If it can open or close, turn on or off, or has a motor, it can be automated. Building automation can be described as a network of a building’s mechanical, HVAC, and lighting controls normally brought back to a central control system. Typical controls configurations in a building include mechanical systems, such as chiller plants, HVAC systems integrating air-handler units (AHUs), and VAVs (variable air volume units) throughout the building and lighting control systems. Building automation systems (BASs) integrate all of these building systems as well as create an energy-efficient facility. While there are dozens of best practices for engineers managing complex facilities, it’s important to get back to the basics of building automation: What can be automated and what are the benefits.
What are the top 3 things companies should know about building automation?
1) Energy Savings — Besides being able to control your facility’s systems, the biggest advantage of building automation is saving energy. When engineered properly, a BAS will allow for the largest energy users in a building (HVAC and mechanical systems) to perform to the best of their abilities while also making sure no energy is wasted. Saving energy through increased equipment efficiency will result in lower OpEx.
2) Remote Monitoring — Remote monitoring of equipment is especially important for facility managers responsible for issues that may occur in remote locations and allows for full HVAC access when facility managers are off-site. With remote monitoring, technicians can see what’s happening and pass along information to fix issues. One example is being able to work with a control technician faster by granting him or her equipment access at any location he or she is working at to help solve issues happening in the facility.
3) Continuous Improvement — With all the monitoring that is capable with a BAS system, you are able to look through history logs and make constant changes to continuously improve the building’s efficiency. The ability to compile and report on data from set periods of time can help facility managers identify patterns of use and adjust equipment accordingly.
What can be automated? How does this automation improve energy efficiency of the systems?
As we identified earlier in this article, if it’s a piece of equipment performing just about any function in your facility, it can probably be automated in one way or another. These are top groups of systems we typically automate.
Mechanical Systems — A major part of a building that can be automated is your mechanical system, including chillers, cooling towers, dry coolers, all of their parts from valve position, and varying speeds from pumps to chiller speeds. These can all be controlled by a BAS system to make for a high efficiency building.
Lighting — An easy option for automating lighting is scheduling based on a building’s use. This ensures they’re not on afterhours when a building is unoccupied. Lighting can also be controlled by sensors that use motion to know when someone walks into a room. The sensors then use sound to know that someone is still present, which helps when occupants are sitting at a desk or working in a lab environment where having lights turning on an off can become an issue. These sensors can also have light level meters that will pick up how much outside light is coming into a room and, with the proper LED lights installed, can dim the fixtures based on natural light levels.
Miscellaneous Building Functions — There are dozens of building functions specific to individual facilities that could be automated. For example, we’ve seen automation for buildings that are gated but want one entrance to be open during a certain time. That gate can be set to a schedule and have the proper relays installed to control this action.
When combining and automating lighting controls with HVAC systems you can gain massive energy savings and a huge amount of building flexibility. Using lighting controls sensors, you can pull data to uncover proper times to heat or cool a space depending on if the space is occupied instead of solely relying on the thermostat to determine if the space needs heating or cooling. When those three parts of a building are integrated to work with each other (HVAC, lighting, controls) you will see a significant improvement in the energy efficiency of your building as well as longer equipment life span(s).
What are common issues companies face when it comes to building automation and how can these issues be resolved?
Having multiple building automation systems that do not work with each other is the biggest issue companies encounter.
Over the years, buildings often have multiple contractors install products that do not work with existing systems. You can miss out on a lot of energy savings by having a system that can’t incorporate all major energy loads in a building. It’s best to find a company that is able to come in and engineer the integration of different systems with each other, as sometimes it’s easier to create a new network of devices and then integrate existing HVAC and mechanical equipment as well as tie in lighting systems to get the full potential out of the BAS.
Another major issue is when companies shy away from allowing remote access to their BAS. To be able to get the most of what has been installed, you need to be able to allow the contractor access to work with your building, help “cash in” on all of the technology installed and continue to check in and make adjustments when needed.
Lastly, we always recommend keeping the structure simple before you go ahead and create a more complex system. Often overlooked, training the facilities group on how to work with the BAS that has been installed and giving them the knowledge they need is critical to building automation success. These systems can become very complex and facilities teams can lack of understanding in how their systems actually operate.
Many energy savings and equipment management solutions can be missed out on by not being able to understand building automation, make adjustments to the tuning loops, read historical data, download reporting, utilize scheduling, and leverage all of the other benefits of these systems. With someone trained properly in building automation, the building should constantly be able to perform in an upward trend of efficiency to the benefit of all occupants.