Most commercial building system designs including controls and building automation are carefully constructed to balance between reliability, performance, efficiency, and budget. On all projects, the need to provide reliability, accuracy, and safety need to be carefully considered as part of the overall design, but when we start looking at critical environments, these requirements become paramount in the design process.

Critical environments refer to the areas or systems that are considered to be mission critical or in other words facilities or areas where losing systems such as lights, power, or HVAC would result in health, safety, or major economic impacts. Some examples of areas often considered as critical can include:  data centers (generally Tier 2 or higher), laboratories, critical areas in hospitals (i.e. operating rooms, isolation rooms, labs), call centers, etc.

Start by Defining Requirements

When designing controls for a critical environment, it is imperative to start with a solid understanding of the operational parameters. What areas would be considered critical? Does a certain range of temperatures and humidity levels need to be maintained? Are there specific needs for pressure relationships, air changes, or outdoor air? Do these requirements vary when the space is occupied or unoccupied? Are there special emergency modes (such as a purge) required? What are the requirements for uptime and the impact of a loss of power or space conditioning? Documentation of the owner’s requirements can be used to drive and test the project design and implementation. 

Special Design Considerations

Design work should be driven from the owner’s requirements. Much of this is fairly straightforward, such as the system selections and specific sequences. In addition, there are several areas of special requirements that are needed for critical environment projects:

Reliability and redundancy. On most critical systems, there is very little tolerance for downtime. This drives the design process to select systems that are redundant and controls that will automatically detect failure and bring on an alternate device. Most control systems gain reliability through the use of a distributed architecture, but for super-critical systems, the use of redundant control systems (either of commercial or industrial grade) should be considered as an option. 

Accuracy. One of the requirements for a critical environment may be very accurate control. For example, some process or laboratory areas may require control and reporting to a fraction of a degree. To achieve this, consider the use of more accurate sensors such as platinum RTD instead of thermistor. 

Reporting. Certain regulated areas, such as pharmaceutical manufacturing, have very specific requirements for reporting. This requires the selection of a control system that can meet these requirements for tracking all changes and data within the system.

Careful consideration should be taken in selecting of both the controls product and contractor for critical environment projects. Some designers elect to utilize industrial style controls (PLC and SCADA) instead of conventional BAS. Others elect to only work with control contractors that have demonstrated experience in working in these critical areas.

In summary, controls for critical environments need to start with a good understanding of the requirements, and drive through the design process, contractor selection, installation, and commissioning.