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Building Automation Systems: Making the Case

Building Automation Systems

Besides being essential facilities for the public good, schools and hospitals share at least one other thing in common. Namely, capex challenges in implementing new building technologies such as building automation systems (BAS).

Many people recognize that schools are often woefully underfunded when it comes to upgrading or expanding facilities, but the general perception is that hospitals make money hand-over-fist, so shouldn’t face similar limitations. But, as healthcare facility professionals know, the overhead of running a hospital is very expensive. It’s really tough to upgrade and update older buildings because of the economics around healthcare.

Because of these budget constraints, schools and hospitals often have older, out of date BAS. And more often than not, they have multiple BAS in their buildings, so they don’t have a single point of entry into monitoring, controlling and operating their facility. Relying on an older system limits their ability to maximize energy savings. The differences in capabilities between the newest BAS on the market and older systems is like comparing an advanced smartphone to a turn of the century flip phone.

Recent Advances in BAS
From a big picture perspective, the biggest development in the BAS universe is the migration of building monitoring and control systems to the cloud. The more powerful data acquisition and analytics that cloud computing provide enable healthcare and school facility managers to understand more deeply how and where they are wasting dollars – be it utilities (energy or water) or manpower (operations and maintenance).BAS

Zeroing in on the systems themselves, the most advanced BAS software has become increasingly sophisticated, while also being easier to use. This is critical, because the most powerful software is of limited benefit if your people can’t figure out how to use it, or you must spend tens of thousands of dollars to train them.

To make BAS software more instinctual, well-appointed programs include a number of key features and benefits. Among these are graphical images that provide strong visual cues of building system status to see what’s happening at a glance – for example, whether a surgical suite is properly staged for a scheduled operation or if the HVAC in a given school classroom is turned down since the class is on a field trip today. Additionally, in some software, a summary page enables an operator to quickly find areas of the building that are outliers, and to change multiple HVAC setpoints or modes in a single operation.

Software also now is being built on HTML5 – the latest version – which untethers facility operators from their desks by allowing them to access the BAS from their cellphone or tablet. The benefit is your crews can accomplish more tasks, which in turn helps you save on staffing costs by not necessarily needing to hire more people.

Another area in which BAS are advancing is alarms – crucial for alerting facility managers when something is going wrong. For example, Alerton’s Ascent Compass software’s alarm manager provides a single user interface for managing all alarms in your facility, along with metrics on how well your people respond to and resolve alarms.

On the near horizon with such software is advanced reporting features that simplify report generation, which will be especially beneficial for helping healthcare facilities better meet the requirements of entities such as the Joint Commission.

Make the Case for Upgrading Your Facility’s BAS
Many of the most recent BAS advances, like those discussed above, make the systems easier to use. While that can be a powerful ancillary argument for why your facility should upgrade its system, CEOs and CFOs usually look for tangible dollar benefits.

Unlike many building systems in which the financial benefits are indirect, or not readily calculated, BAS provide measurable bottom line savings. We’re not talking pennies, but tens of thousands of dollars or more per year, depending on the building type and size.

Building Automation SystemsBAS save building owners/operators from $0.20 to $0.40 per square foot in utility costs per year, estimates the Minneapolis/St. Paul area’s Metropolitan Energy Policy Commission. For an average-size hospital or grade school of 75,000 square feet, that means a savings of $15,000 – $30,000 annually, year-after-year. And, unlike energy saving features like insulated windows, where you have to trust that the savings are real, BAS provide the data to show how much you’re saving – and, help you identify opportunities for saving even more. If your management team wonders what leads to those cost savings, here are a few things you can tell them.

The most obvious way is by running building systems only when they’re needed. For example, setting timers in the BAS to automatically lower the HVAC temperature set point after hours or on weekends in schools, or in certain hospital zones overnight.

Going a step farther is to only turn on equipment in occupied areas, which requires occupancy sensors. This can go beyond a simple on/off for occupied/unoccupied modes, and include a standby mode, which balances energy savings and costs and helps reduce equipment cycling. Whereas the unoccupied mode might set the thermostat 10 degrees F lower than the occupied mode, the standby mode might lower the set point only 3 degrees F, to reduce heating demand, yet preserve comfort for occupants who are momentarily out of the space during regular facility hours (such as a school class that goes to a brief assembly or outside for a fire drill). Scheduling could then set the HVAC system to the lower unoccupied level during the facility’s customary closed or low-demand hours.

Beyond HVAC, the most important building system to control is lighting, which is the second largest energy use category in schools and hospitals, accounting for approximately 20% of total energy consumption, according to the U.S. Dept. of Energy (DOE). As with heating and cooling systems, a BAS can help here, too, by either turning off or dimming the lights when they’re not needed.

What’s Next for BAS?
As powerful as today’s advanced BAS are, they still rely on a human to take action. Currently BAS present fault detection alarms and other data for people to handle but, eventually, the systems will be able to take that action on their own. Yes, robots are coming to a BAS near you!

Kevin Callahan has 39 years of experience in the building control technologies field, including control systems design and commissioning, facilities management and user training. Callahan can be contacted at Kevin.callahan@alerton.com.