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Article - September 2002
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Have We Been Blinded by the Light?

As the spotlight continually focuses on today's "cutting edge" technology, let us not become blind to one of the most basic tenets of the controls industry - that even the most advanced building automation systems can't compensate for, much less effectively control, equipment that doesn't work properly to begin with, or better yet, isn't working at all. 

Frank Miraglia, Manager, Controls & Automation  
Tri-State Technologies

Many of the highly insightful articles that have appeared on this website attest to the market's constant aspiration to implement the latest and greatest that technology has to offer. As the spotlight continually focuses on today's "cutting edge" technology, let us not become blind to one of the most basic tenets of the controls industry - that even the most advanced building automation systems can't compensate for, much less effectively control, equipment that doesn't work properly to begin with, or better yet, isn't working at all. This scenario, as one might reasonably expect, would be less likely encountered when working with new, "from the ground up", construction. But what about the thousands of existing buildings that have not yet undergone an upgrade? More so, what about the buildings that have, but show no appreciable benefit because the spotlight shone brightly only on the shiny, new building automation system while leaving the other issues that needed to be addressed, such as equipment repair, replacement or adjustment, in the shadows. Those readers long enough in the tooth to remember the days of selling "Energy Management Systems" back in the mid to late 70's and early 80's can probably recall being involved in a number of situations that went something like this:

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Building owner spends big money to purchase state of the art "EMS" (usually a glorified time clock that also implemented load shedding for demand limiting and provided temperature compensated duty cycling) that will save him thousands of dollars per year and pay for itself in a reasonable amount of time from the savings generated. Owner purchases from a company that shouldn't have even been in the "EMS" business in the first place and won't even be in business at all two years later. The "EMS" not only fails to save the owner money but operating costs actually increase. Panicked owner now calls you in for help because the vendor he bought the system from is, surprise, no longer in business. You perform a survey in order to assess the situation. You find some of, or possibly all of, the following conditions - the minimum position for the outside air damper is established by a brick propped under the bottom blade (disconnected, of course) of the outside air damper, a broken popsicle stick wedged into the refrigeration compressor contactor to keep the contactor pulled in and the compressor running, controller wiring disconnected from equipment, motor starters that should be in the "AUTO" position in the "HAND" or "ON" position, a 2 x 4 positions the return air damper at 100% open, evaporator coils so plugged it's a miracle there's any air flow across them at all, controller programming overridden or just plain deleted. Overwhelmed and upset, but with no other recourse available, the owner is now forced to invest even more money into the property by paying you to clean up and straighten out the mess. The truly unbelievable aspect of this is that most of the problems existed prior to the system installation but the "EMS" vendor didn't have the wherewithal to recognize the problems and more often than not didn't even care so long as they got paid.

Reliable Controls This so called "horror story" might seem a bit unrealistic and exaggerated at first but this author has seen every one of these, and then some, in his 22 years in this industry. Granted, as an industry we have obviously matured and made significant progress from those early years to today. We are certainly much more aware of the importance of the interrelationship between the building automation system and the equipment that the system is assigned to control. Likewise, we certainly have grown to appreciate and understand that most basic of facts - that you can't effectively control it if it doesn't work properly to begin with or work at all. One lingering question that will always be difficult to answer is where do we, as contractors, draw the line on how much time and effort we invest to make sure the equipment we intend to take control of is in proper working order. This might prove to be a daunting challenge but it is one we must aggressively pursue if we are committed to delivering a quality product which meets or exceeds the customer's expectations. Fortunately, there are far more quality oriented, experienced contractors involved in today's market who are willing to make that investment. This willingness to do so, I believe, is what provides the foundation for us to achieve the goal that we are striving for - customer satisfaction. As far as I can see the real task facing the contractors now and for the foreseeable future will be having the discipline to stay committed to working with the equipment in the shadows to insure that the system under the spotlight really does get its chance to shine.


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