Intelligent buildings - The marriage of technology and energy efficiency


A factor key to relationships, marriage, keeping customers happy and probably life in general, is communication. In this respect, little technological black boxes installed in buildings are no different to human beings says Lee Harvey, director at ICS (Eastern)

Technology coming together and being installed on site, is similar to humans getting together in a meeting. Even the most intelligent group of individuals gathered together needs a chairman to control proceedings. Without a chairman, the temperature can quickly rise as everyone starts yelling at each other with no one listening. Everyone has information, everyone has a point of view and everyone has their own agenda.

In addition, all parties need to speak the same language. Any non-English speaking stranger would not understand the rest of the meeting. This forces them to just carry on doing their own thing, probably at odds with everyone else.  

The need for a chairman
Driven by technology, every building system manufacturer wishes to add value to their product range. Over the years, every supplier has added more intelligence into their building management system (BMS) or packaged unit. The greater the brain, the greater the perceived value and the more a supplier can charge. Packages such as window controls, split units, chillers, boilers, ventilation stacks and an overall BMS each aim to be as efficient as possible, and subsequently as dominant as possible.

Each system is often standalone and manages specific processes. This frequently results in one system trying to heat an area whilst another fights to cool it. The HVAC control will heat a classroom, whilst the window control, possibly set at a slightly lower set-point, will let all the hard earned warm air out to meet its pre-set target. This is very inefficient, costly and certainly increases a building’s carbon footprint, all in an age where green is good. Equally, the natural ventilation system, with its own controls, CO2 sensor and user interface, may fight against the under-floor heating. The end user, for example the teacher, could have two or three local user interfaces (displays, controls, dials etc) to understand.

And so a chairman is required. A BMS that has an overall view of the state of the building can call the shots, decide who speaks, who stays silent and who acquiesces. There has to be a system that takes a step back, assesses the control strategy required, and presents all the data to the facilities team via graphic interfaces. This marriage of technology does not need a Relate councillor, it needs a strong chairman who sets down the meeting rules and controls the agenda.

A common language
For twenty years, the building management industry has suffered from ‘Lost in Translation’. The capability for every electronic box to speak the same language has been hindered, not because of technological barriers, but because of political or commercial barriers. These common languages (open protocols) that allow systems to seamlessly work together such as BACnet, Echelon and Modbus have been promised for many years. I truly believe these technologies have now come of age and genuinely allow systems to seamlessly work together. They allow integration between complementary and competing packages. Many manufacturers still insist on proprietary protocols, which lock a client into a system for life. The only way they can extend a system is to buy more of the same. This leads not only to a lack of choice for the client, but is detrimental to the communication required for energy efficiency.

From a life cycle point of view, the client is unable to extend their system with an alternative competing system. Customers are bound to the same product source with the obvious consequence on pricing. From a construction point of view, complementary hardware cannot talk to each other and share data without open protocols. If nothing else, systems can share the same sensor inputs rather than each have their own temperature, humidity or CO2 sensors. This reduces the amount of peripheral hardware and associated cabling required, thus a smarter building ensues. When complementary systems work together, data is downloaded from adjacent systems, alleviating the need to manually enter data multiple times. For example, BMSs can automatically import set-points, frequencies, currents and speeds from drives or faults and flow temperatures and loading values from chillers.

A combined solution
Sometimes, you find a gem of a building management system. One that not only has open protocol, but also has a wide range of different applications combined within one system. When this happens, control disciplines such as HVAC, security access, lighting and other monitoring and control systems can be installed as part of one package.

When a meeting is attended by like-minded individuals, with a good chairperson, all singing from the same song sheet, then the result can be the clichéd 1 + 1 = 3.  When one combined system controls multiple disciplines, capital costs are reduced. The installation requires fewer networks, graphics PCs, project coordination, subcontractors, training, sales overhead, meetings, documentation and preliminary costs. In addition, with fewer suppliers involved, there is less wasted time with everyone arguing ‘it’s their fault’ when systems won’t communicate with each other. It is also less costly to add resilience to a single networked system, than seven different systems, all requiring their own redundant network.

A combined solution to HVAC, access control etc promotes a more efficient system across the life cycle of the installation. Operators can standardise on one system thinking. They have one system to familiarise themselves with, along with fewer training courses. An organisation has more opportunities for holiday, shift and sickness cover with different disciplines covering for each other. There are fewer maintenance visits required as single visits can cover both the HVAC maintenance and the access control maintenance. Stock levels are reduced and the local facility management team only need one supplier hotline to call when there is an issue.

Installers can also choose the right system architecture for the project. Often, greater distributed intelligence around a building leads to less cabling across the entire structure, thus communications cables carrying data replace multiple cables carrying sensor readings.
Finally, a combined system produces a smarter building. The presence detection within an access control system can instruct the lights to turn off. Occupancy can help to predict the load that will be required by the HVAC control and can also help reduce energy consumption. Intrusion events can automatically bring up the relevant CCTV information on the same graphics screen. Energy data can be produced by the energy management system alongside lighting usage data and building occupancy charts. Combined, synchronised data enables a more accurate analysis by the building’s energy manager.

Package integration can be applied in many vertical markets. In a local hospital, we have linked the air handling units (AHUs) in the library to the presence detection system. Out of hours, the air conditioning is dropped back to low levels to reduce energy consumption. If out-of-hours occupancy is detected, the AHUs are raised to normal levels. Equally in pharmacy areas, lighting is dimmed out of hours, and when a particular area becomes occupied, the lighting levels are raised. In the same areas, lighting is switched on when a fire alarm is activated. This obviously assists with the evacuation of the building.

In summary
As with many business issues or engineering issues, the answer is never technological. The solution is based around the people within the business. The answer is leadership. A strong decision maker at the start of the project to decide which system is going to call the shots, and what language they will all speak when they meet. These strong decision makers can be called end-users, contractors or consultants.

The facts and data on which they base their decisions, rather than good old gut instinct, can come from independent systems integrators who have experience in a range of systems and can help choose the best one to suit that allows future expansion and efficient installation.