Every successful project starts with a framework. A vision statement. A blueprint. The editors of Engineered Systems are proud to present The Blueprint — a monthly Q&A interview with HVACR engineering’s leading voices. These one-on-one discussions will examine the trade’s history, current industry trends, the factors shaping the sector’s future, and more.
mCloud’s AI-powered solutions are designed to help businesses all over the world get the most out of their energy assets. By tapping into the power of data, mCloud is committed to curbing energy waste, maximizing power production, and getting the most out of critical energy infrastructure.
Recently, Patrick O’Neill, president, North America, mCloud, met with Herb Woerpel to discuss the company’s AssetCare platform, the importance of connected workers, and more.
Engineered Systems: Patrick, thanks for your time today. Could you please introduce yourself to our audience?
Patrick O’Neill: Sure. I have a Ph.D in mechanical engineering from the University of Illinois, where my work focused on measuring airflows within multizone buildings. Following college, I spent some time working for Pacific Northwest National laboratory doing building simulation and energy efficiency research before working at Honeywell International as vice president of technology and development. I’ve also been an entrepreneur and founded and sold several companies before joining mCloud as the head of its North American region. Along the way, I’ve also managed to publish more than 50 articles on building systems and operations.
Engineered Systems: One of mCloud’s signature offerings is its AssetCare platform. In fact, this solution is touted as the “only asset management platform combining IoT, AI, and the cloud to ensure assets continuously operate at peak performance.” How does it work and what applications is it best geared toward?
O’Neill: AssetCare is the primary means through which we unlock the true potential of underserved assets. We achieve this by deploying smart thermostats, motion and contact sensors, light controls, and other means of acquiring information, then bringing it all together through our AssetCare software, backed by an AI-assisted team of professionals to provide 24/7 monitoring.
Our customers come in many sizes and from different industries, but we aim to provide a solution that can address any need. That might be a manager at a local church who forgot to turn off one of their HVAC units. Or, maybe, it’s a restaurant chain that isn’t optimizing its air conditioning properly for the number of people it’s seeing throughout the day. On the industrial level, it could be an oil and gas plant that’s losing productivity due to a neglected heat exchanger. Through the information fed through our sensors, AssetCare and our team are able to identify these issues and alert our customers before they threaten their bottom line.
Through our service, we increase the overall health of our customers’ businesses in terms of both performance and efficiency, rolling together operations, optimization, and maintenance under one roof while cutting energy costs and saving them money in the long term.
The three key segments where we drive energy efficiency and production: commercial buildings, renewables – wind turbines especially – and process industries. Much like YouTube has democratized the creation of video content, we’re doing the same in the world of asset management.
Engineered Systems: We’re rounding the corner on 2020, but, unfortunately, the COVID-19 virus is still a global problem. Please share your perspective on this pandemic and the role IAQ and ventilation can play in mitigating its impact.
O’Neill: The evidence is now overwhelming that airborne droplets and aerosols are important vectors of COVID-19 transmission. As such, the ventilation of indoor spaces plays a critical role in the dilution and purification of the air to mitigate the amount of the pathogen that is in the indoor environment. Studies have also shown that if the relative humidity is too high or low, it can increase the duration that the virus is viable and also impact people’s physiology, potentially making them more susceptible to infection.
Engineered Systems: If I’m a small business and I’m interested in addressing COVID-19 through my HVACR systems, what easy, simple steps should I consider?
O’Neill: There are four steps that should be taken to help ensure that a small business owner provides as safe an environment as possible for their employees and customers:
Step One: HVAC Inspection and Balancing — Engage a skilled, local HVAC contractor to inspect your building systems to ensure they are working properly. The key is to validate that your HVAC system’s airflow is meeting ASHRAE standards for ventilation and air quality. At a minimum, you will want to make sure the amount of fresh air meets ASHRAE requirements based on square footage and occupancy. The inspection should include ensuring outdoor air dampers as well as supply diffusers and return air vents are working properly to ensure a steady flow of fresh air is being evenly distributed throughout the occupied spaces. I also recommend that the system be tested to make sure the airflows are properly balanced, meaning that the proper amount of ventilation air is being provided to each zone. You may need to hire a specialized contractor to perform this service.
Step Two: Filtration — Packaged HVAC systems are the type most commonly used in small commercial buildings. They typically use air filters to remove dust and larger particles with MERV ratings between six and 11. However, to reduce the risk of COVID-19, it’s best to install an air filter rated MERV 13 or above. It’s the minimum filter rating that most experts consider effective for removing a meaningful amount of virus load from the air. If possible, swap out the lower MERV filters for 13 or higher. Unfortunately, a common issue is that the packaged HVAC system won’t accommodate a MERV-13 filter because they are often too thick to fit into the filter tray or have fans that are not powerful enough to work with the higher performance filters.
Step Three: Destroy the Virus — Once you’ve increased fresh airflow and have implemented the best filtration that is compatible with your HVAC system, the next step is to install a system that will actually kill the virus. Many businesses have chosen to implement UV-C light to destroy airborne pathogens. Because UV-C lights can be harmful to humans, it is important to install them properly, so people are not directly exposed. One approach that is often used is to place them in the air ducts. However, it is important to have the lights installed by an expert to ensure that they are powerful enough to kill the virus in fast-moving air.
- Step Four: Monitoring — This last step, though critical, is often overlooked. Real-time monitoring of IAQ will help ensure the mitigation steps mentioned above are actually working. While most monitoring systems won’t tell you how much virus is in the air, by measuring levels of various factors such as CO2, VOCs, humidity, and particulates, you can tell a lot about how the ventilation and filtration systems are performing. An added benefit of IAQ monitoring is that it can also help you adjust HVAC systems to ensure you are using just the right amount of ventilation and associated energy to stay safe, reducing energy costs.
Engineered Systems: mCloud recently acquired kanepi. Please introduce us to kanepi, its role in the built environment, and why it made sense to bring them into the mCloud family?
O’Neill: Adding kanepi to the mCloud family was an obvious move to us when looking at the powerful synergies that exist between our two companies. Put simply, kanepi’s core offering is taking hard data — asset information — and turning it into actionable intelligence that can be easily parsed visually. Their specialization in information, visualization, and analytics was especially appealing to us in terms of integration with AssetCare.
As it stands, AssetCare brings in a wealth of information from numerous types of sensors that can then be converted into actions. So, what we’re doing there is quite similar. But by combining kanepi’s expertise with visualization and mCloud’s pervasive use of IoT and AI, it brings out the best of both platforms.
We’ve already begun integrating our technologies, and the benefits are proving to be enormous. The big advantage here is data that used to be limited to a back office is now made easily available to people out in the field with insights and relationships within that data highlighted in a way that lets people take action in real time.
Engineered Systems: At mCloud Connect in September, Pat Kelly, the company’s director of process solutions, discussed the importance of Connected Workers, and explained how every worker is a connected worker. Please extrapolate.
O’Neill: Talking about connected workers at mCloud Connect this year was especially poignant, given our move to a virtual conference due to the pandemic, and Pat certainly captured that moment. At mCloud, we see connected workers not just as the future of industry but also the present.
COVID-19 has pulled back the curtain on the view that standardized remote work and management were ideas for a far-flung future. Suddenly, we’ve all found ourselves doing our jobs through email, Zoom, and other forms of virtual communication. Entire conferences and other annual events have shifted into the virtual space and, critically, many companies are beginning to realize they may actually operate more efficiently in this way.
The advent of 3D digital twins has made this especially palatable for industrial sectors. Today, we have the capability to bring a massive amount of data together — the kind critical for regular maintenance and diagnostic work once sealed away in cumbersome paperwork or manual investigation — and streamlined it into a smooth operation. A worker who once may have had to spend all day walking back and forth across a plant, taking photos, and checking in with supervisors, can now have everything he needs for the day at his fingertips, including instant access to remote experts who can virtually assist him at a moment’s notice.
Of course, a big part of seizing this moment is realizing how to utilize this new connected paradigm responsibly. There was a survey in USA Today that showed 54% of respondents felt working from home had made them more productive, but on the other side of that, a survey by Monster showed that 52% aren’t making plans to take time off like they would have before.
Unfortunately, our ability to create technology far outpaces our ability to use it well. A great example is email and the age of the Blackberry, when people took a little while to learn to have a healthy disconnect from their work. Humans are binary creatures, but sometimes we suffer for swinging too far in one direction.
While it may be short sighted to say that we can do absolutely everything better remotely, it remains true that in 2020, many of us became connected workers — and those connections won’t fade when the pandemic does. The future will grow increasingly connected, and we see AssetCare as a core piece of the puzzle when figuring out how to manage the connections between workers, operators and assets.
Engineered Systems: Undoubtedly, 2020 has been a rough year for many of us personally and professionally. How has mCloud emerged from the chaos of 2020?
O’Neill: Just as you say, 2020 hasn’t been easy for everyone — retail, restaurants, industrial sectors, and just about everyone else has been affected in some way by COVID-19. At mCloud, we see ourselves as part of the solution, so we’ve stepped up our involvement with all of these industries. The benefits of remote asset management have become obvious during this pandemic.
We’ve seen an especially notable uptick in requests from the building space regarding IAQ solutions. There’s definitely an awareness in the market of how the solutions we’re offering are going to help companies successfully emerge from the chaos of 2020 themselves.
Engineered Systems: Any major announcements planned for 2021 our audience should be aware of?
O’Neill: We’ll be bringing building solutions, especially IAQ and IoT, more prominently into the fold with new applications to serve our customers better. One of the most exciting topics that I can talk about now is a big push in the industry space for natural language processing, which makes interfacing with AssetCare via headset easier than ever.
This is a real game-changer for workers in the field. With traditional voice commands, something like taking a photo via headset, where both hands may be busy, would require you to go through six or seven steps, each with its own rigid voice commands. But natural language processing lets you talk to your headset in simple language — collapsing those six or seven steps into a simple phrase like “OK, take a picture.” We’ve done demos of this with workers in the field, and, after trying it once, they can’t imagine going back to how things used to be — it’s a really exciting development.
Engineered Systems: Seeing that the AHR Expo and many other conferences and events have been cancelled, how does the company intend to fill the sales and marketing void this has created?
O’Neill: Throughout this year, we’ve really stepped up our presence in digital and virtual events. We’ve participated in a number of conferences and panels, and even moved our own annual conference, mCloud Connect, to a virtual gathering. Just like we do for our customers with AssetCare, we’ve had to look inward and think creatively about the ways in which we can build relationships virtually. We may not be able to see our peers in person, but as we’ve all discovered together, there are still many ways for us to forge new relationships, strengthen existing ones, and create new opportunities by taking full advantage of virtual presence.
Engineered Systems: As we wrap this up, if you could relay one lasting message to consulting and/or specifying engineers, what would it be?
O’Neill: It’s my belief that consulting and specifying engineers will play an absolutely critical role in helping to “future proof” our built environment so that diseases such as COVID-19 will have a much harder time spreading within buildings.
Engineered Systems: If readers are interested in connecting with you or mCloud, in general, where should they turn?
O’Neill: We’re always on the lookout for great partners who would like to work with us to get their customers connected. The best way to reach us is via our website, https://www.mcloudcorp.com/contact-us.