Making the grade with K-12 projects: automation and controls

With state-of-the-art learning facilities, sustainability concerns, and modern design, K-12 schools can be just as advanced as colleges and universities and—for consulting-specifying engineers—just as demanding. The following focuses on automation and controls in K-12 schools.

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer March 31, 2017


Mike Barbes, PE, LC, Senior Electrical Engineer, AECOM, Atlanta

Ben Hobbs, PE, Mechanical Engineer, CMTA Consulting Engineers, Lexington,

Ky.Timothy J. LaRose, PE, Vice President Development, Education, JENSEN HUGHES, Warwick, R.I.

Jason Moyer, PE, PMP, STS, Senior Mechanical Manager, Brinjac Engineering, Baltimore

Jon Rasmussen, PE, LEED AP BD+C, Energy+Engineering Leader/Senior Associate, DLR Group, Denver

CSE: When working on monitoring and control systems in such facilities, what factors do you consider?

Moyer: There are a few factors that come into play, and they depend upon the goals of the project. Both LEED and ASHRAE 90.1: Energy Standard for Buildings Except Low-Rise Residential Buildings have a certain level of requirements that must be considered to comply with local energy codes and/or LEED certification. In addition, the owner must consider the operating and maintenance staff’s experience and where staff is located in respect to the facility being monitored. A system that is simple to operate and maintain is highly valued.

Hobbs: Simplicity, in terms of the facilities personnel’s knowledge of controls systems, is always my first consideration. It is always my goal to provide the owner with a control system that can be managed by the facilities staff, if possible. The controls system needs to be provided so it matches, or has the capability to integrate with, their existing controls at a building level and districtwide front-end level. I find that an increasing number of owners and their representatives have a working knowledge of controls and what they like. Making sure controls meet their needs and expectations is paramount when implementing controls for a new project. Owners are seeing the value in controls and monitoring points, not only as they relate to the function of their facilities but also in how the occupants can benefit from the data that controls and monitoring are capable of providing. If controls are designed and specified correctly, they can be a valuable tool in connecting real-world applications to classroom lessons and learning. Simple examples include analyzing energy consumption versus energy production, HVAC energy consumption as temperatures vary, and lighting levels versus cloud coverage. One of the more important factors to consider is the expectations of the owner’s user interface. The user interface can vastly vary depending on what role a project’s controls will play in the K-12 environment.

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

Hobbs: Most problems I have with controls all stem from punching the control system to ensure proper operation of sequences or commissioning for mostly the same reason. Where I see the biggest failure of sequences is at the controller level, when the project temperature-and-controls contractor is required to integrate with an equipment-factory controller. Overcoming these problems requires a persistent commissioning agent or an engineer who will continue to require witnessing of all sequences until they work.

CSE: What unique tools are the owners of K-12 school projects including in their automation and controls systems?

Hobbs: Unique tools include curriculum integration, data-driven monitoring points, and unique equipment like weather stations that are purely to add learning opportunities for students. Curriculum integration is created by the engineer and owner closely collaborating on the appearance, usability, and data provided by a controls system. Often, by the time controls are fully developed, taking them to a level that creates learning opportunities is achievable with minimal additional work and cost—depending on the level to which controls will be integrated into the curriculum.

CSE: How have you worked with the building owner or facility manager to implement the Internet of Things (IoT) into their facility management? Have you helped catalog every device in a K-12 building, such as lights, fire alarms, electrical outlets, and other products?

Hobbs: “Go Green” buttons to dim lights and set back room temperatures based on a manual occupancy override. If occupants are comfortable and lighting conditions are favorable, then the opportunity exists to save energy with the press of a button. Red, yellow, and green lights have been linked into controls energy monitoring to provide how a building is performing in real time. Dark campus strategies are often used in our designs, where unoccupied buildings go dark on their own with real-time monitoring of occupancy.

CSE: What are some of the challenges incorporating the IoT into facility design for existing facilities or new construction projects?

Hobbs: Integration into existing building controls or the district front-end is a challenge. In addition, the project owner and owner’s representative’s level of understanding and ability to use IoT effectively. Many times, the biggest challenges in automating buildings are the continued maintenance and desire of the district to follow through using IoT. Along the same lines, is understanding how far to take the IoT into facility design based on, again, the owner and owner’s representative’s level of understanding and ability to use IoT.

CSE: Do you find that advanced technology is having a significant impact on K-12 facility design? Please describe a project in which technology played a large role, such as receptacles, circuit length, wireless Internet, advanced security, etc.

Hobbs: Mesh network and wireless HVAC controls have helped in eliminating control wiring throughout existing buildings and areas in which installation could be complicated, like existing slushed walls. Virtual reality has presented the opportunity to use buildings as learning tools. We designed an elementary school in Arlington, Va., and then set up the building to be viewed through VR headsets. As one moves through different portions of the building, interactive VR buttons appear and allow the user to gather more information, such as energy use, energy production, and detailed equipment information. Along the same lines, the VR has been adapted to where it can help facilities staff by pulling up O&M manuals and videos relating to certain pieces of equipment.