Enhancing learning in K-12 schools via building automation systems

Students and teachers benefit from many building automation, controls technologies in K-12 schools

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer March 23, 2021

Doug Everhart, PE, LEEP AP, K-12 education practice director|principal, Henderson Engineers, Lenexa, Kansas

Keith Hammelman, PE, principal, CannonDesign, Chicago

Brian A. Hummel, PE, LEED AP BD+C, mechanical engineer, senior associate, DLR Group, Phoenix

Richard Sparozic, PE, mechanical engineer, Kohler Ronan Consulting Engineers, Danbury, Conn.

Casimir Zalewski, PE, LEED AP, CPD, principal, Stantec, Berkley, Mich.

From your experience, what systems within K-12 school projects are benefiting from automation that previously might not have been?

Doug Everhart: In a recent project with Olathe Public Schools in Kansas, we helped the district maximize its investment in the facility with a building monitoring system — producing live reports on the facility’s electricity, gas and water usage. Thus, providing the district’s facilities team with better, more automated control of the building’s systems in addition to more accurate and timely performance data.

Casimir Zalewski: Small and large unitary systems can provide BACnet interfaces providing K-12 school facilities higher levels of integration and remote diagnostic capabilities to help them understand how the systems are responding to changing conditions throughout the school day and seasons. Additionally, lighting and lighting control systems are able to provide daylighting, dimming and greater levels of control for reduced price points.

Keith Hammelman: The automation of lighting control systems has seen an increased level of automation. This includes the incorporation of complex lighting control systems, daylighting and integration of the lighting control systems into HVAC system operation to allow for increased operational efficiency of the facility. This increased level of automation has also allowed for the increased customization of the educational environments for a variety of modes of operation.

We have also seen an increase in the automation of security systems and incorporation keyless door and hardware systems. By providing for a keyless door and hardware system a school district can provide additional safety in case of the need to lockdown a facility.

How has the use of smart technologies helped meet the requirements schools have set to achieve healthier buildings regarding COVID-19 restrictions?

Casimir Zalewski: The use of filter monitoring has increased. As the level of filtration has increased along with the cost of replacement filters, it has become more important to monitor pre and final filters separately to try and extend the life of the MERV 13 or 14 filters. In equipment where MERV 13 filters have been retrofitted, a closer monitoring of pressure drop has become more critical to ensure the HVAC equipment is providing proper airflow at all times.

Keith Hammelman: We have been using sensors to measure the level of particulate matter, CO2 and volatile organic compounds within buildings to ensure that spaces are providing ventilation air to the spaces. The quantity of ventilation air at outside air intakes has also been measured to provide additional validation of the air being delivered to the spaces.

Doug Everhart: The use of building monitoring systems, while a higher cost solution, provides another facet where districts can set themselves up for success to achieve healthier buildings whether that be for COVID-19 requirements or for typical use of the building. Many districts already have building monitoring systems in place already and it really allows facility managers to keep better tabs on how their systems are performing in multiple buildings whether that be zone temperature, humidity levels, exhaust fan status, etc.

Richard Sparozic: The firm has been asked on several projects to implement many air quality improving features for the HVAC system. In an effort to ensure these air quality improvement measures are operational, we have specified items such as air filter differential pressure sensors and current sensors. Differential pressure sensors for air filters can allow the building owner to monitor filter loading and notify facilities staff when to replace an air filter. Current sensors have been used to monitor equipment status and ensure that it is operational.

Brian A. Hummel: Having a building automation system greatly increases the owner/school district’s ability to control the HVAC system. By having a control system, the startup times and building air flush times can be easily increased to improve indoor air quality. Space occupancy monitoring can ensure spaces are set to occupied modes when people are present in spaces to ensure equipment is operating and outside air is being brought into the space.

Many of our newer designs use demand-controlled ventilation/CO2 monitoring to modulate outside air to more closely match space occupancy. We are listing control operator options to easily override building start up times for greater air flushing buildings and functions like demand-controlled ventilation/CO2 sensing for periods of time or in zones like classrooms to ensure the code-required outside air quantity is being provided at all occupied times, increasing air quality. This will have some energy usage impacts but will increase indoor air quality. (Owners must balance risks and health concerns.)

In what way is the need for more smart technology and features in such buildings affecting your work on these projects?

Casimir Zalewski: Adding additional smart technology has resulted in additional controls development and coordination. More smart technology can add load to the building automation system and it’s important to understand the interface between the two. Does the equipment speak BACnet or are higher levels of integration or additional gateway devices required to ensure proper operation and reporting? In any event, it falls on the controls engineer to make sure the system is designed and specified correctly to maximize the investment in the smart technology.

Doug Everhart: Every aspect of systems we design now have some form of synergy with the low-voltage world. For example, as the need for systems responsiveness to fluctuating occupancy in classrooms continues (as learned during the pandemic), systems integration becomes extremely valuable. Occupancy sensing and space scheduling/programming tied to lighting system controls and HVAC direct digital controls allows mechanical and lighting systems to be set-back or scheduled off for optimum energy savings. As room-based smart devices continue to learn user schedules and class patterns an even further fine tuning of systems operations can be realized.

How is your team using building information modeling in conjunction with the architects, trades and owner to design a project?

Brian A. Hummel: All of our projects are constructed in BIM modeling software (Autodesk Revit) in conjunction with architectural, structural, mechanical and plumbing systems. This allows all team members to see the building three-dimensionally as we build the BIM model. On many projects the BIM model is used to perform clash detection reports using software such as Navisworks to list the clashes. The team can then filter the clashes and correct potentially costly clashes in construction.

Doug Everhart: BIM/Revit and other industry design and construction tools are driving our industry forward. Henderson is not only fully Revit and BIM360 capable, we partner with Autodesk and other industry vendors in providing continual improvement and evolution of these design tools. We employ a staff of software designers that helps our firm fully use these tools in the most efficient and beneficial ways possible. As technology expands, cloud-based, real-time modeling will continue to be an integral part of the design, planning, procurement and construction processes saving time, money and minimizing the need for design changes later on.

Richard Sparozic: Kohler Ronan has been using Revit on the majority of projects recently designed for K-12 schools. It is a great design tool which can reduce conflicts during design and result in more streamline construction. Many construction managers have also been brought on board during design and have assisted with clash detection using alternative software such as Navisworks.

Has the “internet of things” come up in discussion or been implemented on such projects? How has this integration impacted the project?

Doug Everhart: Our K-12 clients are starting to ask questions about IoT in schools. I feel like we are right on the cusp of this solution becoming more prevalent in these types of facilities. We should expect an integration of all building systems and IoT-based technology that allows learning environments to be monitored and precisely tuned based on end-user trends and resulting student performance. Since both user-level content within the classroom and building systems are now directly interfacing with technology, this creates tremendous potential for the synergy of systems to be responsive to each individual in the learning environment for increased performance.

Keith Hammelman: The simple answer is yes. On most of our projects the integration of multiple systems and how this integration has to be planned and provided. We are seeing a push on lighting system design with power over Ethernet as an approach that requires many more trades to coordinate and integration specifications need to be included in the project approach.

What smart devices are school districts requesting and how are you meeting these needs?

Doug Everhart: In our project with Olathe Public Schools in Kansas, the district not only uses the real-time building monitoring data for the facilities team but also make the information available to students at the school. The real time analytics from the monitoring system are integrated into the curriculum of the school’s Green Technology Academy – a program that equips the students with the necessary tools and opportunity to learn about the importance of energy efficient technology. Through this application, the students analyze energy consumption data and are able to have a hand in their everyday environment.

Green Technology Academy – Integrating Building Monitoring in the K-12 Environment Video explains how the students use the software’s data in their curriculum.