What’s in it for me?

BAS upgrades: What’s in it for me?

Scholl, Rita

Getting the most out of integrated building systems requires a control strategy that will cut costs and improve occupant comfort

STAFF AND TENANT COMPLAINTS about comfort conditions are on the rise. You’ve taken a good, hard look at the number of overtime and on-call hours your maintenance staff is putting in – and you’re appalled. Your HVAC system’s energy-use performance is below par – maybe even failing. You’re annoyed that there’s only one local contractor capable of fixing your building management system – and you’re tired of paying noncompetitive prices for run-of the-mill repairs. You want to investigate the multiple efficiencies you’ve heard can be achieved by integrating all building systems – or even by running building and data/ telecommunications systems over the same LAN infrastructure.

Choose one of the above, or any combination. There are plenty of very good reasons to consider upgrading your building automation system. Upgrading your BAS can make your facility’s occupants a whole lot happier; dramatically reduce operating costs; help you achieve more efficient preventive maintenance routines; and let you monitor building systems at one or multiple facilities from a remote location, thereby diagnosing and solving problems with minimum legwork.

The process of deciding whether – and how – to upgrade is not without its perils, however. Before examining those, consider some of the advantages offered by digital building automation systems.

Benefits of Advanced systems

For the past few years most building automation systems have had the capability to perform the following functions, even though these features have been widely underutilized:

Energy-saving control strategies

Advanced systems typically incorporate or can be programmed to perform a number of features that reduce energy consumption, such as outside air reset and demand limiting.

Paging software and remote access

These features can greatly reduce maintenance staff overtime. When a problem occurs, the building automation system sends an alarm to the pager of the maintenance person on call. The maintenance person can then access the system remotely from home. Many problems can be dealt with remotely, but, even when a site visit is necessary, the maintenance person can pinpoint the trouble spot precisely and make the necessary repair arrangements, eliminating the hours of drive-time and searching that locating and fixing the problem might otherwise require.

Other software features

Detailed, three-dimensional graphic displays of the facility’s specific HVAC configuration make today’s building automation systems easier to grasp. Many BASs are capable of creating records of every action performed on the system by each member of the maintenance staff. This allows facility managers to easlity identify an amployee’s area of weakness and to address specific training needs.

Integrated Maintenance Management

Most systems can incorporate an integrated maintenance management program. When maintenance management software is an integral part of the BAS, work-orders are generated based on actual maintenance needs, as calculated by the BAS, versus preprogrammed time periods. This feature not only cuts overtime costs but also may actually reduce the number of maintenance hours needed to operate the facility.

The type of building automation system in place will play a large part in determining the right kind of upgrade. For instance, if a facility still uses pneumatic or electric controls, “upgrading” to a building automation system effectively amounts to a full control system replacement. Some components may be reused, but all controllers will be replaced.

On the other hand, the BAS you’re currently using might already be fairly sophisticated. BAS software being produced by a major control system manufacturer today is likely to be a later version of software that’s been around for a long time. If a BAS was purchased from a major manufacturer anytime after about 1985, it may not have to be scrapped to enhance the system’s capabilities significantly or to integrate HVAC operations with other functions.

That does not mean, however, that performing a BAS upgrade is ever a simple matter of just installing the newest software. Planning a successful upgrade even when a fairly sophisticated system is already in place – requires consideration of a number of variables. And, in fact, a good strategy demands careful evaluation of the current system to see whether every advantage is being utilized.

The Open Protocol Option

The building controls industry has undergone a major, if quiet, revolution over the past decade. At the beginning of the 1990s, virtually all building automation systems utilized proprietary protocols; purchasing a BAS from a particular manufacturer meant that the facility would be locked into a permanent relationship with that manufacturer. In most instances, if the facility owner wanted to add new features or to expand the BAS to accommodate a facility addition, there was only one source that could perform the retrofit.

Nowadays, most control manufacturers are developing their systems around open protocols or for compatibility with open protocols. This evolution is due in part to efforts by an engineering organization, the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration, and Air-conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), and a private corporation, Echelon. Both entities created new open protocols: BACnet and LonWorks, respectively. Each of these open protocols is available to any control manufacturer that chooses to develop its system around that protocol.

What this means is now there is a choice among a wide range of products made by different manufacturers – and integration of the various products within one building automation system is possible. Open protocols are available to all manufacturers, not just control companies, meaning that owners can also integrate building controls with their facilities’ energy metering, elevator, access control and security systems.

Owners should be wary of control manufacturers that offer to integrate by utilizing communication gateways in lieu of open protocols. Interface panels remain a potentially troublesome and costly solution. The owner will be burdened with the expense of upgrading the interface panel every time either of the product manufacturers upgrades its software package. Even more dangerous is the risk that manufacturers, at some future point, may stop supporting the upgrades to the interface panel.

Analyzing the Current System

A building automation system upgrade should be performed only if it is likely to provide some real, measurable benefit. To ensure that an upgrade will be worthwhile, a facility executive should carefully examine each of the following areas:

Occupant comfort complaints. How many have been reported, and with what frequency? Are the complaints valid? Are the complaints caused by an ineffective BAS or a poorly designed mechanical system?

Maintenance staff overtime. Is it excessive? How much of it is due to demand maintenance of the BAS or control-related HVAC problems?

Variations in occupancy. Is occupancy stable during specific time periods or does it fluctuate within occupied/unoccupied time periods?

Energy consumption. How do the facility’s energy costs compare with those of similar facilities? The Environmental Protection Agency’s ENERGY STAR(R) Building Label program, www.epa.gov/buildings/label, provides benchmarks for evaluating usage based on facility parameters for office buildings and K-12 educational facilities.

Preventive maintenance. How efficient are the routines currently followed?

Beyond analyzing these specific aspects of BAS operations, it is wise to thoroughly examine the existing HVAC system – design, equipment and controls. All too often, engineers are called in to design a building automation system upgrade, only to discover that the existing HVAC system is not functioning properly because the mechanical system was not properly designed, the BAS was poorly programmed, or the maintenance staff has overridden certain BAS functions. In such cases, an upgrade should not be pursued until the original system is put in proper working order, or it is definitively determined that a BAS upgrade is the best solution to the problem.

Worse than upgrading unnecessarily, though, is going through the trouble and expense of performing an upgrade and then discovering that the upgraded system actually functions worse than the original system.

There are several kinds of errors that might produce this kind of unsatisfactory result:

Inaccurate assessment of the existing control system before upgrade. If the BAS consultant does not accurately identify the operational sequences of the control system that’s being upgraded, the new system may work in ways that the maintenance staff will not expect or understand. Any changes to operational sequences should be fully reviewed by the owner, facility manager and key maintenance staff to ensure that expectations are met.

Ignoring changes that have been made to the existing control system. Has the maintenance staff – attempting to compensate for deficiencies in the mechanical system – made changes to the existing BAS since it was originally installed? If so, and if these changes are not identified and the new sequences are installed according to the original plans, the upgraded BAS will return the mechanical system to its original state, with all the associated problems. It won’t be pretty: Comfort complaints will skyrocket and the maintenance staff will suddenly be overloaded with work.

Optimizing Investment

Those problems are serious, but at least they are correctable. There are other, equally serious problems that can afflict a BAS upgrade that cannot be corrected as easily. For example, a control system that uses a proprietary protocol may be limited to a single contractor when it comes to system repairs, additions or upgrades. Similarly, if a new system is purchased without giving thought to the facility’s potential future needs, it may increase the cost of meeting those needs.

Avoiding such pitfalls takes some work. When looking at the various systems on the market, ask vendor representatives to arrange appointments at similar facilities where their systems are being used – and, when visiting, make sure to talk to the facility manager and key operations people to ask about the system’s benefits and limitations.

Finally, the best advice is to seek the best advice. When designing and installing a system, be sure the firm is qualified and willing to conduct a thorough review of your HVAC system as a whole, making sure that there are not serious flaws in the existing mechanical system and that the mechanical system is capable of meeting the building’s needs. An experienced, independent consulting engineer can do that; the firm can also inform facility executives about upcoming advances in BAS technology and may help in identifying future needs.

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Rita Scholl is a senior engineer, control systems, Cosentini Information Technologies, New York. She has worked in the building automation field for nine years. Her experience includes design of building automation systems and project manage

ment of BAS installations and upgrades for health care, educational, pharmaceutical, industrial, office and government facilities.

E-mail comments and questions to edward.sullivan@tradepress. com.

Copyright Trade Press Publishing Company May 2000

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