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Modern Missteps in Energy and Building Management Systems by Dan Fulmer

  • Over the past 2 years, I have seen more and more missteps taken by facilities managers and building owners, related to “green” or sustainability. These have typically been both costly and ineffective in meeting their goals. First off, the main focus being missed, seems to be a lack of an overall, global, holistic view of the building as a system of systems. Each system should be considered and included in any sustainability plan. Some of these systems are mechanical, electrical, or simply insulation and other sub-systems. When a manager/owner should call in a professional (who this is, is also a murky area) to audit or analyze their building, they often rely on a few inaccurate sources. In-house support in many cases, which means someone simply did some research in the internet and found something they thought was “cool” or looked like it would work for them. This is typically done without regard to technical shortcomings, functional issues and how it would really benefit the system. The best professionals, in my opinion, to deliver these services and products, is your Systems Integrator or ESCin some fields. Why, read on and see, but here are a few reasons; they have been integrating disparate systems for more than 20 years (it is what we do), the equipment they use is often designed to speak with devices using multiple protocols, the equipment is designed specfically to offer a better, often custom, user interface than typically comes with these various sub-systems/devices.
  • Since many sustainability efforts involve electrical work, many hire their local electrician, who is typically not versed in any of the areas involved (I encourage them to become moreso, but clearly most are not), other than being licensed to connect them. I saw one instance where an electrician was asked to install some LED lighting, replacing existing fixtures. The electrician hadn’t done any LED work to date and did the old “cover their butt” method of way overcharging for the system, in case something didn’t work out. This resulted in a price more than 5X what is should have been and the customer did nothing, which obviously didn’t lower any utility bills. When someone does specify LEDs to replace an existing light, it seems they do the most minimal amount of research possible and purchase 1000 units of “not the best part," or worse, completely wrong part, before ever testing. I suggest hiring a lighting professional who is at least familiar with LED, preferably with some experience in control system and dimming, as this also requires some special selecting of LED lights.

We worked with one customer, whose corporate HQ had spent over $500k developing a system that only provided electrical consumption data from 24 hours ago, and allowed no control. So, now they can see what happened yesterday at noon, but still can’t do anything about it. What good is a system that doesn’t report real time data, in today’s environment, not too mention, how can you manage and change things from the past, with an active system? For way less than 1/2 what they spent, we could have custom designed a system to do much more. Another customer had their local electrician come in an install $50,000 worth of occupancy sensors to save money. What no one understood was how to best install and setup those occupancy sensors. In this case, the electrician actually did the worse thing they could. Cut the light switch out of the circuit and put an occ sensor inline with the light in each room/area/zone. This resulted in several problems. First off, no manual controls or over-rides. So, no matter what, the lights now only worked with the occupancy sensor. There is no way to turn it on manually, no way to turn it off manually (what if I am giving a slide show or projector presentation – whoops). Another issue was placement of the occupancy sensors. The sensor were not placed properly nor had much setup or adjustments available to them, which resulted in poor sensing, lights turning off when the room was occupied and vice versa. One area was full of cubicles (probably not the best place for occupancy sensors in the first place) which resulted in a hilarious display of arms waiving around every 10 minutes or so. In the end, that customer basically wasted $50,000 and not only realized no savings, but also ended up with more problems than they started with and will end up spending even more money to fix it.

The best way (meaning most bang for your buck, most effective, most integrated, most able to control anything) to install and wire in any sensor or system is to centrally control all systems. This can be simply running communications wires between sub-systems or between sub-systems and a main control unit. Using the occupancy sensor mentioned above as an example, a better, more versatile occupancy sensor could/should have been chosen. Occ sensors come in many flavors and various levels of quality, but generally fall in the $80-150 range. Some have daylight harvesting, some don’t. Daylight harvesting, a photo cell basically, allows the user to adjust each occupancy sensor so that if there is X amount of natural light in the room (from the sun we presume) then the lights will NOT turn on, even when occupied. This saves a lot more than just occupancy sensor-ing. Next, the occupancy sensors could be connected to a central control system, as opposed to directly in-line with lights. This offers a plethora of new opportunities and cost little more (sometimes less due to less electrical work) than the method mentioned above. If your occ sensor is connected to a controller, now you can use that sensor for any device in that room. So, if this is a conference room, that same occupancy sensor could turn on the lights, HVAC and anything else located in the room, via programming. For monitoring systems, it could tell a facilities manager, via remote software, that the room is or is not occupied, allowing them to control or maintain the room based on whether it is actually occupied or not. The sensor could also be used to control any other features in the room, from drapes and shades to temperature, based on occupancy or natural lighting. So, as you see, simply installing a sensor in a more integrated fashion can give a great deal more in functionality, for little or no more money.Speaking of drapes and shades, we’ve seen many corporate board rooms that install electric shades/screens yet do not integrated those either. Controlling shades and drapes can be a way to keep major amounts of heat out of an unused room. These too, can be controlled automatically, based on various sensors, timers, etc. So aphotocell could be set to close the drapes whenever light is too bright in a room, or a timer could tell the drapes/shades to close between the hours of A and B (when the sun shines directly in a room). This saves energy, time, wear and tear on furniture and flooring and more.

Several other sensors and systems are great examples of how to better use and install a system. For instance, when doing a renovation or build-out, most businesses are already getting several components of the systems that can be integrated. Most are getting a security system, HVAC system, even an access control system. By simply specifying and purchasing systems that are able to communicate with eachother (typically little or no more cost), you get a much more effective and robust system. So, your security, HVAC and access control can now work in tandem to create benefits such as locking doors and turning off HVAC when the security is armed, or locking the doors when only one person is in the office (secure the building). By integrating more systems, lighting control, audio/video and adding more sensors to a central controller, you can have a super robust and completely effective and efficient energy management system that rivals what is seen as the standards on the market and save more money.

A photo cell attached to one light is OK (this is what your electrician will do, put one on each light, outside your building), but a photocell connected to a controller that talks to all the lights in the building, allows for almost unlimited uses and programming of various sub-systems in the building, and you buy ONE photo cell, not 100. An occupancy sensor tied directly to one light can actually do more harm than good, but a occ sensor connected to a central controller, can be used to not only control lights, but HVAC, drapes, AV and more, for little or no extra financial outlay.

One thing we continually see in high-end, residential homes and some commercial establishments, is folks being talked into high-efficiency HVAC systems that are often oversized, instead of looking at better ways of reducing their cooling needs. So, instead of getting the highest SEER rated HVAC system, focus on how to make the buildings envelope more efficient and leak less, thus in turn, requiring a smaller HVAC system and saving money in both areas. The so called low hanging fruit are usually simpler, cheaper and easier to accomplish than replacing entire systems. It is not always about technology either, but in getting that holistic approach down, so you know precisely where to direct your efforts and dollars and can determine a real ROI and measurable rewards. Also, it is not neccesary to use BACNet, Modbus, or Metasys or other industry communications standards. These have all been around for some time and work well, but often mean additional communications equipment such asField Servers that convert one protocol to another. These all claim to be open protocols, but rarely are, often having their own flavors and designed in a proprietary way. Most system can communicate via RS232/485/422, TCP/IP, I/O, or a number of other means, any of which can be mixed and matched in the same system. So you do NOT need all BACNet equipment or 100 percent Modbus system to fully inegtrate, in fact, most of the system we’ve done, require a multitude of protocols or languages as we are talking to new and old equipment. The key here is a controller that can talk multiple languages.

Energy monitoring or usage monitoring can be done in many facilities with existing metering equipment. Eaton and many other manufacturers also offer multiple communications methods to “talk” with their products, which in many cases, are already installed in the electrical rooms of many facilities. With a little research, one can simply “plug-into” these units and get detailed data on electrical usage and consumption, negating the need to purchase a new metering system. This brings up one last point, energy monitoring. Energy Monitoring is a nice, neat, cool feature, but in the end, it is little more than a novelty after 30 days or so, as people will stop watching it and will neglect to adjust things. Thus, in our opinion, any energy monitoring device, must be integrated with a main control system. This allows for full control and management of consumption, so now a system can react, automatically, to adjust various things based on usage. For instance, if a manager wants to set a maximum electrical usage stop, then once the building approaches a set number of KW hours, the system can do several things; set back HVAC in unused areas (based on occ sensors), adjust lighting in same unused areas, etc. If you go to generator power or use solar power with inverters, you can set various metrix that allow the system to make adjustments based on energy produced, used, run-times, and more. It simply leads to a more integrated and robust system.

HVAC is another major area with issues of interoperability. HVAC installers typically have little or no working knowledge of anything related to a buildings other systems, thus a traditional BMS/Building Management System basically only controls the HVAC system and are proprietary and don’t share parts, sensors and communicate well. Another recent example is an HVAC system designed and installed, supposedly, with integration in mind, by engineers, but everyone on the HVAC side neglected to see if it could actually be integrated with anything, except their own $5000 DOS looking software, that did give remote connectivity, but otherwise didn’t integrate with anything. This was done before the integration firm was hired or consulted with (another reason to work with a holistic view point from the start and work early with your Systems Integration firm). Furthermore, after much investigation, it was found the entire system could have been designed with BACNet, for nearly the same cost, but now was a $30k+ upgrade, to a system that cost a little more than that. BACNet, the “new” buzz word of HVAC has been around since 1996 and was immediately adopted by many HVAC manufacturers, Alerton being one of the first to offer a complete system. However, it is mainly used to make the various components of a manufacturers system talk “within” that system (offering more individual control) and less focus has been given, and in many cases deterred, from outside/external communications to 3rd party products/systems.

Many of the “newer” systems claim to use and be BACNet compatible, but in fact, have tweaked their systems to only talk with their systems and components. You can still get converters, known as Field Servers to help these communicate with standard controllers on the market, but they are rather expensive. So BACNet does not guarantee that you can integrate something, if the manufacturer is preventing outside parties from doing exactly that. I suggest choosing a different HVAC system, not more expensive, but one that is more interoperable (more on this in the next Blog). Manufacturers should start to open their products up to more interoperability. Certainly integrating any product with more and different products and systems, isn’t going to diminish the quality of that product. I argue the opposite in fact, integrating products properly, gives what I call theBASF effect – “we don’t make the things, we make them better.”

These are just a few examples of mis-steps, omissions and mistakes we see many making in today’s jump into “going green“. If one would do a little more to analyze the main systems and get a good overview of your building’s sub-systems, it would go a long way to help identify problem areas? Once you do this, it, or a professional, can assist in identifying the low hanging fruit for your buildings energy optimization plan. Planning is the key, hiring someone who is versed in all of these areas (not necessarily a pro in each area, but knowledgeable in each area that may be integrated, so they can help you envision these unrealized benefits and needs and get the most out of the “green” or sustainable products or systems that you purchase. This is not rocket science, nor is any of this new. This is technology, companies like Fultech, have been using for nearly 2 decades. We have 100's of using similar systems now, that have been operational for 15+ yrs and many buildings. The difference is simply a new, holistic way, of looking at energy efficiency. Instead of doing things in a sub-system by sub-system fashion, look at the entire building as one system and how to make the entire system more efficient. This also means one important key thing. A systemdesigned in this fashion, is also almost completely scalable. Simply adding more of anything is a simple upgrade or add-on. You can do each sub-system at different times, choosing which nets the most savings within your budget at any time. Start with insulation, then HVAC control, then integrate your security and access control, then add lighting control, etc. The bottom line is a good analysis of your building systems, and the building as a system, could provide many more and less expensive methods of improving a buildings energy performance. FulTech has been offering our own IBS/Integrated Building System since 2009 and has had excellent success in both energy savings and functionality with the system. It has proven to be reliable (over 3 years in service with no problems or calls), easy to use (no one has to do anything but swipe thier keycard to gain access to a building and all other aspects – HVAC, lights, etc- are handled automatically), and saves real money and energy (our offices have received an Energy Star score of 93 and we have shaved roughly 30 percent off our electric bills). As we like to say, the proof is in the pudding. If interested in seeing this system operate first hand (see electric bills, Energy Star Score, monthly savings), feel free to schedule an appt to visit our fully operational and sustainable showroom.

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