Building systems integration best practices

Building automation systems (BAS) allow for state-of-the-art systems integration in nonresidential buildings.

By Sanjyot V. Bhusari and Michael Watts, Affiliated Engineers Inc. September 25, 2015

Learning objectives

  • Measure the options available for building automation systems (BAS).
  • Compare the protocols for system integration.
  • Apply a BAS to improve energy efficiency.

While 30 yr of advances in building automation have allowed owners to do more with less, the benefits remain accompanied by challenges. Open building automation system (BAS) communications protocols have made systems integration relatively easy, but in the absence of data and automation optimization, energy reduction, optimal maintenance, and greater staff productivity are being left on the table. Integrating otherwise disparate BAS into enterprise-level software platforms establishes a business case for state-of-the-art systems integration.

Systems should be integrated to solve business problems, and facilities owners are using systems integration to significantly improve key performance indicators ranging from energy and operational efficiencies to enhancing user experiences. A process-oriented approach to systems integration drives maximum benefit, beginning with the critical process of defining the problem. Developing detailed specifications and implementation strategies allows for the identification of best-value-based solutions. Incorporating requirements such as training for staff and vision for future systems will help sustain the benefits of the systems’ integration for the long term.

The challenge, the breakthrough

Facilities owners historically have struggled with proprietary protocols that have hindered systems integration. Owners were often locked into one building automation vendor or had to deal with multiple stand-alone BAS, a circumstance that negatively affected their ability to negotiate cost and compromising their operational efficiency. Third-party equipment and disparate systems made proactive operation and maintenance difficult. Escalating energy and operational costs exacerbated shortcomings, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

The evolution of BAS communication protocols from vendor-specific proprietary languages to more open industry-standard protocols has made systems integration relatively easy. Engineers are now routinely specifying third-party equipment such as chillers, boilers, and variable frequency drives to be integrated with the BAS. In many instances, owners already have multiple BAS integrated into an enterprise-level software platform, allowing them flexibility in selecting building controls based on value while simultaneously maintaining a consistent user interface for operational efficiency.

While open-communication protocols have largely solved one fundamental systems integration problem, facility managers face another challenge, namely, data deluge. Thinking beyond the immediate problem of communication between the systems and prioritizing management of building data in support of owner business goals is vital to effectively developing and specifying systems integration solutions. Successful use of data and the automation and optimization of facility-management work processes is where the real value of systems integration can be achieved.

A process-based approach

A process of four critical steps forms a basis for maximizing the benefits of integration:

1. Scope definition

Any systems integration scope discussion should start with the identification of myriad challenges that need to be addressed and a mechanism to measure success after the integration work has been completed. In this vein, solving a single problem may prove to have multiple benefits. Thinking through all the benefits and developing a detailed business case prior to finalizing systems integration scope establishes criteria for prioritization and selection. Too often, the full complement of benefits possible through systems integration is left unrealized. An ideation-type workshop that brings multiple stakeholders together in a structured manner can facilitate the discovery of all the possible opportunities, thus allowing the organization to act in the context of their business goals.

One large university in the Midwest implemented a series of ideation workshops to help reduce their rising energy cost. To address this challenge, a strategy to integrate class schedules with BAS was identified and developed. Linking class schedules with BAS would allow for energy savings when classrooms were not used. Further exploration revealed the need for class schedule information in resolving work orders as well. By passing the class schedule information into work-order management software, work orders could be scheduled around class times, thereby reducing the time wasted by maintenance staff waiting for classes to finish to gain access to that space.

2. Specification development

Once a business case for system integration is established and scope of work identified, the next step is to develop a set of detailed bid documents that systems integrators use for the development of accurate bid proposals. Until the mid-2000s, consultants lacking a clear specifications approach created their own specification sections under a single specification division, to account for all of the newest technologies included in the building’s design. That practice was soon rendered obsolete by the massive amount of growth in building technologies.

In 2004, recognizing this rapid advancement in building technologies, the Construction Specifications Institute introduced dozens of new divisions, including a full division dedicated to systems automation and integration. With more than 20 sections, some key subdivisions within this new Division 25 provide for a more organized approach to detail integration requirements, such as communication protocols, network hardware, data storage, data management, and software needed to integrate various systems within a facility.

Ensuring that the integrating contractor fully understands the scope required by the consultant is a key factor to a successful integration project. Similar to other specified plans (start-up plan, indoor air quality, test and balance, measurement and verification), a clear integration plan should be specified and submitted for approval prior to the execution of the work. This integration plan must provide a step-by-step approach to accomplish the required scope.

Integration requirements do not solely reside within Division 25. Every piece of equipment or system specified with the intent of being integrated should include the hardware and the work requirements to accomplish this goal. HVAC, lighting, fire protection, security, and other systems must be specified not only to include the intelligence required for connectivity, but also must adhere to the protocol requirements of the Division 25 specifications as well as facilitate the execution of the effort.

3. Implementation

Facility owners viewing systems integration as a means of achieving business goals place a premium on finding a systems integration provider based on overall qualifications rather than cost alone. Practitioners should be encouraged by this expression of strategic sophistication, and bear in mind that selection criteria will consider both technological and instructional/managerial aspects of qualifications. Consultants who are experienced in assuring that in-house staff is capable of running the integration solutions put in place often prove to be the difference in achieving success.

Technological solutions that are open and based on information technology standards also are important. Solutions that make the facility owner the license holder of the software platform offer a tremendous advantage. In this scenario, facility owners can employ multiple systems integrators to work on their platform as needed, while avoiding the pitfalls of a sole-source relationship. Technological solutions that are based on standard, off-the-shelf information technology will allow widespread support that is easy to find in the industry.

Another key strategy worthy of consideration during the implementation phase is the idea of a “plug fest.” This is a mock-up demonstration of the ability of each disparate system to successfully exchange the appropriate information, such as alarms, commands, error codes, and other points specified. A plug fest recently organized for one large institution’s integration project was able to uncover issues associated with “auto-discovery” settings. Finding and solving issues at this small scale allowed for a smoother overall integration process.

4. Planning for the future

Whether the scope of services involves integrating third-party equipment into a single BAS or multiple BAS into an integrated platform, forward thinking will sustain the integration project’s success into the future. Developing specification standards that can seamlessly integrate future projects with existing systems is fundamental to this.

A campus in Florida installed new meters and integrated them into its existing BAS. Part of the project also included planning for the future by developing collegewide standards for future meters. As the campus grew and additional metering investment was made, the college was able to add the new meters to the BAS without incident, using the campus standards as a guide.

Case study: University boosts efficiency with BAS

A large university in the Southeast was consistently ranked as one of the top energy-efficient campuses in its state university system. However, the university was operationally challenged by adding more research buildings on campus and maintaining them with the same number of facilities staff. At the same time, experienced operations and maintenance staff members were nearing retirement. The university’s executive team recognized the hurdles ahead in fully benefiting from the efficiency measures it carefully put in place and maintaining its standing as the highest performing campus in this regard.

To solve the multiple problems it faced, the university and its consultants initiated a series of ideation-style workshops. Multiple stakeholders responsible for different aspects of the facility-management spectrum engaged and offered feedback from their unique perspectives. Each challenge and its associated solution was evaluated to discover concurrent business case opportunities.

The vision that came forward from the ideation workshops was translated into specification requirements using the full Construction Specifications Institute 04 Division 25 format. This format allowed for addressing the integrated automated front-end in great detail. Software specification sections such as graphics, alarms, data collection, reports, and client database integration captured the university’s requirements to address operational and energy efficiency challenges. Mobility requirements coupled with graphics determined the need for enhanced user experience supporting facility-management functions.

The university selected a consultant to act as its partner in implementing the integrated automated front-end while allowing local BAS vendors to compete for building level controls. With this approach, the university got the operational efficiency it desired as well as cost effectiveness associated with the competitive bidding process at the hardware level. Representing part of their integral process, plug fests are now defined for any new vendor or system that intends to integrate with the new front-end.

The university is investing in standards as a way of planning for its future. Standards have been developed not only for BAS, but also for CMMS, BIM, metering, and other systems. Data exchange and analytics are at the heart of these standards. The university’s vision is to use the power of data to continue to solve its challenges going forward.

Sanjyot V. Bhusari is Affiliated Engineers Inc.’s intelligent buildings practice leader. He has more than 15 yr of experience optimizing existing BAS, improving facility-management business processes, and developing systems integration solutions and data analytics for health care, higher education, medical science, and research facilities. Michael Watts has more than 25 yr of experience in the HVAC industry. As a project manager and intelligent buildings specialist, he works directly with contractors and owners to coordinate systems integration, energy management, critical monitoring, and direct digital control systems of complex facilities.