How to make buildings smarter than their managers

How to make buildings smarter than their managers

Office building image by pcruciatti via Shutterstock

General Electric uses detection and diagnostic tools in more than 25,000 airplane engines, allowing it to proactively identify faults and route planes efficiently to be repaired. Those same tools hold the promise of allowing facility managers to see energy-related problems before they go far, even automating fixes to let them focus on other matters.

"The key concept is optimization," said Jill Feblowitz, vice president of IDC Energy Insights, during a GreenBiz webcast on building analytics Tuesday.

The smart building analytics market is estimated to grow from $5.5 billion in 2012 to more than $18 billion in 2017, she said, boosted along as more buildings both start using analytics and move to advanced technologies.

The starting point for most will be reporting dashboards, allowing facility managers to view building data. The next add-on is alerting capabilities, which include those fault detection and diagnostics systems GE uses. Lastly are the proactive analytics, the ones that bring in data from a facility such as occupancy patterns along with external data such as weather conditions to advise what managers should do or even take actions on their own.

"These tools vary in their abilities to provide a facility manager with the ability to make better decisions, or they can be fully automated," Feblowitz said.

For example, if a piece of equipment is calling for both heating and cooling at the same time, a fault is likely involved, said Scott Herman, product development director for Johnson Controls. Using applications within a system such as Johnson Controls' Panoptix, a facility manager could create a rule that identifies any simultaneous heating and cooling as a fault and take specific action when that fault comes up.

Beyond simple rules, Herman said that analytics can go so far as to learn how a piece of equipment or building behaves, and identify faults or problems based on actions that fall outside what’s typical.

"We call this 'achieving the new normal,'" he said. Using analytics allow managers to set "new normals" for each building, allowing faults to be specific to each building.

In the first 120 days of using a Johnson Control application, Western Kentucky University identified a number of faults that, once handled, allowed it to create more comfortable learning environments and recover its investment in less than six months, Herman said.

In addition to managing what energy is being used or predicting how it will be used, analytics can model possibilities, such as if a facilities manager wanted to pre-cool buildings. That manager could model out how much energy or money would be saved by cooling the building early in the day, then turning off coolers during utilities' peak energy load times. Along with modeling energy use, analytics could allow a peek into how those changes also would affect tenants' comfort levels.

For companies looking to get started with building analytics or go deeper with their systems, Feblowitz advises to start with an inventory of existing building sensors and management systems, making sure they're all accounted for and connected, and that sensors are where they are needed.

Companies also should identify "champions" to guide and move projects forward so they don't get brushed off to the side when other, seemingly more pressing issues arise. Hand-in-hand with having a champion is making sure that all employees are made aware of what energy projects are taking place along with the benefits or the projects.

Helping businesses along is the newfound sense of openness among energy companies.

"The industry has been very fragmented for years," Herman said, adding that most companies, including Johnson Controls, didn't want their products to be open and able to connect with other companies' equipment. "Instead of fearing the technology of others in the space, we are now embracing that."

Office building image by pcruciatti via Shutterstock

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