by Leon Hawkins
The world around us is ever changing, and technology has become more engrained in our daily activities. The emergence of smart phones has forever changed communications and how we interact with technology. In response, we have become more demanding of our technology and what we expect from it. How did we ever survive not having up to the minute notifications on traffic, sports, stocks, breaking news, or being able to order your morning coffee and have it ready at the nearest coffee shop?
The same is certainly true when we think of controls and building management. There has been a significant amount of change in recent years. With the emergence of faster processing and the evolution of cloud computing, a completely new set of features that can help building owners operate and manage their facilities have become available. New technologies like automated fault detection, building energy management systems, standardized tagging, along with new sensor technologies are creating more complexity in buildings. It makes the most capable controls technicians’ head spin, never mind the mechanical contractor or the engineer designing the system.
The desire to achieve sustainability in buildings today has also increased the importance of building automation and controls. Control systems provide the ability to monitor and manage sustainability targets automatically. By incorporating intelligence and analytics into the control system, aligned with corporate sustainability goals, not only will targets be met but active notifications will be sent when there are system failures or energy performance is outside of the normal range.
The notion of integration is central to LEED certified or other green buildings. How different systems interact with each other and how a system can operate efficiently, while minimizing the risk of failure, is critical.
Ten years ago, control systems were highly focused on open protocols and interoperability. Today, these are entry-level requirements, and it is expected that a system will communicate freely with any system imaginable. From sensors to pumps, boilers, variable speed drives, to now complex cloud-based analytics tools which will tell us when an actuator has failed, or if the fan has been left on in the bathroom too long. The value of these new systems and technologies has been extremely difficult to quantify in terms of their cost-benefit, but even more difficult to document and specify. When they are specified, there are often many holes in the rest of the system. In many cases the specification will be developed with a specific product or service in mind, however consideration isn’t given to how this will interact with the rest of the buildings systems, their users, and how building operators will manage the building as a whole.
Have buildings gotten more complex? Absolutely, and they will continue to. Architects and engineers are continually trying to innovate and present owners with a unique design and new ways to build, manage and operate a building. It is their key differentiator. Without it we wouldn’t have the amazing skylines with beautiful and unique buildings, or we would have the same school or hospital designs, and we would miss out on the advances in those industries. Contractors have done a commendable job in responding to new designs and developing new methods of fabrication and better tools, but is it enough to mitigate the problems after the building is turned over?
The challenge in building automation has always been in how buildings operate, and how control systems can manage complexities within those unique facilities. How does a complex component with internal controls work with a system of other equipment, each with its own set of parameters for temperatures, pressures, and operating times? Who do you call when one of the components fails because of undefined parameters? Where does a new building owner look when they cannot achieve comfort in their facility, or they have premature failure of equipment? And who is ultimately responsible to repair and diagnose?
While tedious, it is important that complexities are sorted out during design, and a comprehensive sequence of operations is developed upfront for the controls contractor to implement. Without a crystal ball, it becomes extremely difficult for a technician to understand how the components of a building are meant to interact. Left alone, or without proper documentation, the building will be left with many challenges which will extend beyond the commissioning and warranty periods and untimely failures will plague the systems. Fingers will inevitably be pointed in multiple directions and the primary consequence is an unhappy owner.
So, how do we prevent this in the future? Colleges and universities have recognized the need for greater training on control systems, and have recently begun incorporating training programs around system and controls design. Mechanical consultants could be better positioned during detailed design by incorporating controls engineers embedded in their offices, or local partners, and validating the performance of the system plus ensuring a detailed scope and sequence of operations are provided in the specifications.
Choose partners carefuly
As a contractor, it is critical to select a partner who has knowledge of complete system design and is familiar with the complexities of the overall systems and how they interact with the building. Strong service capability is crucial, and a relationship between the owner and controls contractor is crucial to overcome the hurdles of building operations.
Invest time early in the system design, develop a comprehensive sequence of operation, and you will prevent future issues while saving time and money.
Leon Hawkins, MBA, B.Eng., PMP, is the energy services and controls leader for Trane Canada and has 19 years of experience in building technologies.