Automation, Controls

Tap into a building automation system’s data and maximize investment

It’s possible to marry the old building automation system with newer pieces of mechanical equipment, gaining functionality and efficiency without having to replace the entire automation system

By Bob Swanger November 12, 2021
Courtesy: Harris

A key component to successful building operation lies in the performance and sustainability of the systems that heat and cool facilities, as well as filter and clean the air that keeps occupants healthy and comfortable. It’s no surprise this equipment becomes less efficient and wears out over time.

Building systems are generally overdesigned and very robust. They can handle failures and problems, and while that’s great, it may mean the building has an invisible issue.

Many component failures don’t show any symptoms as other system components work extra hard to overcome the issue. No one catches the utility bill increases because they’re handled by accounts payable. Occupants remain comfortable and don’t recognize anything has failed; meanwhile, the systems are working double time to overcome the deficit. This undetected problem places excessive wear and tear on the building systems while creating a ton of wasted energy.

When a building is new or newly commissioned, it performs well. System performance erodes over time due to normal wear and tear. The facility may be recommissioned or receive routine preventive maintenance and it performs well again. The performance eventually erodes again and the vicious cycle continues resulting in a gradual decline in performance.

Methods for managing buildings have changed and become better, but how do owners optimize their existing investment while taking advantage of new technology? Courtesy: Harris

Methods for managing buildings have changed and become better, but how do owners optimize their existing investment while taking advantage of new technology? Courtesy: Harris

Now add in the probability the building automation system controlling the heating, ventilation and air conditioning equipment is original to the commercial building and hasn’t been kept up to date — and, there’s not a lot of system communication happening.

Today’s available connectivity just didn’t exist when most commercial buildings were constructed. Antiquated systems typically used proprietary technology platforms available only through a stand-alone terminal with obscure terminology and simple graphics that had to be decoded by anyone who could — which means, not much data from the facility was used to improve building performance.

Using the building automation system wisely

Fortunately, methods for managing buildings have changed and become better. The question is: How do consulting engineers help owners optimize their existing investment while taking advantage of new technology?

Take this example. The owner of a 25-year-old building with a 15-year-old BAS. The owner could get a few more years out of the BAS, but some of the mechanical equipment, such as the boiler or chiller, is deteriorating and need to be replaced soon. The newer equipment produces rich performance data and can communicate with new building automation standards, but cannot communicate with the old BAS, leaving the owner with a decision to either spend the extra money to upgrade the BAS and equipment or piecemeal the systems together and forfeit the benefits of an integrated system.

With today’s technology, it’s possible to marry the old BAS with newer pieces of mechanical equipment, gaining functionality and efficiency without having to replace the entire automation system.

By leveraging existing data being generated by the equipment and BAS, owners can preserve their assets, improve performance, reduce energy costs and increase occupancy comfort. Skilled BAS specialists and facility analytics engineers can also discover what equipment information is available, but not currently communicating within the building. That data can be monetized to improve overall business and facility performance once it is accessed, configured and analyzed.

It’s about innovation and thinking beyond the restraints of the past. And, with the right facility analytics platform, a simple retrofit, such as adding motion sensors to a lighting system, can become pieces of information to be leveraged to improve other building systems.

Telemetry uses facility analytics to help diagnose building maintenance needs, identify issues early and find energy savings opportunities. Courtesy: Harris

Telemetry uses facility analytics to help diagnose building maintenance needs, identify issues early and find energy savings opportunities. Courtesy: Harris

Building automation system data and analytics

There are millions of data points generated in a typical building. Unlocking the data and knowing what to do with it is key. With facility analytics, data can be collected from sensors on a building’s existing equipment systems to better diagnose malfunctions and find energy savings opportunities. Leveraging this information improves service and outcomes for the building, which means reduced energy costs and more sustainable systems for owners.

So, what has changed in facility management? Traditionally, system maintenance has fallen into three general models.

  • A “run to failure strategy” where a new system is put in and when it breaks, service is called. Technicians may also clean or change a filter, but it’s 100% reactive.
  • Then there’s the preventive plan. This model is a little more proactive as maintenance follows manufacturer guidelines (i.e., change filters every quarter, clean coils in the spring, etc.).
  • Higher yet is the predictive model where maintenance becomes even more preemptive. Measures are used, such as vibration analysis or infrared thermography, to assess the reliability of a building’s systems.

The problem is building owners are proactively chasing a reactive problem. While it’s proactive to identify an issue, the reality is, you’re picking up something that has already happened. Users can fix the vibration, but they don’t know when it occurred or how much damage it caused. While fixing the problem is better than nothing, but it doesn’t provide a complete picture.

That’s the real role of data — finding deviations in real time. With facility analytics, data scientists can see what’s happening in the building 24/7 year-round and apply a set of rules to see trends and determine how well things are performing — with no additional manpower. If certain patterns are known to lead to the eventual failure of a component that trend can be identified early and action can be taken to prevent a more costly fix down the road.


Bob Swanger
Author Bio: Bob Swanger, executive vice president, Service + Building Automation, Harris, is a successful executive and business leader with more than 30 years of industry experience.