January 2017

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Lessons from the FDD Trenches

Confusion only seems to be growing as the leading solutions being offered are starting to diverge significantly in their approach, sophistication, and price. 
Brad White
Brad White,
P.Eng, MASc
SES Consulting Inc.

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Despite the explosion in both the number of offerings and the sophistication of fault detection and diagnostic (FDD) software over the last couple of years, there still seems to be a great deal of confusion in the marketplace. This, in turn, seems to be leading to hesitation from some building owners in adoption. This confusion only seems to be growing as the leading solutions being offered are starting to diverge significantly in their approach, sophistication, and price.  To add even further to the confusion, you may be dealing with incumbent controls vendors who have their own solution and would prefer not to see third party systems installed, or with vendors offering to bundle a year or two’s subscription along with a control system upgrade. There are a lot of ways to end up with an FDD solution that doesn’t really fit your needs. Despite these challenges, I’ve seen firsthand how the right FDD solution can bring tremendous value to its users. So, with all of that in mind, here are some of the key lessons that I’ve learned so far in trying to implement FDD solutions.

1.    All FDD systems are not created equal.

Take a good look under the hood of the various systems and figure out what capability you need. Don’t buy a Ferrari if what you need is a minivan to get the kids to soccer practice. The FDD systems on the markets these days can have wildly differing capabilities and price points. To choose the best system, you have to know your user. Are they an engaged power user with complicated systems requiring the ability to write complex custom rules? Or are they an understaffed facility with inexperienced operations staff who just need accurate work orders generated for them to tell them what to fix? These are two very different use cases for FDD, and the same FDD software is probably not the right fit for both.

2.    It really is all about the data.

Make sure your FDD vendor has a good solution for getting your data. One of the few things that all FDD systems have in common is a reliance on a reliable stream of BMS data. That’s about where the similarities stop. As many different FDD systems as there are on the market, there are at least as many ways in which they get the data. Some systems come with their own network appliance that handles the interface between BMS and FDD cloud, some systems require trend logs to be set up on the BMS, others might use data exported to a CSV file that gets emailed on a regular basis. While no approach is inherently superior, different approaches will certainly work better on some systems than others. If you choose an FDD provider that requires BMS trend logs and your system doesn’t have the right ones set up, then get ready to spend extra time or money or both to get there. Conversely, choosing the right match of the system can help you get up and running a lot faster without any extra cost.

3.    Keep startup simple and get to meaningful results fast.

This is really just a reiteration of the first two points, but every extra dollar spent, additional vendor needed, or time delay in getting to the point where meaningful analytics are running makes it less likely the project will ever get off the ground. This is particularly true for customers whose top criteria is cost.

4.    Try before you buy.

Once you’ve gone through a process to identify the FDD system that will work the best for you but are having trouble identifying a clear winner, the final decision may be best made by actually trying the systems for a couple of months. This is especially true if you happen to have multiple sites where you can compare systems. This is all the more reason to look for systems that are relatively simple and inexpensive to set up, so you aren’t left with much of a stranded investment if the system doesn’t work out for you. But regardless, FDD is a significant long-term investment, so it is a smart move to put in a bit more effort up front shopping around to make sure you’re getting the best system for your needs. 

5.    There’s more to FDD than faults.

Skilled practitioners can make use of the information provided by FDD tools to go way beyond fault analysis and gain valuable insight into opportunities for optimization and energy efficiency. Long-term data on space conditions and equipment operation combined with good visualization tools can tell you far more about the building than any BMS trend log would be able to. For example, an aggregate of average VAV damper positions for all of the boxes associated with a particular air handling unit along with average variable speed drive output can quickly point you to opportunities to improve supply air pressure control. Long term aggregates of space conditions can similarly help identify problem zones and, potentially, the associated problem equipment. 

6.    Things are

FDD is software, and like everything software, it is evolving at breakneck speed. The FDD systems of today are significantly more advanced than what was on the market just a couple of years ago, and that trend will certainly continue. There have been really exciting innovations like the application of machine learning and intelligence to largely automate things that used to be very time consuming and expensive, like point mapping and rule writing. When it comes to FDD, the role of traditional service providers (consultants and integrators) is already moving away from high fees for setup and installation, and towards more value-added roles like fault interpretation, analysis, and resolution. This, combined with the increasing ease of extracting data from control systems, is making FDD a less expensive, more accessible, and more capable tool.


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