September 2007

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Why Building Automation Should Be More Like Football
Good players win games. Can your building “win” with the system that’s currently installed? If not, take advantage of every opportunity to upgrade outdated systems.

Tim Kensok
Director of Business Development
AirAdvice, Inc.

It’s late August and this time of year footballs are flying everywhere. NFL pre-season games have started. Colleges and high school students are enduring two-a-day practices, well in advance of the start of classes. Even elementary school-aged kids are getting into the act, as evidenced by the nightly sounds of coaches’ whistles and popping pads.

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At the risk of perpetuating clichéd sports analogies, I was struck by the thought of how differently a game like football is approached, in comparison to how we approach the control of our buildings. It made me think how we might be better off if building automation was more like football.

Focus on the Fundamentals
A recent evening walk past a middle school ball field near my house showed dozens of 9 to 12 year-old kids spread across the field. If you looked closely you would not see elaborate plays being run in simulated game scrimmages, but rather small groups of no more than four to six kids working with a patient coach, repeating simple blocking and tackling drills, over and over again. Interestingly, if you visited a high school team, or a college team, or even an NFL team’s practice you would see virtually the identical drills taking place. Football teams have found that a relentless focus on doing the fundamentals properly is a key to a successful team. Perfect execution of the fundamentals wins more games than some innovative new offensive or defensive scheme.

Deviation from SetpointIn providing temperature controls for buildings the evidence points out that we are not successfully executing on the basic fundamentals. The goal of a temperature control system is to maintain the space temperature at or near the setpoint. However, when we look at data collected from more than 300 commercial buildings (see sidebar for background on the source of the data) over the past year we see that in less than half of the locations surveyed was the average temperature over the occupied period within ± 2° F of the setpoint. In more than 20% of the locations the average temperature was greater than ± 5° F from the setpoint.

This level of fundamental temperature control certainly offers opportunity to reduce the comfort complaints likely received with such a large deviation from setpoint. Closer inspection of the data yields energy savings opportunities as well. 21% of the buildings monitored during heating season exceeded the setpoint by greater than 5° F, creating the potential for both comfort improvement and significant energy savings by improving the temperature control.

Keep Score
One of the most prominent sights at any football field is the scoreboard. It is a basic element of the game – to see who’s ahead and who’s behind.

Thermal ComfortWe often lack the most basic knowledge of are we winning or losing with our building controls. Most building automation systems can give us plenty of data – temperatures, damper positions, fan speeds – through trend logs or display screens. But these are statistics like yards rushing or the number of first downs. It’s not the same thing as the score.

In building automation the score is best measured by asking the people who work in the building how satisfied they are with their indoor environment. Through a consistent and systematic survey tool an accurate scoreboard can be developed, and tracked over time, to determine if you are in fact, winning or losing.

One such tool is the Occupant Indoor Environmental Quality Survey, developed by the University of California – Berkeley’s Center for the Built Environment ( The Occupant IEQ Survey is a cost-effective, web-based survey that can be offered to any building’s occupants to quantify satisfaction with key aspects of their building including:

A summary1 of the data collected from over 34,000 occupants in 215 buildings showed that Thermal Comfort is one of the elements with which occupants are least satisfied; only Acoustics rated worse. Results showed that in only about 1 in 10 buildings surveyed met ASHRAE’s definition for acceptable comfort, where at least 80% of the occupants expressed satisfaction. Clearly, as an industry, we are not winning the comfort game, but knowing the score at least quantifies the opportunity for improvement. Do you know the score in your building?

LEED Rated SatisfactionGood Players Win Games
Most football coaches agree that they get too much credit when their teams win and too much criticism when they lose. In the end, it’s usually the players, not the coaches that are mostly responsible for winning and losing games.

Similarly, in building controls, it is often the capability of the system that determines the performance of the system. An old, outdated system running equipment that has not been well maintained will be much less likely to perform well than a modern, properly commissioned system.

This can be illustrated by looking a recent study of LEED-rated and self-described green buildings, compared to a larger sample of “typical” buildings using the Occupant Indoor Environmental Quality Survey mentioned above. 2

In general, the control systems in LEED-rated buildings will be modern since all LEED buildings are recently constructed or renovated. By definition, LEED-rated buildings require commissioning of the mechanical systems, so that step is also ensured.

The results are significant. Nearly all of the LEED/green buildings were rated above the median of the typical building. The median of the LEED/green buildings would rate at the 80th percentile of the sample of typical buildings. This shows the dramatic impact that results from the installation and commissioning of a modern control system.

AirAdvice offers a portable building diagnostic program that facilitates building performance assessments in commercial buildings. AirAdvice monitors are placed in buildings to collect environmental data such as temperature, humidity, carbon dioxide from the occupied spaces. Data is transmitted to the AirAdvice server where it is combined with key operational parameters about the building such as temperature setpoints and schedules to produce a summary report of the comfort and energy performance of the building.

This model offers a unique aggregation point – visibility to a rapidly growing collection of building performance parameters, gathered from work our HVAC contractor and end user customers have performed in hundreds of buildings across the United States and Canada. From this database we can begin to draw conclusions as to how well buildings perform, and where opportunities exist for improvements in comfort and energy efficiency.

The Bottom Line
Our industry has been served a tremendous opportunity. Energy costs are at record highs. Pressure for our end-user customers to squeeze more productivity out of their workers is intense. They cannot afford the productivity losses that result when their employees work in uncomfortable buildings. If a financial case can be made for capital or operational investments, building owners will spend. The dynamics of today’s energy and labor marketplaces only enhance the ability to put together a compelling business case for investment in building automation and commissioning.

Focus on the fundamentals. How are the buildings you serve performing? Do the temperature control systems meet the basic requirements of temperature control? If not, figure out why and propose to fix it.

Keep score. Do you know what your customers’ employees think about the environment they work in? If they’re not satisfied, figure out why and make the necessary changes.

Good players win games. Can your building “win” with the system that’s currently installed? If not, take advantage of every opportunity to upgrade outdated systems.

Following this approach creates value for everyone from the manufacturer, distributor, contractor, and building owner. Unlike football, this is a game where everybody can win.

[1] Huizenga, C., S. Abbazadeh, L. Zagreus, and E. Arens, Air Quality and Thermal Comfort in Office Buildings: Results of a Large Indoor Environmental Quality Survey, Center for the Built Environment, University of California – Berkeley, 2006.
[2] Abbasazdeh, S., L. Zagreus, D. Lehrer, C. Huizenga, Occupant Satisfaction with Indoor Environmental Quality in Green Buildings, Center for the Built Environment, University of California – Berkeley, 2006.

About the Author

Tim Kensok is the Director of Business Development for AirAdvice, Inc, a Portland, Oregon-based provider of building performance diagnostic equipment and services. His expertise in this field focuses on HVAC markets, applications, and systems, building science, and indoor environmental controls. At AirAdvice, Kensok has conducted extensive research into the performance of commercial buildings and on the entire value chain including manufacturers, distributors, contractors, and end users. With over 20 years experience in product development from both marketing and engineering perspectives, Kensok, a registered professional engineer, has been granted thirteen U.S. patents in mechanical design and comfort control techniques.


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