September 2012

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What’s going on in the trenches with Monitoring Based Commissioning and Automated Fault Detection and Diagnostics?

Or, what’s on your “Dashboard”?  Part I
Glenn T Remington
Glenn T. Remington

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Salesmen always promise Champagne while a lot of projects are attempted on beer budgets.

The way it was. Do value engineering practices and cutting budget corners mid-way through a major project produce adequate system performance results and long term economic benefits?

Can a (modern) air conditioning control system complete with the OPR well understood and considered during the design phase, effectively commissioned on installation, and with a quality description of operation and O&M documentation package provided on closeout provide a fighting chance to operate the various (modern) mechanical (and lighting) systems to their optimum potential?

Can that hypothetical modern air conditioning control system be used for validation of original design during commissioning, M&V on energy efficiency performance, and forensics if the envelope leaks or critical energy performance enhancing features were cut during the latter stages of the project’s design / build process?  How often is that type of capability designed in?

Often times maybe not, but with a little planning it could.

Building owners may or may not really understand the details of transformative technology.  They may also underestimate the cost (energy penalty) of not constructing renovating or operating a modern facility let alone adopting next generation capability, and rightfully so be apprehensive about making forward looking energy savings investments.   But it doesn’t have to be that way.

We have smart grid planning, smart meters deployment, smart cars, and even smartwater along with discussion in that regard ad nauseam.  It may be that the time for smarter buildings is not just past due, but also the solution to many of the difficulties owners, maintenance trades, various contractors, engineering firms, and equipment suppliers seem to be struggling with as we transform from a Happy Days era of “how we used to do things” to one more along the lines of the Jetsons.

It’s always been the role of the building engineer, maintenance crafts, and other O&M staff to keep an eye on the air conditioning controls, while over the years that’s taken many forms.  From simply making daily rounds and completing checklist entries or noting and recording analog gauge position, to scanning a building automation system (BAS) system summary for "alarm flags" and reviewing the overnight printed alarm log, or anything in between it’s usually been the mechanics from the trenches with their hands on the equipment and its controls keeping things running.  Taking it further along in complexity with the automated control system’s “head end” progression things like acknowledging alarms, reviewing trend logs, modifying schedules, tweaking setpoints and tuning control loops, and even reviewing energy consumption data, these tasks are more and more the normal course of business in a modern building, but are still handled by the operations staff far removed from the board room.

However, running buildings has become more complex and the consequences of not running buildings well have become more severe.

When control system communications left the realm of pressurized air running through arteries of copper tubing and entered the virtual land of packets traveling the network, all bets were off and the game changed.  We now have electronic card key access control, video surveillance for security, life safety, telecom and data, lighting controls, air conditioning control, energy metering, and business processes / accounting functions sharing the same LAN VLAN internets and server based data storage and computing space.  All this with the IT chain of command serving as gate keepers to the information super highway, while not typically hanging out in mechanical rooms.  We also have auditing requirements and government oversight from statutes like Sarbanes-Oxley.  Once business finance and air conditioning controls shared the same IT support (and security protocols), there was no turning back.  Couple that complexity with the demographics of staff retirements, experienced staff chasing greener pastures, headcount reductions due to budget cuts and all too often we have fewer (less experienced) operators keeping an eye on more and more increasingly complicated systems with less skilled trades support.  Be it air conditioning or IT professionals, we have more complex systems requiring constant management and support.

As energy costs, equipment malfunctions and customer complaints increase, poorly running buildings have operational cost penalties, which is noticed in the board room.

Without question and often justifiably so, the promise of new technologies often runs into strong headwinds from the previous “way it was always done” even if it was not always done well.  However, whether we like it or not, the age of relying on smart (or smarter) systems to help us operate buildings in as efficient a manner as possible is upon us.  We can debate the definition of operating buildings “efficiently” later, but the mandate is there from the board room and they do still control the purse strings.

Recently, a discussion group was polled for feedback on what’s happening in this important and quickly evolving market (air conditioning controls, monitoring based commissioning and FDD).  Paraphrasing the question that was posed:  Is anyone actually using any native BAS or 3rd party data mining tools that aggregate both BAS HVAC equipment points and energy metering data, then apply some sort of weather and occupancy normalization, crunch with some logic, and finally in some sort of either routine eyes-on or automated process provide identification of "something amiss in the building or systems" and possibly even drill down (automatically) to identify a particular system, component, or control device as the root cause of the "fault" that needs attention?

How many people just went to sleep trying to read this?

Putting it in simpler terms, planning in basic data acquisition, data visualization, and automated analytical capability to monitor the performance of the air conditioning systems are quickly becoming an expected basic functionality of modern “control” systems.  These basic analytical tools are no longer rocket science, out on the fringe, or futuristic research lab only ideas, rather fundamental available best practice requirements.  The basic question posed was how many folks are actually doing this in some form now?  In response, some folks said they were.  My impression was some folks are doing different things but it appears the activity is fragmented, in many ways the various terminology and applications are often times used interchangeably.

Control Solutions, Inc Making it even more confusing, everyone seems to be calling their HMI a dashboard lately.

With CPU horsepower and cost of memory less and less expensive every day and IT networks so prevalent in most buildings, the connected building is becoming more and more feasible, if not the norm.  With information technology moving to virtual servers, data storage and computing horsepower is only limited by the creativity of those who would use building system data.  Air conditioning control’s network bandwidth along with computing power and memory on aged control system field panels seem to be one of the remaining constraints in older building automation systems, but even that shouldn't be an overwhelming constraint to applying basic analytical performance monitoring methods.  While off-the-shelf FDD products imbedded in the native BAS still don’t seem to be readily available, a number of value-adding third party tools are entering the marketplace for enhanced trending, monitoring based commissioning, and analytics.  More importantly, analytical tools can be deployed in stages, beginning gradually, even if only modular by sub-system rather than by whole building.  For example, tools are available for just energy consumption tracking, or just air conditioning sub-system related such as economizer cooling and ventilation air management.  One example for data visualization in older buildings is a tool like ECAM that lends itself primarily to energy meter data (at least currently), which is a perfect lead-in to energy consumption tracking and basic monitoring based commissioning tools capability in older non-DDC buildings which have the inherent limitation of no or aged computerized BAS.

With a tool like ECAM for monitoring energy use, building owners can at least start out with the basics without wholesale control system retrofits.  Following is a link for more on the ECAM tool:

Moving up to buildings with modern digital controls systems, various work has been done by US NIST and various DOE research programs such as those at Pacific Northwest National Lab (PNNL), Lawrence Berkley National Lab (LBNL) and others to develop fault detection and diagnostic programs (FDD or automated FDD).  At PNNL, a range of programs such as the “Whole Buildings Diagnostician” and the recent “Re-Tuning Program” have been proven to provide meaningful value.  For entry level diagnostics, BAS trend data can be gathered, exported, visualized, and reviewed for basic operational faults.  Simple things like validating occupied vs. non-occupied periods against scheduled or over-ride run state of systems is a good start.  While requiring eyes on for analysis, simple data trending and review can help spot these energy wasting occurrences.  While some facility operations have the capability to custom program algorithms to “watch” for this mismatch in an automated fashion, many do not have programming access to proprietary control systems.  Incrementally developing the operational staff’s analytical skills from basic troubleshooting devices and control loops, to holistic building operational monitoring for improved fault detection will not only make life in the maintenance fields easier, but also result in energy savings and improved occupant satisfaction.  Once this fundamental approach is mastered, additional FDD methods and tools will be that much easier to work with.

Researchers at LBNL have done a lot of work in the mCx and FDD areas, and also automated utility to building demand response load shedding strategies.  Not long ago LBNL conducted a research project to study and benchmark the features of all the various energy tracking, mCx, and FDD products in the market place (or many many many products, all is nebulous at any given point in time).  An introduction to the findings can be reviewed here:  Perhaps just as valuable a resource, an important contribution to furthering these methods was to develop a roadmap to smarter buildings.  LBNL also developed a "Specification" template for a “sample” building performance monitoring system.  An overview is provided at the following link:

Even the traditional proprietary control companies are increasingly offering add-on modules to improve data visualization.

With not-so-large an investment in memory capacity, the key is to have the trending happening for key points all the time even if it means rolling off the bottom for a week, two weeks, or a month.  By giving facility operators access to pre-gathered trend data that can be instantly called up and reviewed, meaningful trouble shooting tools and accelerated corrective actions are now enabled for proactive forward looking early warnings and accelerated response – before an alarm or customer complaint begins the process.  This is contrasted to the traditional model where there is little or no storage and computing horsepower on a small antiquated desktop, or a mechanic has to ask for limited trending after the customer complaint is already in play.  The run-to-fail maintenance process and mentality are obsolete just as are pneumatic humidistats in the modern facility.

By saving the various chart tool system templates for particular priority systems for availability whenever they are called up for review, they are pre-populated and available for analysis.  Be it with the past 24 hours, past week, or past month's data ready for instant viewing from the historian.  The trick is to either set up the native BAS database to populate the native trending tool, or at least provide the data for export to a data visualization tool for viewing.  Much of this has some dependency on retro-commissioning of existing sensors to shake out calibration and sensor placement issues, and a certain amount of IT / DDC programming savvy to connect the source of the data to the data-visualization tool (and any intermediate steps).  We already established the facility operations and IT teams are already working together closer than ever before.  While this analysis can be a PM style periodic review conducted by various stake holders (for example monitoring based or continuous commissioning activities), it’s also a transformative daily operations and maintenance tool for staff ranging from mechanics to central control operators to facility engineers to 3rd party service providers - the key is teaching folks to interpret the visualized data.  Standardizing the analytical tool and output look and feel across systems and buildings also helps to make the operations effort more efficient, communication of results easier, and standardizing the training makes it easier for all the stakeholders.

The idea is to easily pick out examples of faults such as fans on when you want them off and off when you want them on, economizer cooling "on" cycles when it's 90 degrees and humid, anomalies in static pressure control in VAV systems, and various other inconsistencies with description of operation function and related occupancy modes.  All that's required is to apply operational staff’s normal institutional knowledge of what's really supposed to be happening with the buildings and systems to enhanced analytical tools.  As we all learn to work with more feature rich analytical tools, we also become more at home with incrementally more sophisticated automated systems and building operational strategies.

These tools are also becoming the norm for central plant chiller operation and even hand held FDD scan tools for non-BAS connected roof tops.

Reliable Controls While the cost benefit of these technologies offers scale of magnitude benefits, operations with smaller or fewer buildings and systems can benefit from analytical value added software tools too.  The owner / operator of one building, a Community College campus or small complex of a dozen buildings, a university setting with 150 buildings, or a nation-wide chain of big box retail stores or restaurants all have the same vested interest in optimizing operations and maintenance programs and minimizing energy consumption (operational cost savings and increased customer satisfaction is everyone’s bread and butter).

While the larger the enterprise, the more scale of magnitude type operational efficiency benefits and energy savings can be realized, by centrally managed software services for system optimization even smaller operations can benefit.  Even for the owners of smaller buildings, there are a lot of basic monitoring methods and tools that can help save energy and improve system performance and occupant satisfaction.  The only thing required is the will to move forward, rather than remain stuck in the past in a quickly changing energy management world.

One of the areas of this discussion I find most interesting is that whether we are talking about the new age utility tariff and demand response driven automated load shedding, automated fault detection and diagnostics, continuous commissioning, monitoring based commissioning, or simple daily operations and maintenance processes with enhanced data visualization, ALL these concepts require a few basic foundational starting points such as decent instrumentation, decent bandwidth and storage capacity, and basic software tools to monitor and operate buildings.  If we start out slow with the basics, very soon the more complicated areas become enabled and easier to accomplish.  The foundational technology and training fundamentals for the basic capabilities are universal to the broader discussion.

Once the commitment is made to modernize the control system and analytical tools, we can debate which segment within the larger picture we wish to operate and with what level of sophistication.  At the end of the day we need reliable data, robust and targeted analytical tools, and continuing education and training programs for operational staff in order to realize the value of whatever analytical tools owners choose to deploy.

But how in the world does this all impact us directly and today?  A building owner might ask…

When participating in smart grid, smart metering, demand response meetings with regulatory policy makers in the Rust Belt region, I’ve asked how do our policy makers expect older pneumatic controlled facilities (which may consist of upwards of 80% or 90% of our commercial building stock) to participate in a modern smart meter / demand response / dynamic pricing model world without requiring significant / expensive control system upgrades?  I think it will be tough in the current economic “climate” to expect building owners to suddenly shoulder the cost burden, while yet the utility industry is being driven in that direction by the federal and state regulatory process.

Right now, demand response based tariffs with dynamic time of day pricing are implemented in various states.  Right now, in California fault detection and diagnostics techniques will soon be required by code for rooftop air conditioning systems.  As a first step only the economizer cooling sub-system is targeted, but refrigeration cycle cooling systems are likely not far behind.  It’s not a stretch to suggest that as market penetration of various analytical tools increase, similar requirements may migrate into central station and air handler equipment too.  Right now, various jurisdictions are requiring retro-commissioning results be reported and coincident energy consumption improvements.  Right now, improved building operation and maintenance processes can be improved with off the shelf native BAS and 3rd party analytical tools, and putting some of these tools to use will start saving energy right now.  Right now, basic trending tools can become part of a monitoring based commissioning program.

Not only will a properly conceived and implemented building automation system provide important measurement and verification capability for more than just the air conditioning control systems and energy management purposes, but also help identify analyze and understand deficiencies in building envelope in relation to weather sensitivities, recognize un-planned occupancy patterns not considered during the design and planning of a new facility, and help accommodate building use changes needing control program adjustments.  In other words, a modern building information system helps understand and optimize how the facility operates as a whole, not just its individual parts.

At the end of the day, when considering how to optimize building and system maintenance operations and run efficiently as possible with energy conservation goals, it’s still the folks in the trenches and the tools they are provided that can make the biggest difference.  March on…

More depth and detail will be explored in part II.

About the Author

Glenn Remington has been involved with engineering project management, industrial hygiene, regulatory compliance, and facility O&M in predominantly mission critical, academic campus and power plant facilities for nearly 25 years.  While working full time, Glenn earned a Bachelor of Science in HVAC Engineering from Ferris State University as a non-traditional evening program student, been active with ASHRAE at the local and Society levels since 1994, been active with ASHRAE TC 7.5 “Smart Building Systems” since 2001, and recently is volunteering time with ASHRAE SPC 207, “Laboratory Method of Test of Fault Detection and Diagnostics Applied to Commercial Air-Cooled Packaged Systems” while also enjoying family time, and for the first time in 20 years playing golf again.


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