Information Becoming Key to Increased Energy Efficiency in Building Automation

Since the output of energy from renewable sources remains much lower than that of traditional oil, gas and coal, adjustments must be made to reduce consumption. One way to reduce consumption is to make buildings more energy efficient.

By Omar Talpur, Market Analyst for IHS Building Technologies August 8, 2014

One of the main issues of the twenty-first century is how countries will be able to cut carbon emissions and move toward sources of renewable energy. Since the output of energy from renewable sources remains much lower than that of traditional oil, gas and coal, adjustments must be made to reduce consumption. One way to reduce consumption is to make buildings more energy efficient. To avoid higher energy costs due to increased taxes, building owners have begun looking at building automation systems to regulate one of the largest consumers of energy: the heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) units, according to a recent report from IHS Technology (NYSE: IHS).

Why is automating HVAC systems important?

The need to regulate HVAC units has become more apparent with each passing year. For example, in 2012, the United States used more energy for air conditioning than all the other countries in the world combined. This is an enormous amount of power and there are many factors which are only going to further contribute to the use of air conditioning in the United States and elsewhere around the world.

For example, over the past 70 years in the United States, in concurrence with the invention of air conditioning, there has been a shift in where people live. In 1961, 54% of the US population was found in the Northeast and Midwest. This has dwindled to 39% in 2010 and the trend has continued to accelerate over the past few years. With the population moving to warmer regions and trading harsh winters for harsh summers, there is an increased need for air conditioning during the much warmer summer months.

Outside of the US, in the developing regions like India, China and Brazil, the main reason air conditioning isn’t used currently is because of relatively poor nature of their residents. As their populations become wealthier, it is assumed that they will try to emulate the climate control needs of developed nations. This will only further increase the amount of energy needed.

In Europe, due to climate change and the desire to curtail carbon emissions, many governments have continued to increase taxes related to energy usage which has forced buildings to continually find better ways to manage consumption.

How does building automation make for more energy efficient buildings?

Building automation systems work by taking a variety of different measurement, set points and programs and use them to maintain a comfortable environment. These different data points are central to a building automation system because they allow the system to maintain a certain climate while minimizing waste.

One way this is achieved by strategically placing sensors throughout a building. In this way, a building automation system works much differently than a thermostat which adjusts comfort in a room based solely on temperature. While temperature remains a crucial part in building automation, systems are using more advanced sensors to measure humidity and air quality as well as light, occupancy and motion to gain a more complete picture of a buildings’ climate.

One sensor which is becoming more common is carbon dioxide sensors, a type of air quality sensor which measures the concentration of CO2 in the room. Since each human breathes out roughly the same amount of CO2, the measurement can be used to determine if air quality in the room is uncomfortable or unhealthy. One of the effects of high CO2 concentrations is that it can make people feel drowsy which can affect productivity in an office building. Currently, many ventilation systems do not perform effectively as they may run only when the AC kicks on, at certain times or even all day long. By adding CO2 sensing capability as part of a building automation system, the system can be programmed to run only when CO2 concentration reaches a certain level.

In addition to the high energy consumption of ventilation systems and AC, waste can also be attributed to light fixtures. There has been a movement to integrate lighting with HVAC controls through the use of sensors, such as light, occupancy and motion sensors. Monitoring the use of lights in vacant areas can greatly reduce the amount of energy consumed. Regionally, IHS believes lighting control to be more prevalent in Western Europe than North America. This is believed to be the result of the higher energy costs which means buildings in Western Europe have more incentive to automate lighting. An interesting trend with light, occupancy and motion is that some installations have begun using CO2 sensors to regulate lighting. For example, presence measurement can be associated with the amount of C02 in a room, turning lights off and on based on occupancy.

How are building automation systems improving on energy efficiency?

Perhaps the most important item for a building automation system is information. With the right information, building automation integrators are able to design robust systems. The more information an integrator can use, the more robust and unique the system integrator can make the building automation system. As the actual technology of controllers and sensors in the industry has not changed much over the past several decades, how the information is used is where systems can be improved and is where integrators and manufacturers are looking to improve their projects.

One example of how information can be used to make a system more efficient is how energy prices can affect when a system runs. In most places around the world, the price of electricity fluctuates based on what time of the day it is. Price of energy is usually higher in the afternoon when the outside temperature is at its hottest than in the middle of the night when temperature is at its coolest. Currently, integrators are interested in developing ways to read energy prices and use it to run the systems during better hours. Currently, there are systems which are programmed with a general bell curve on how energy prices fluctuate, but more precise data could make the systems more efficient. This is especially the case in Europe where more energy is now produced by wind farms and other renewable sources. One problem with wind sourced energy is it can come in gusts and the energy created cannot be stored very efficiently so it has to be given away. If building automation systems could learn about cheaper, or even free energy, they could use the energy to cool a building down to a lower than normal temperature and then allow the temperature to coast up over a given timeframe. This would save the building money and also make sure that energy would not be going to waste.

Furthermore, companies have been able to use data gathered from sensors and other sources to make buildings more efficient. The MGM Grand Casino in Macau is a prime example of poor commissioning and how data analysis can promote efficiency. Despite only being three years old at the time in February 2009, the energy costs surpassed $1.3 million each month. A team was then sent to investigate the issue and over an 11 month period managed to save $3.1 million in energy costs through meticulous commissioning.

A more well-known use case is the Microsoft campus in Redmond, Washington. The 500-acre, 125 building campus has been developed over the past several decades. Over this time, different building systems from various manufacturers have been used. In 2009, Microsoft began to unify the disparate systems by developing software which was used to string together building sensors spread across the company’s campus. These sensors, which track the HVAC system as well as other items like fans and lights, allows the facility management team to collects billions of data points per week. This data has allowed them to spot and correct inefficiencies in their buildings which allows them to cut down the amount of energy used. The hope at Microsoft is that the smart buildings will be a stepping stone to smart cities.

What is the future of building automation?

As countries, companies and individuals try to curtail CO2 emissions and further reduce the consumption of energy, building automation systems continue to increase in importance. While the overall products in the building automation industry, such as controllers and sensors, are not expected to change much in the coming years, this does not mean the value of these products will remain static. As integrators find new ways to analyze the data available to them and add supplementary data sources, building automation systems will become even more robust and make energy usage more efficient.

Omar Talpur has worked on a number of studies covering a wide range of industries at IHS, which include: Explosives, Weapons and Contraband Detection Equipment; Mass Notification Systems; Door Automation; and Pedestrian Entrance Control Equipment.Omar is also leading IHS Technology’s Building Technologies research. Edited by Anisa Samarxhiu, Digital Project Manager, CFE Media,