August 2010

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As an industry we must address this issue with greater care than what we have done over the last decade. There needs to be standards developed to govern a far greater synergy between original specification and commissioned results. 

Nirosha Munasinghe
Nirosha Munasinghe
MBusIT BSc BE (Hons) (Melb)
Product Development Manager,
Open General

Contributing Editor

Web technology, cloud computing, virtual servers and open protocol standards are some common drivers of the BAS industry today and for tomorrow. These technologies define the core elements of building automation systems and the future will define further enhancements to these technologies by natural technological revolution. However, we must remember that technology is just a strategic enabler to complete a specific task in a better and improved method, to gain competitive advantage. In order to fully utilize the powerful functionality of the technology, we must go back to the basics. The basics include the improvement in achieving an improved learning curve to use these technologies, when to use the technology, how to use the technology and to verify the operation of the technology. This article examines the common problems in the BAS industry that need to be addressed to obtain full benefits of the technology.

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BAS product manufacturers incorporate many features into their systems to improve the process of building management. These include elegant energy dashboards, data logging, improved alarming methods; however in most cases these functionalities are underutilized. The root cause of the problem is the lack of expertise of the system integrator implementing the system. In general, the system integrator has a basic knowledge of the system and only that knowledge is transferred into the final product of the building. The end user does not realise the full functionality and therefore it is not utilized during the lifecycle of a building. The common pattern in the BAS industry is as long as the comfort level is achieved by the BAS system, there are no complaints from the tenant. System integrators have a great understanding of this pattern and also due to time pressures of the project they complete the minimum work required to obtain comfort levels and the rest is history. The building managers who manage the lifecycle of the buildings obtain minimum training to operate the main functions of the BAS and the specified functionalities are never tracked back. In my personal experience, it is clear that the building managers of larger facilities such as universities and hospitals have good understanding of the BAS, whereas the building managers of medium to small facilities lack the broader knowledge of BAS systems. For example, I recently completed a system analysis of a large government research facility to further update the BAS with multiple vendors. The facility manager’s understanding of the BAS installed three years ago was that it was a fully native BACnet system. Our analysis found that the system contained a BACnet gateway to a fully propriety backend system, making system integration with other vendors extremely difficult. The facility management did not understand the intricacies of the system.

In order to improve the learning curve, organizations must invest in better education and knowledge management. Ten years ago, a system integrator could employ a trade electrician to implement a system. Now systems are integrating with each other and networks, which require expertise both in mechanical controls, networking and IT to proficiently complete the task. Therefore there needs to be better screening processes when selecting staff to implement a BAS. The building managers need to better understand what they are receiving for their investment. ‘Open’ is a very powerful word in the BAS industry and many assume it is the solution to their problems. It is clear that open systems are opening up a plethora of options, but it is not as simple as what many assume. Therefore, building managers need to be better educated about their systems.

One of the fundamental problems in the BAS industry that does not have a clear solution is commissioning. A building can have state of the art controls products, but without proper commissioning the full functionality will never be realized. In the building construction life cycle, the BAS is generally the last piece of work to be completed and combined with reduced construction programs, limited commissioning durations and a lack of expert personnel, this collectively leads to poorly commissioned systems. From personal experience, I have seen the system integrator installing the BAS begin the work as tenants are moving into the building. Similarly, I have seen BAS controllers installed in mechanical boards to monitor energy but never programmed to do the task. Therefore in most cases at the end of the commissioning phase, the end result does not comply with the original specification.

As an industry we must address this issue with greater care than what we have done over the last decade. There needs to be standards developed to govern a far greater synergy between the original specification and commissioned results. In order to tackle these issues in Australia, the Australian Institution of Refrigeration, Air Conditioning and Heating (AIRAH) has formed a work group to set up a guide for better controls and commissioning. These manuals, entitled Australian Best Practice Guideline for Controls and the Australian Best Practice Guideline for Commissioning and Retro-commissioning, will be published next year.

Keep it Simple
There are many specifications with many optimizing control algorithms, which do not behave in reality as in theory, or the engineer programming the system lacks the knowledge to program the system, which is preventing simple control strategies from performing. Also if optimizing algorithms are implemented, it has to be carefully tested and retuned throughout the lifecycle of the building. The expectation of continual tuning of a system is not realistic due to time pressures and lack of understanding. I recently surveyed a group of senior project engineers, building managers and building service technicians on their understanding of the core algorithm behind the controls industry, the Proportional, Integral, Derivate (PID) algorithm. The questions were related to the underlying theory of the PID algorithm and many were only able to answer 50% of the questions correctly. It was clear from the questionnaire that the group was able to tune a control system by trial and error by manipulating the algorithm parameters but when it came to explaining the meaning of each parameter, it was a clear failure.

[an error occurred while processing this directive] Another common pattern in the BAS industry over the last few years is that many energy management consulting firms are involved in with the BAS. The energy consultant’s primary role is to investigate possible improvements in energy management of the building and make recommendations to BAS. However, the consultants themselves are introducing their own PLCs with algorithms which claim to improve energy management. In such situations the BAS provides an input to the PLCs algorithm and it provides an output to the BAS. For example, the BAS provides the temperatures and the PLCs calculate and outputs optimal speed of the variable speed drive. It is clear that the energy consulting firms are cashing in on the global energy drive and in theory such systems can be used. In reality, the BAS systems becomes very complex due to excessive data sharing between the systems, increasing the probability of system failure. The same functionality can be achieved using the BAS system and with many user friendly enhancements for energy management features by the BAS manufacturers it is becoming far easier to implement the features.

Greater Awareness
BAS is classified as a black box in a building. The powerful nature of the BAS needs to be promoted to the greater public rather than the knowledge being cocooned with the consultants, project engineers, building managers and facility staff. The good news is that controls software is moving towards the web environment and integrating with IT networks, which is accessible to a wider audience. However there are many projects I have seen where the BAS is web enabled but the client is too tentative to merge with the IT network and activate it online. This is a total waste of the technology and again it comes down to the proper education of the stakeholders. The area in which BAS is starting to interact with the general public is through energy management. However there does need to be continuous improvement in BAS software to report different levels of data to different audiences. BAS systems must interact far beyond facility management to begin the feedback loop for continual improvement in the performance of buildings.

In summary the BAS industry needs to address the following basic issues to fully utilize the powerful features of the BAS technology.

  1. Better means of educating and transferring knowledge to all the stakeholders of buildings.

  2. A better screening process when selecting staff.

  3. The building managers need to have better understanding of what they are receiving for their investment.

  4. Do not assume the word ‘Open’ in a document will solve all problems.

  5. Continual development of standards to govern a far greater synergy between original specification and commissioning results.

  6. Keep it simple. We must complete the simple control strategies before attempting the complex algorithms.

  7. Greater awareness of importance of the BAS to the end tenant to begin the feedback loop for continual improvement of building performance.

  8. Technology is only part of the solution; it is just a strategic enabler.


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