Benefits of Building Intelligence

An intelligent building is one that has the hardware and software to collect data about the building and how it’s being used so that facility managers can make informed decisions in driving a high-performance environment,” says Neal Maldeis, PE, CEM, energy solutions engineering leader with Trane, a provider of indoor comfort systems.

More specifically, a Building Automation System (BAS) is what makes an intelligent building intelligent in terms of energy usage. “Its primary purpose is to have all the mechanical systems and parts talking with one another electronically,” says Kristine Chalifoux, director of Management and Operations for Champaign, Ill.-based Smart Energy Design Assistance Center (SEDAC), which is sponsored by the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity (DCEO) in partnership with Illinois investor-owned utilities to achieve energy efficiency savings in buildings throughout the state. “For example, a basic use is often where the thermostat says, ‘This room needs heat. Boiler, turn on and produce heat. Fan, turn on and push the heat in there.’” Another basic use is tying lighting into the BAS so it turns off and on at scheduled time.

Getting a little more sophisticated with the BAS, intelligent lighting systems could be envisioned as sensors measuring natural daylight and, as a result, automatically turning lights on or off. Or, it may include humidity readings that indicate more air is required because it’s too damp. Another is sensors that monitor the CO2 level and automatically open dampers to bring in outside air. “There could be thousands of points of information in a building that tell you what’s going on and help the system communicate with all of its parts to ensure it’s just right,” says Chalifoux. “When all that works, you have an incredibly efficient building.”

From basic to sophisticated, there’s clearly a lot that administrators can do to take advantage of building intelligence to transform their schools’ energy footprints. Here is what the experts have to say about it.

1. Commit to it

Administrators must make an organization-wide commitment to intelligent buildings. “What’s exciting for me as an engineer and valuable for school districts,” says Maldeis, “are the systems, sensors and controls that take the energy information and help managers make decisions about how to use the building without a lot of involvement.” Also, the commitment provides the opportunity to communicate with your community about your success.

2. Explore what’s new

The best way to explore what’s new and feasible is to work with an educated partner. “There are many options on the market,” says Bob Haun, LEED-AP, CEM, complex solutions account executive with Trane, “and not everything is properly tested or implemented. A partner will help you make appropriate decisions and show you how to maximize your choices.”

One specific challenge with control systems is that most are proprietary, and the manufacturers don’t want anyone to know their codes. This makes training both complicated and lacking. “Right now, what tends to happen,” says Chalifoux, “is that a system provider’s expert installs and programs a system. And then, if the building owner is really lucky, he’ll hire that expert away from the system provider.” She believes that, as building control systems become more widespread, training will start to catch up, and she already sees certification programs starting to pop up.

3. Secure incentives

“I want to empower facilities managers to get the information they need to make their buildings more energy efficient and then use that information to find the capital required to make the improvements,” says Chalifoux. “There are a lot of incentives to help pay for these strategies, and an excellent tool for finding them is dsireusa.org. It’s a fantastic resource that anyone can use.”

According to the website, Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency (DSIRE) is a “comprehensive source of information on state, federal, local and utility incentives and policies that support renewable energy and energy efficiency. Established in 1995 and funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, DSIRE is an ongoing project of the North Carolina Solar Center and the Interstate Renewable Energy Council, Inc.”

4. Commission and recommission

Commissioning is the process of using an independent firm to ensure that all the controls — each installed by a different contractor, making for challenging coordination — are working properly. “From the start, a well-commissioned building can get you to the energy efficiency you desire,” says Chalifoux.

Just as things get out of whack on your car, so, too, do they get out of whack on your BAS. Therefore, Chalifoux recommends recommissioning every five years. “You want to take a fresh look at how things are trending in the building and look for errors,” she says. “Most school districts never look at their BAS, so they don’t know what’s happening. A recommission keeps things running properly and creates huge savings.”

5. Install a dashboard

Dashboards, which take information from the BAS or the meter itself and provide an ongoing readout of how the building is using energy in real time, are becoming more and more popular. They show simple things such as how much energy is currently being used and the outside air temperature. “Dashboards are primarily used as a behavior modification tool,” says Chalifoux. “We like to target them to the students so that they can understand how buildings use energy.”

Dashboards are also useful in terms of a building’s ultimate energy use. “There are a lot of facility managers who really care about energy efficiency, work hard to keep equipment in good shape and do what they can to keep buildings operating well,” says Chalifoux. “But they never see an energy bill because it goes to the finance office. The finance officer pays the bill, not knowing what it means and whether the dollar amount is high or low. So there’s a real disconnect. With a dashboard, the facility manager can see real time if there’s an energy spike, indicating that something is not working correctly, and he can start resolving the issue now.”

When it comes to creating intelligent schools, administrators simply don’t have a choice any more, as building codes require controls. That little shove may be all you need to embrace the opportunity to transform your built environment’s energy footprint.  

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