Constructing college, university buildings wisely: Automation and controls

Engineering mechanical, electrical, plumbing (MEP), and fire protection systems in colleges and universities requires designers to look toward the future of postsecondary education, and consider all aspects of a building and its occupants. Building automation systems and controls are frequently specified.

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer December 23, 2015


Aravind Batra, PE, LC, LEED AP, Principal, P2S Engineering Inc., Long Beach, Calif.

Craig Buck, PE, LEED AP, Associate, RMF Engineering, Charleston, S.C.

Jeffrey R. Crawford, PE, LEED AP, CCS, Vice President, Director of Higher Education & Research Market, Ross & Baruzzini Inc., St. Louis

Andre M. Hebert, PE, BEMP, LEED AP BD+C, Principal, Senior Mechanical Engineer, EYP Architecture & Engineering, Boston

Sergiu Pelau, PE, LEED AP, Principal, Syska Hennessy Group, New York City

Scott Robbins, PE, CEM, LEED AP BD+C, Senior Vice President, WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff, Boston

CSE: When working on monitoring and control systems in college/university structures, what factors do you consider?

Buck: The biggest factors that we focus on are functionality and simplicity. It is critical that the controls operate the building in an efficient manner, and it is equally important that the owner operates and maintains the system once the building is turned over. Overly complex systems are sometimes difficult to implement during construction and even more difficult for maintenance staff to maintain and operate. Creating a system that is simple and easy to operate means that the maintenance staff can better maintain the building and deal with issues as they arise during the lifetime of a building.

Crawford: Some of the main factors we consider when designing monitoring-and-control systems for college/university buildings are:

  • Energy/sustainability goals of the college/university
  • Knowledge base and capabilities of the facility’s operation staff
  • Expected occupancy profile of the building over the course of a year
  • Type and complexity of the building systems.

Batra: The factors we consider are current installation of controls: Are they proprietary or are they open to a more open protocol system? Do they have a migration path from proprietary to fully open? Do they have the ability to communicate to central monitoring systems with an open architecture? We also evaluate the capabilities of facility personnel on their understanding of the control systems; we customize the controls and automation to suit their capabilities, needs, and requirements.

Pelau: One of the main factors to be considered are the campus standards. Many universities have standardized their automation systems and expect to have the same controls for the new building for easier integration. Energy-metering requirements are also important, especially if there is a central utility plant providing utilities like chilled water, hot water, or steam to the buildings. The universities would normally want to have these utilities metered at a minimum, to assist in monitoring the building’s energy usage. Another factor to be considered is the campus information technology (IT) and low-voltage connectivity. Are they to be part of the backbone system or stand-alone? And finally, the sustainability aspect could reflect into the BAS through LEED requirements such as measurement and verification (M&V) plans.

Robbins: Controls are the most critical factor in the successful operation of the HVAC systems of a building. We like to include many monitoring features that will benefit the operation of the equipment. A good example is filters. They will become loaded over time. By monitoring the pressure drop across the filters, we can have the control system inform the user when they should be changed.

CSE: What types of cutting-edge sensors, biometrics, or other controls are you specifying in college/university projects?

Robbins: I would not say these are cutting-edge, but we are using airflow stations and carbon dioxide sensors more than ever to optimize the amount of ventilation air to spaces. Ventilation air is very costly to condition. By using demand-control ventilation strategies and verifying flows with improved sensors, we provide a well-ventilated building at all times while saving energy.

Pelau: With such trends as active learning, virtual classrooms, and increased focus on STEM, today’s students and faculty rely heavily on the seamless ability to access, transmit, store, and analyze data. Wireless controls are one of the cutting-edge technologies that we see being implemented in more projects. Wireless sensors (different from controls), which can make a difference in critical applications, is a technology that we envision will be implemented more in the future. A wireless, smart device, on the other hand, is a technology that is here now. Wireless tablets, for example, can be used for commissioning by installing wireless routers in mechanical rooms.

Batra: The controls we are specifying or promoting are integrating occupancy sensors with HVAC to setback systems and demand-control resets on both air and water systems.

Crawford: Some of the cutting-edge control items we have been incorporating into our designs include:

  • Active air-quality monitoring systems that sequentially take samples of air from multiple spaces, run them through a central sensor "suite," and provide feedback to the BAS for ventilation air-change-rate control in laboratories
  • Chiller plant optimization programs that analyze chiller compressor, pump, and cooling tower fan energy consumption and optimize the control of those components to minimize energy consumption of the plant
  • Keycard relay controls in student-housing facilities that shut off ventilation air, lights, and select power outlets and setback space temperature setpoints when students leave their rooms/apartments to go to classes.

CSE: What are some common problems you encounter with BAS in college/university college/university projects?

Robbins: The biggest problems we encounter are installation issues. These systems are complex. There are many sensors being monitored and decisions made based upon conditions. If the programming is not correct during installation, the system will not function correctly. We have experienced systems operating incorrectly for months or years with adverse effects on the thermal comfort and energy performance of a building. It takes time to troubleshoot these systems and find the problems.

Pelau: A common problem encountered is the integration of equipment factory-mounted control with the BAS. For example, rooftop air handlers may have limited integration capabilities as compared with what the building automation expects. Another common problem could be the integration of a new BAS with an existing, legacy system. These issues can be overcome by first doing thorough research of the existing systems that need to be integrated. Second, have detailed specifications with a concise scope. Finally, specify the proper products and automation system providers that meet the requirements.

Crawford: The biggest problems we encounter with BAS in college/university projects are lack of understanding by the facility operations personnel, lack of sufficient staff to monitor the operation of the controls systems, and insufficient commissioning of the controls systems.

Batra: Common problems we encounter are that the BAS are proprietary legacy systems that do not have the ability to talk and communicate to the front end or to trend data.

Buck: The biggest challenge we face is dealing with proprietary automation and multisystem integration. Most colleges and universities have a single or preferred control system installed within their facilities and prefer to sole source their systems. Coordination during design is critical so the contractor understands the way systems are to be controlled and can provide the necessary components to ensure proper system operation.

CSE: What types of system integration and/or interoperability issues have you overcome, and how did you do so?

Buck: Because we are often dealing with a proprietary system, but the state laws require competitive bidding, the potential for outside manufacturers exists. Our designs must account for this possibility to ensure proper system integration. This is especially true with refrigerant-based equipment, where the equipment’s internal logic needs to be compatible with the control contractor’s system as well as meet the owner’s control expectations.

Robbins: Most manufacturers will tell you they are capable of interoperability and/or compatibility with other systems, and that may be true, but it does not mean it is easy. When there are multiple manufacturers involved in the integration, it can be challenging to get them to work together to make it happen. It can be done, but it needs to be well thought out and orchestrated.

Batra: We have overcome the integration and/or interoperability issues by specifying open-protocol systems with specific interfaces to talk to existing legacy systems.

CSE: What unique tools are colleges/universities including in their automation and controls systems to help educate the students? Have you specified any systems to help further educate these engineering students?

Batra: The unique tools that we have designed for facilities include energy dashboards that provide real-time energy usage and trending data to create more awareness among students and promote energy conservation. We have specified dashboard kiosks on two recent campus projects that provided a slideshow of the building systems and reported actual energy use.

Pelau: For a successful building intended to be used as a teaching tool, building systems and sustainable features should be integrated with a whole-school approach. Power meters can collect data throughout from the electrical system and display it in real time. A few extra meters can measure the power consumption of the building’s lights (indoor and exterior), outlets in working areas, power use on each floor or per type of space (offices, laboratories, classrooms), main power into the new building, or emergency power from a generator. Monitoring the power use of different rooms and spaces can reveal exactly where and when power is being used. Data can be studied by students and faculty for research and development, to find where inefficient use of power can be reduced or eliminated. Another use of the BAS, which is a real-time model, is the occupancy in the buildings. A smart lighting system integrated with occupancy sensors can indicate occupancy in offices and flexible meeting spaces. This could make it easier to find an empty room and figure out usage patterns for building scheduling.

Robbins: We have worked with controls contractors and universities to provide monitors at entrances of buildings, educating people using the building as to what it is consuming in energy and water throughout a given day. We have provided recommendations on a screen for how they can reduce energy consumption. Information is the key to changing behavior.

Crawford: Lobby displays and Web-based interfaces explaining the sustainable features in a building and showing both instantaneous and aggregate energy consumption are becoming commonplace in new buildings on college/university campuses.

Buck: Universities are increasingly using energy monitoring and dashboards to visually display energy efficiency. RMF Engineering recently worked with the University of South Carolina to create energy-reduction competitions between its departments or dormitory floors to see who can save the most energy over a period of time. These types of energy-focused initiatives are great because they allow occupants to see how their behaviors directly affect building energy consumption and encourage them to change these behaviors to save energy.