My daughter just turned 14 months old, and it is absolutely fascinating to watch her grow and learn. My wife and I joke that she’s a lot like my sister because she’s constantly pressing to find out what is and is not allowed. A few days ago, our toddler put a puzzle piece in her mouth after my wife had asked her not to. She then proceeded to pick up every puzzle piece she could find and put them each in her mouth, just to see what would happen.

I sometimes wonder what myriad of benefits end-users of building automation systems (BASs) could draw from asking open-ended questions about the capabilities of their systems. I think many people would be surprised at the possibilities, especially if the system has been installed in the last five years or so.

Commercial property managers might not realize the systems they’ve operated for years are actually capable of managing tenant requests for scheduled HVAC usage after-hours and that they can help them generate invoices for these actions after the fact. A building owner might not have any idea a system could curtail its own electrical demand by making subtle adjustments to temperature set points in alternating zones so as not to impact any one area more than others.

I sat in a meeting last month where I got a glimpse of the benefits. A new facilities manager at a local private school had just started his job only weeks ago, and he was hoping to get a handle on the BAS he was inheriting. Teachers had asked why their classrooms’ thermostats were not letting them make adjustments to the set points, so he had an agenda to get this sorted out. He thought something was broken, so he was intrigued to learn that this was actually a typical building management system feature (that local control could be given and taken away selectively). He brought up one of the other issues he was working on, related to the outdoor parking lights using excess energy. We talked for a while about utility billing rate structures, photocells, and time clocks, and he walked away from the meeting with many more ideas about the latent potential he had in his BAS.

Besides asking open-ended questions about what their systems are capable of, I think end-users could benefit from asking open-ended questions about what the best practices, costs, and risks are for different scenarios of change. For example, suppose a property manager has just taken over management for a building in the last year, and a tenant fit-up is being planned for. Updating the BAS is but one aspect of many to consider here, but it can be more complicated than one would think. Will there need to be adjustments to account for communication alarms when certain equipment is removed and, therefore, stops communicating? I’ve recently heard about a case where a community college was having renovations done in parts of its main building, and it was found that the central HVAC system was running in heating mode all night long. An issue was found where the BAS was reading 32°F in multiple zones because of disconnected sensors, and the logic was interpreting the average zone temperature to be very low, causing a need for heating.

I’ve heard about another case recently of a pair of buildings next to each other. The same institutional owner and property manager have owned and managed these buildings for at least a decade now. At some point during that tenure, a single BAS front-end was installed and used to operate both buildings, out of convenience. In the last few months, one of the buildings has now been sold to a new owner, and so the system will need to be “chopped up,” and the orphaned half will need to have a new front-end added. Fortunately, the system has flexible architecture options, so it’s going to be a relatively affordable project. However, this might not have been the case with a different brand of system, and I’m not convinced that the due-diligence process included a plan for this situation.

I know that in this line of thinking, I’m saying we should ask “what if,” and uncertainty is expensive and frustrating. While it’s true that leaning on a qualified vendor is one of the best ways to take out the guesswork, I think there’s worth in being an educated customer. Asking open-ended questions like this can help an end-user push the limits of their vendors and products and, after all, that’s progress. In my experience, the most sophisticated customers are the ones who ask the most questions and get the most comprehensive results for their money.