Building safe, effective health care facilities: Building automation and controls

It’s hard to think of an engineering project with higher standards than a hospital or health care facility—successfully designed and installed systems can literally be a matter of life and death. Building automation systems (BAS) and controls play a key role in mission critical facilities.

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer November 17, 2014


  • J. Patrick Banse, PE, LEED AP, Senior Mechanical Engineer, Smith Seckman Reid, Houston
  • Daniel L. Doyle, PE, LEED AP O+M, Chairman, Grumman/Butkus Associates, Evanston, Ill.
  • Robert Jones Jr., PE, LEED AP, Associate Director of Electrical, JBA Consulting Engineers, Las Vegas
  • Craig Kos, PE, LEED AP, Vice President, ESD Inc., Chicago
  • Essi Najafi, Senior Vice President/Principal, Global Engineering Solutions, Rockville, Md.
  • Paul J. Orzewicz, PE, Mechanical Engineer, Project Manager, RMF Engineering Inc., Baltimore
  • David A. Smith, PE, EDAC, Principal, National Director of Health Care, KJWW Engineering Consultants, Madison, Wis. 

CSE: When designing integration monitoring and control systems, what factors do you consider?

Smith: The greatest factor is the capabilities of the facilities staff to understand and maintain the software. It is important to know who you are working with and what their comfort level is with providing the resources to have qualified staff and to have them properly trained.
Najafi: The core functionality of an integrated monitor and control system is to keep the building HVAC system within a predetermined range, turn on/off or adjust lighting levels in rooms based on an occupancy schedule, monitor performance and component failures in all systems, and to provide malfunction or maintenance alarms (typically via e-mail and/or text notifications) to the building engineering/maintenance staff. Energy, performance of systems, efficiency, and maintenance are the core factors of consideration. 
Banse: Redundancy, restricted access, uninterruptible power, 24/7 operation, and separate HVAC systems on emergency power are a few items that should be taken into consideration.
CSE: What are some common problems you encounter when working on building automation systems (BAS)?
Najafi: The human factor is the unpredictable element of the equation. Control systems and software have become fairly complex and require basic computer skills from the control operator. While control graphic interface has greatly simplified the interaction of the operator with the control software, understanding the way the system operates or reacts to an operator’s input remains the biggest problem of system performance. Providing a self-sustained and self-correcting control system requiring minimum interaction with maintenance personnel will reduce some of the most common problems of control malfunctioning. 
Banse: One problem is integration with fire alarm systems, which of the two systems actually ”controls” HVAC functions and dampers, along with which system receives input to perform controls functions and which system just monitors the operation and position status of equipment.
Jones: Within older facilities, there frequently is a combination of BAS with different manufacturers depending on when retrofits or renovations occur. This presents a challenge when introducing new equipment and maintaining an integrated control system.
Smith: The biggest issue is the control vendors ignoring engineered designed control sequences and trying to substitute canned programs to save themselves time and money.
CSE: What types of cutting-edge control systems have you specified into these buildings? What type of push-back are you receiving from the contractors, clients, or other team members?
Smith: You can only be as cutting-edge as the staff running the facility. Using scheduling software integration allows systems to be set back to minimum levels when a procedure is not going on. It is still difficult to get software platforms to communicate with each other.
CSE: What types of smart building projects have you worked on? Please describe any facilities that have incorporated the Smart Grid, automated systems, or other integrated system. Discuss the protocol (BACnet, LonWorks, etc.) and its pros/cons.
Najafi: We’re seeing more of our clients, both in and out of the health care sector, using smart building systems. Oftentimes these are the clients that have multiple buildings in various locations and want the ease/control to be automatically notified of abnormalities occurring at their facilities. Being quickly notified of issues, which oftentimes may be missed during regular maintenance, allows buildings to perform the way they were originally designed and reduces operating expenses for building owners.
CSE: Discuss the trends of convergence and automation within building technology, including controls of all systems within one network. 
Banse: I have not seen this happening much as yet. Most clients want restricted access of the various systems to cause no disturbance of other systems such as patient medical records, for example. The BAS and security seem to connect well to the building network and are reasonably compatible for monitoring over the building network.