on individual spaces when the first person arrives in the morning, but it can provide a more welcoming environment if the lights are already on.”
Building Operators Benefit from Information and Control
As buildings and their vital systems become smarter and more advanced, it follows that managing and analyzing all the data those systems create will be more challenging. It would be easy to assume that more is always better in terms of data collection, but in a raw state, a massive amount of building performance data may just be overwhelming and of little use to a portfolio manager.
It can be a challenge to sort through mountains of information and process it in a way that can be of practical use. Data is coming in from lighting control systems, HVAC, occupancy sensors and much more. Building managers and operators need the most meaningful interpretation of all that data to make the best decisions for their portfolios.
“The fact is that most building operators are not data scientists, so they don’t necessarily need the same toolset,” Watkins says. “But they do need useful insight that can help with their decision-making.”
The possibilities of what can be done when buildings and systems are connected are vast, but without a single software platform connecting those systems—allowing for a single point of monitoring and analytics—that great potential cannot be realized.
“One of the biggest problems we face is having systems installed that never end up being implemented or used effectively,” Watkins says. “There might be a system that can schedule equipment, but people end up leaving things running all the time because it’s easier.” This problem is hard to track when there is no single campus or portfolio view.
To help combat these types of issues, it helps for the technology to be as simple, usable and scalable as possible. With an integrated control and analysis over a complex of multiple buildings, it’s possible for a few specialists to do the work that was once done by larger groups of technicians.
“We see fewer and fewer people going into the trades, and this kind of work used to fall to professionals in the trades,” Watkins says. “We’re having to find ways to operate buildings with fewer workers.”
Practical Applications Reap Benefits Across Building Portfolios
The ability to process and digest data from multiple buildings and different systems gives building control professionals a bird’s eye view of the operation of buildings over time. This can provide invaluable perspective for making decisions that can have a huge impact on efficiency and bottom-line performance.
“In one case we took a year’s worth of electrical energy data and plotted it in a heat map to see the energy intensity,” Watkins recalls. “That helped us quite a bit. We were using too much energy at night, so this data helped us schedule our systems in a more efficient way.”
When it is possible to view data from different systems in one place, it becomes increasingly clear that all parts of buildings, across many buildings, have an impact on each other, whether mechanical, computerized or human.
“We also realized there were opportunities to use occupancy data from our lighting system to improve operation of other systems. I could see that certain areas of a particular building were only getting 20 or 30 percent usage, so that helped us identify where it made sense to make certain integrations,” Watkins says. “You don’t reap any benefit if you set up an occupancy sensor in an area that is occupied continuously. The real savings are in spaces that are underutilized, where these sensors would reduce cooling and lighting.”
Whether a single building or over a campus or group of buildings, understanding actual usage based on sensor data gives operators more to work with than simple work schedules.
“Sometimes occupants tell us they need things running in their space from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m., but we know people aren’t in the space the entire time,” Watkins says. “There can be a disconnect with how buildings are being used.”
Access to data across systems enables operators to make proactive choices and do things differently than they had been done in the past. For example, in the past it was typical to replace lights as they burned out, which guarantees periods of disruption. Or lights could be replaced on a set timeline, but that leaves part of the life of the bulb on the table and creates waste. With today’s monitoring systems, operators can track the hours a particular light is on and know the right time to proactively replace it. Or, looking across many lights, they can replace lights in bulk at the right time across multiple buildings—decreasing how often vendors need to be onsite.
Still, smart building managers understand that efficiency is not the only factor. You have to balance the bottom line of your portfolio with occupant comfort.
“Energy may be 5 percent of a company’s budget, and sometimes even less, so if you hurt overall productivity in trying to save energy, you can end up costing much more than you save,” Watkins explains. “It’s important to be as efficient as possible while having a minimal impact on occupants and ideally even improving occupant comfort.”
He cites lighting as an example of a place where that balance can be a win-win: “We’ll often find spaces that are over-lit, and occupants are taking out bulbs to reduce lighting levels. With the lighting control systems we have today, we have dimming capabilities and can tune lighting levels to a point where we are saving energy while providing a more comfortable environment.”
Advanced BAS and cutting-edge portfolio management applications can provide the kinds of solutions that allow scalable, efficient, smart operation of multiple buildings. As technology continues to grow, so do the possibilities for effective campus control systems.
There is so much benefit to having multiple smart building systems sharing data and working together. As Watkins put it: “It doesn’t help you when the data is siloed and you can’t get it where you need it. You have to be able to access the data and share it among systems.”