Building systems integration best practices

Building automation systems (BAS) allow for state-of-the-art systems integration in nonresidential buildings.


Learning objectives

  • Measure the options available for building automation systems (BAS).
  • Compare the protocols for system integration.
  • Apply a BAS to improve energy efficiency.

Figure 1: This schematic shows typical integrated building systems and associated protocols for a research facility. Courtesy: Affiliated Engineers Inc.While 30 yr of advances in building automation have allowed owners to do more with less, the benefits remain accompanied by challenges. Open building automation system (BAS) communications protocols have made systems integration relatively easy, but in the absence of data and automation optimization, energy reduction, optimal maintenance, and greater staff productivity are being left on the table. Integrating otherwise disparate BAS into enterprise-level software platforms establishes a business case for state-of-the-art systems integration.

Systems should be integrated to solve business problems, and facilities owners are using systems integration to significantly improve key performance indicators ranging from energy and operational efficiencies to enhancing user experiences. A process-oriented approach to systems integration drives maximum benefit, beginning with the critical process of defining the problem. Developing detailed specifications and implementation strategies allows for the identification of best-value-based solutions. Incorporating requirements such as training for staff and vision for future systems will help sustain the benefits of the systems’ integration for the long term.

The challenge, the breakthrough

Facilities owners historically have struggled with proprietary protocols that have hindered systems integration. Owners were often locked into one building automation vendor or had to deal with multiple stand-alone BAS, a circumstance that negatively affected their ability to negotiate cost and compromising their operational efficiency. Third-party equipment and disparate systems made proactive operation and maintenance difficult. Escalating energy and operational costs exacerbated shortcomings, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

The evolution of BAS communication protocols from vendor-specific proprietary languages to more open industry-standard protocols has made systems integration relatively easy. Engineers are now routinely specifying third-party equipment such as chillers, boilers, and variable frequency drives to be integrated with the BAS. In many instances, owners already have multiple BAS integrated into an enterprise-level software platform, allowing them flexibility in selecting building controls based on value while simultaneously maintaining a consistent user interface for operational efficiency.

While open-communication protocols have largely solved one fundamental systems integration problem, facility managers face another challenge, namely, data deluge. Thinking beyond the immediate problem of communication between the systems and prioritizing management of building data in support of owner business goals is vital to effectively developing and specifying systems integration solutions. Successful use of data and the automation and optimization of facility-management work processes is where the real value of systems integration can be achieved.

A process-based approach

A process of four critical steps forms a basis for maximizing the benefits of integration:

1. Scope definition

Any systems integration scope discussion should start with the identification of myriad challenges that need to be addressed and a mechanism to measure success after the integration work has been completed. In this vein, solving a single problem may prove to have multiple benefits. Thinking through all the benefits and developing a detailed business case prior to finalizing systems integration scope establishes criteria for prioritization and selection. Too often, the full complement of benefits possible through systems integration is left unrealized. An ideation-type workshop that brings multiple stakeholders together in a structured manner can facilitate the discovery of all the possible opportunities, thus allowing the organization to act in the context of their business goals.

One large university in the Midwest implemented a series of ideation workshops to help reduce their rising energy cost. To address this challenge, a strategy to integrate class schedules with BAS was identified and developed. Linking class schedules with BAS would allow for energy savings when classrooms were not used. Further exploration revealed the need for class schedule information in resolving work orders as well. By passing the class schedule information into work-order management software, work orders could be scheduled around class times, thereby reducing the time wasted by maintenance staff waiting for classes to finish to gain access to that space.

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