Exploring the high demands for higher education facilities: automation and controls

The design process for higher education facilities has its own set of challenges and requirements. Engineers discuss the current trends, challenges, and experiences with college and university facility projects regarding automation and controls.

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer October 19, 2016



Mark Fisher, PE, LEED AP, Principal, AlfaTech, San Jose, Calif.

Scott Foster, PE, LEED AP, Principal, Affiliated Engineers Inc., Chicago

Keith Hammelman, PE, Senior Vice President, CannonDesign, Chicago

Tom Hickey, PE, Plant and Building Services Market Leader, Stanley Consultants, Muscatine, Iowa

James Newman, PE, CEM, BEMP, LEED AP BD+C, High Performance Design Team, Leader, EYP Architecture & Engineering, Boston

Jose I. Torres, PE, MBA, Project Manager/Mechanical Engineer, RMF Engineering Inc., Raleigh, N.C.

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

Foster: Some of the most important factors that we consider are the integration of the new system with the existing campus, user interaction with the control systems, operator capability, existing campus standards, and opportunities for improvement.

Hammelman: Colleges and universities will often have multiple buildings on a wide-ranging campus, and even multiple campuses, which makes the ability to integrate the monitoring and control of systems in multiple facilities of paramount importance. This campuswide integration may be a standard that is already in place, or it may be something that is desired to be implemented over the near future. Increasingly, while some controls systems can be integrated if properly procured, other systems, whether existing on the campus or newly installed, might be proprietary to the vendor and unable to be properly or easily integrated with systems in other facilities. The consideration of how and what to integrate should be part of the initial discussion with the client, and the ability to provide the client with options on how to create this integration now and into the future is an important aspect of that consideration.

Newman: With any college and university project, it is imperative to thoroughly understand the client, their capabilities, and how they see themselves using and benefiting from the system. Designing and specifying a monitoring and control system that fits the needs and wants of the building facilities team will always make the most successful situation. I personally view monitoring and control systems as the most important component to achieving the as-designed high-performance operation, not only on opening day but for the entire life of the building. Monitoring and control systems also give the building owner the key for continuous optimization of the building operations and the most accurate tool to analyze the potential for any future improvements.

Fisher: We insist that controls be written in BACnet or Modbus. We have had problems when colleges/universities get locked into proprietary systems, resulting in changes becoming increasingly difficult and expensive over time.

Torres: The factors I consider are owner requirements, the type of building, desired level of accuracy, and the budget. In design, one of the conversations I have with a university owner is to understand how a building automation system (BAS) is expected to operate (control sequences, alarms, level of complexity, and trending). The type of building will dictate the level of accuracy of the monitoring devices (airflow stations, energy meters, control valves) and, as such, the cost of those devices. Finally, the budget will always dictate the level of quality and accuracy of any device.

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

Fisher: The biggest problem we have seen in higher education, at least on public projects, is the fact that low bid usually means we end up with controls contractors that are not capable of doing the required integration of systems and aren’t trained to deal with the complexity of a modern BAS. We have worked with our clients to prequalify controls contractors wherever possible to avoid this situation. The other problem with higher education is integrating new systems with existing campus controls.

CSE: What unique tools are the owners of such projects including in their automation and controls systems?

Foster: Most clients are now using fault detection and diagnostics tools supplementing their BAS. Some clients are using statistical computing tools, such as “R”, data historian software, and aggregation tools such as PI System, a product by OSIsoft. The other tools that we see in the marketplace are general data analytics tools, such as Microsoft Power BI and IBM Watson Analytics, that are now making their way into the facilities world.

Fisher: Over the past decade, lighting and daylighting controls have become increasingly integrated into BMS. Our systems increasingly use remote monitoring and analytical tools for energy management.

CSE: How have you worked with the building owner or facility manager to tackle the Internet of Things (IoT)? Have you helped catalog every device in a building, such as lights, fire alarms, electrical outlets, and more?

Foster: We’re being asked more frequently to explore alarm management (using data management software to sort and prioritize data) and to integrate lighting, fire alarms, building scheduling, and equipment control through the BMS. We’re accumulating a great deal of performance data to aid decision making about integrating device sensors across systems, like using lighting sensors, for example, to control HVAC and electrical components.

Hickey: We have performed building inventories for clients where electrical and fire alarm services have been identified as well as major mechanical equipment components and devices. We have logged these equipment items into a central database by location as an aid to our client’s inventory control. Typically, in the equipment that we specify, we require compatibility with remote-monitoring and data-acquisition systems, due to the increasingly complex Internet-based monitoring requirements of our clients.

Hammelman: Over the past 5 years, we have helped our clients catalog more than 35 million sq ft of facilities, at various levels of detail from the system level down to the device level, using a customized database software and subscription that allows them to understand what they own and the condition that it is in. This is an extremely useful tool for facilities managers to use in planning for deferred maintenance projects; it gives them the ability to search for common needs and scale up small improvements to larger-scale efforts to provide economy on execution. The key to developing this type of database is to understand the way the facilities manager will use the tool. It is easy to drown in the data and have so much information that the database becomes unmanageable. It is also possible to have so little detail that the proper search for common elements yields limited results. As an example, at the University of Illinois, we document MEP systems and equipment conditions for more than 155 buildings for their Urbana-Champaign and Springfield campuses. This data is organized at a system level, with descriptions of each system and the major components of those systems identified, described, assessed, and cataloged in a searchable database.

Fisher: Cybersecurity is a primary concern of BAS these days. While we have not had the need to catalog devices on a project, we have worked to ensure safe systems on Level 1 and Level 2 security issues to prevent hackers from breaking into our systems.

CSE: Have you worked on any college/university projects in which the dormitories have lobby kiosks or displays that show energy use to the students? What efficiency or impact is the college/university hoping to achieve by showing its residents how they are using electricity, water, etc.?

Fisher: Studies have shown that use of energy displays with benchmarks have a significant effect on energy usage. On a recent University of California dormitory project, we proposed providing data on a floor-by-floor level to setup a competition among floors to decrease energy usage. We even considered showing the data on a room-by-room level, but this idea was nixed due to privacy concerns.

Foster: Not in dormitories, but yes we’ve provided energy-use displays in buildings. The goal is to provide this feedback to inform and reinforce more intelligent, more prudent energy use.