How to transition legacy campus building controls into a smart system

How Baylor University modernized its legacy systems to provide more efficiency

By Aaron Szalaj March 28, 2023
Courtesy: Baylor University


Learning Objectives

  • Learn how a consulting engineer provides value to a building automation system upgrade.
  • Understand the technical steps needed to update building automation equipment when performing this type of upgrade.
  • Explore how to manage a large number of stakeholders that are typically involved in a project such as this.

Smart system insights

  • Pilot installations can show an organization issues or answers before installing all new systems because they may not be necessary.
  • Using accurate documents and collaborating with the correct staff and resources ensures the most efficient solutions.
  • The consulting engineer must be vendor agnostic and have the technical expertise to screen out the arguments and get to the facts.

Chartered in 1845, Baylor University is the oldest continuously operated university in Texas. Twenty years later the Baptist private institution merged with Waco University and made Waco its home. Today Baylor is every bit the nationally ranked scholastic educator and research institution, matriculating more than 17,000 students annually. Naturally, it was decided that its legacy campus building controls needed to be updated into a smart system.

Baylor has changed with the times and so has its stately South Texas campus that has grown to 1,000 acres. The same is true for the campus utility systems. As with many U.S. campuses, Baylor grew in a more ad hoc manner, rather than adhering to a master plan and campus utilities followed that pattern. Common features included old steam tunnels and piping, manual light switches, no energy meters and wiring from the early 1900s, such as the nob and tube type. Every building was operated separately by manual control.

Pilot installation underlines need for a campuswide smart system

Automatic building controls didn’t arrive in the industry until the 1970s and ’80s. The state-of-the-art up to this time limited controls to individual buildings. Comprehensive network controls weren’t available.

Over the decades, Baylor pieced together the vendor’s campuswide system, but it did not have the capabilities of today’s systems. At Baylor, the software running the systems and equipment was proprietary, which limited replacement parts and upgrades to one vendor.

The lack of an open protocol control system was exposed when the utility manager Aramark worked with Baylor, its client and Stanley Consultants, its owners engineer, to install a pilot program to test whether new, nonproprietary equipment could be installed in the science lab, as the owner and its operator sought access to a wider range of equipment choices.

The pilot program involved installing a new lab hood controller from an outside vendor. The project experienced a problem when the lab hood’s controller would not communicate with the incumbent building control system via BACnet. This realization instigated a vendor evaluation for the sitewide building automation system upgrade.

The pilot exposed a critical vulnerability and major question regarding the campus utility operation going forward: The equipment and system controllers couldn’t embrace all vendor options. Moreso, the software that ran the legacy building controller was going to be unsupported or retired within the next year. Should the entire campus system be scrapped and replaced with a BACnet capable system?

University officials and Aramark, which operates campus utilities under a maintenance contract, came to the realization that its building systems have come to the end of their useful lives. It was time to install a smart system that allowed a central center to control all campus building systems. Baylor found itself in a situation mirrored by most established universities: It was time for a change and control system update. It was time to bring a smart building concept to the old, stately campus.

The irony of the dilemma posed by the pilot installation was that the new equipment and building controllers did actually communicate. After a two-day investigation by field technicians, it was discovered that an incorrect access code had been punched into the equipment controller that prevented the two software programs from talking.

Pictured is the Baylor University Sciences building, which was a part of the legacy campus building controls that needed to be updated into a smart system.

Pictured is the Baylor University Sciences building, which was a part of the legacy campus building controls that needed to be updated into a smart system. Courtesy: Baylor University

Consulting engineers should consider a pilot program

As the Baylor example shows, before making a high-stakes decision for or against a campuswide controls upgrade, it’s a good idea to set up a pilot program to test new equipment. This approach exemplifies the role of the consulting engineer, who serves as an independent, trusted adviser in a situation that involves many biased stakeholders with differing opinions regarding technology.

Baylor set up a pilot controller made by a different vendor than the original equipment using industry standard communication protocol or BACnet, which is becoming the industry standard for building automated controls. A wall panel was installed that managed a ventilation hood in a laboratory. Three different manufacturers were interviewed, including the incumbent vendor, to ask if their varied instrumentation could communicate with the controller and prove the open protocol.

The pilot program showed that the two new vendors would have to replace approximately 10% more building equipment throughout campus than the incumbent’s overlay system would require, therefore adding project cost. There was also the possibility of less functionality with new vendor equipment. The incumbent vendor had the ability to retrieve information from and communicate with the old system equipment and in addition, was also BACnet certified.

Although the client’s preference was to install a system that could accommodate a variety of equipment vendors, Baylor and Aramark chose the incumbent vendor to update its systems and as-required equipment.

Despite the final choice of vendors, the pilot program proved that a nonvendor specific device communicating BACnet can connect and communicate natively with the updated system.

Ultimately, less than 10% of the BAS equipment had to be replaced. Approximately 25 panels were replaced to enhance data communications and network capabilities. Another 70 panels had to have firmware upgrades performed to allow them to integrate with the new system. New buildings that were in construction were already incorporating the new technology.

Design and installation challenges of a smart system

Accurate documents:

With any large, long serving and complex asset, such as a power or water treatment plant and in this case a sprawling campus, changes and adjustments are made. New buildings and utilities are added. In the case of control systems, how does the consulting engineer know what’s there, the exact location and whether the asset is working?

Incomplete documentation of current systems is the norm. The first task of the consulting engineer is to recreate, update and verify a complete set of documents that include additions of wiring, conduits, relays, switches, various BAS and network equipment.

People and resources:

When installing an overlay system of controls, it’s necessary to have a team of building maintenance staff and managers available to work with the new equipment installers and programmers. This can become tricky because in a university’s case, the best time to install new technology is during the winter holiday, given heavy use of the buildings such as the Baylor Sciences Building. However, that’s also the traditional holiday for maintenance staff, so it took coordinating many moving pieces to schedule the installations.

Related resources had to be upgraded at Baylor. Its servers, required to handle a larger data flow, had to be upgraded, as well as the obsolete server operating system. Add to this the risk of bricking or when an older piece of equipment doesn’t respond to a firmware upgrade. At Baylor, equipment was purchased at extra cost to mitigate the bricking risk and none was experienced; however, the vendor had encountered it on other projects. Bricking is costly, because it requires a purchase of entirely new equipment and software.

The consulting engineer’s role is vital in solving the people and resources puzzle. The consulting engineer has the experience and expertise to anticipate potential issues and move quickly to resolve them before they become serious. The engineer assigns responsibilities and ownership of various project activities to individuals and follows up to make sure they are taken care of.

Pictured is the side of the Baylor University Sciences building.

Pictured is the side of the Baylor University Sciences building. Courtesy: Baylor University

Supply chain issues:

Since COVID-19 hit, the supply chain has been disrupted. For example, when upgrading network components, replacing building equipment or adding network drops to expand the network orders need to be placed more in advance. Delivery times that took weeks now take months.

Cybersecurity with a smart system:

Baylor and its operator incorporated security into its controls from the start. They engaged all stakeholders, including the server, IT and security team in conversations about what changes were being made. As decisions were made to design and optimize the network, the stakeholders contributed and achieved their goals as well.

The decision was made that while upgrading new building controls, the campus system would migrate to a new utilities command and control network. This network handles all data traffic for maintenance and operations of the campus and it runs separately from the faculty and staff network that operated on the old network. The campus operations, faculty and staff networks were managed separately for security purposes.

For example, vendors who previously had to send technicians on-site to upgrade controls to a smart system could tap into the campus operations systems with their laptops, tablets or phones. From the project’s start, vendor network specialists worked with the campus IT, server and security team to ensure they had secure connections and allowed vendors to negotiate through firewalls remotely. This is the right way to make cybersecurity part of the original controls design, rather than react to a negative event later with a bolted-on solution.

The role of the consulting engineer in the security and resources side of the project was to provide continuity from a systems perspective during staff turnover that occurred. The installation of a new smart system for a district is a long-term project and without knowing how to get purchase orders executed and getting things done by asking the right people for approvals can create chaos. The consulting engineer’s role is to smooth the ruffles caused by turnovers.

Benefits and capabilities of the new smart system

Baylor University’s two-year smart systems controls update brings an integrated control center that accesses all campus building and utility data. The data is the foundation of the consolidated building controls pyramid. The systems controlled include hydronics, fire control and fire alarm, lighting, emergency alarms and heating, ventilation and air conditioning.

Managers can access the smart system via a web interface on personal computers or mobile apps. Scientist users can access the lab controls to see if lab equipment is operating correctly. Vendors can upgrade software remotely instead of sending a technician to the site.

The future will bring energy cost reduction measures, such as temperature resets, occupancy sensors, sophisticated air exchange controls and Internet of Things capabilities. It will open the world to what the client wants to do and advertise an energy-efficient, environmentally friendly, sustainable and safe campus.

Pictured is Baylor University’s Pat Neff Hall, which was also part of the transition to a smart system.

Pictured is Baylor University’s Pat Neff Hall, which was also part of the transition to a smart system. Courtesy: Baylor University

The role and value of consulting engineers

The consulting engineer’s role in a control systems upgrade is valuable inasmuch that the consultant comes from a neutral point of view. The consulting engineer must be vendor agnostic. The consultant is not trying to make more money from selling more equipment or software bells and whistles. The consulting engineer advises the client on what they really need, versus what’s not necessary for effective controls. The consulting engineer’s role is more referee than invested player. The engineer wants to make the project work; and if not, why doesn’t it work?

In this case, one vendor was telling the consultant the outside vendor’s equipment wasn’t BACnet certified, while the vendor insisted that it was. Without the consulting engineer screening out the arguments and getting to the facts, the incorrect data entry at the device may not have been discovered. The consulting engineer must have the technical expertise to screen out the many persuasive arguments of vendors and do so dispassionately.

The ability to communicate complex technology in simple terms was important. The Stanley Consultants team could explain what the client couldn’t understand or mistrusted about the vendor. The result was to heal the relationship between vendor and facilities manager.

Author Bio: Aaron Szalaj, PE, is a principal control systems engineer with Stanley Consultants, Denver. He has more than 20 years of professional engineering experience. His project experience includes renewable energies, water and wastewater, energy systems and federal installations. He specializes in control systems and project management, providing a unique perspective on each project to which he contributes. Szalaj has extensive experience with control systems and electrical engineering.