Industrial-strength design: Automation and controls

Manufacturing and industrial facilities tackle heavy-duty projects during their day-to-day operations—so it makes sense that engineers working on such structures face a number of tough challenges. Engineers offer advice on how to achieve strong results in building automation and control systems.

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer June 29, 2015


Jerry Bauers, PE, NEBB Qualified Professional, National Program Executive, Outcome Construction Services, Kansas City, Mo.

Jason R. Gerke, PE, LEED AP BD+C, CxA, Mechanical and Plumbing Group Leader, GRAEF, Milwaukee

Mark O’Connell, PE, Manager of Facilities Engineering, Matrix Technologies Inc., Maumee, Ohio

CSE: When designing integrated monitoring and control systems, what factors do you consider?

Gerke: Many facilities have existing HVAC control systems in place that serve equipment throughout the facility. We often work with an owner to determine if they want to extend an existing system, replace the system, or add another system to the facility. We work with owners to review the capabilities of existing systems, how they currently use them, how they want to use the system, and to estimate the costs of those options. Talking directly with the facility staff using the systems is the most important step when working through the options.

Bauers: In the industrial facility controls world, increasing demanding performance requires that we consider the speed of the automation system and its ability to monitor and archive facility performance records. Integration can be used to support compliance in regulated industries. Thus, the methodologies of monitoring, archiving, and reporting operating performance data must be coordinated with regulatory compliance teams to assure a robust support for this aspect of the business strategy. In addition, opportunities exist today to use monitoring systems to improve process and environmental control and maintenance. We always work with the owner’s operations team to configure integrated systems that most effectively support preventive and predictive maintenance strategies employed by the owner’s team.

CSE: What are some common problems you encounter when working on building automation systems (BAS)?

Bauers: In the industrial sector, the challenges of implementing effective control systems (i.e., BAS) are similar to any other sector. As a commissioning agent, our first challenge is to assure the design/construction team that the definitions of operating sequences, graphical interfaces, and monitoring, alarming, and reporting strategies are adequately defined in the early stages of a project. A control system can only be accountable to a good plan. The second challenge is in assisting the control vendor and the construction team in incrementally constructing the control system, so that it can be brought online with the mechanical systems in an orderly fashion as the project nears its completion dates. Finally, a constructed control system only works well when it is “tuned” to operate the installed mechanical systems and the physical limitations inherent to those systems and components. As a project nears its conclusion, start-up, system tuning, and validation of system performance in steady-state, transition, and failure conditions must occur in a timely manner. The configuration parameters, device and transition timing, and calibration of devices also are essential to performance delivery.

Gerke: Often an owner wants to use the same manufacturer’s system they have used in the past, even if the technology is 15 years old. Allowing a building owner to continue working with old technology limits the opportunities for maximizing new equipment and system capabilities.

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

Gerke: It is not uncommon for our staff to experience issues during construction, or when we are performing commissioning activities, due to multiple system vendors who have issues with system interoperability. This issue might occur when integrating lighting controls, power monitoring, HVAC, and plumbing equipment. We have found that making multiple references to the requirements for integration—not only in the direct digital control (DDC) specification, but also in each specific system section—helps alert all contractors and vendors to the requirement. It is our opinion that the DDC contractor is the integration leader, but notifying the other vendors at the bidding phase helps reduce some of the pain in the field at the completion of construction.

Bauers: The biggest integration challenges for us have come from two sources. The first is always integration of legacy systems. While drivers exist or can be written to communicate with these systems, we often are required to both validate existing components and to reconfigure elements of the legacy system to ensure unique naming conventions. We also find that manufacturers will, from time to time, upgrade their internal controls in a manner that compromises their interoperability with existing BAS communication devices. In these cases, we must identify this issue as early as possible to ensure that we have enough time to write new drivers before the project is turned over to the owner.