The Challenges of Turning HVAC and Other Building Systems Back On as Campuses Reopen

For building and energy managers, reopening campus buildings cannot be done with the flip of a switch. Here's how monitoring-based commissioning can help.
Published: August 12, 2020

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States, many campuses across the nation were forced to quickly shut down and become what is known as a “quiet campus.” Managing these unpopulated buildings while bracing for the reopening into a new normal is forcing building managers to reevaluate the approaches and technologies used to manage the complex mechanical and electrical systems across each campus.

Simpler solutions exist to help manage, monitor, and ramp up building systems, including monitoring-based commissioning platforms with advanced analytics, root cause analysis, energy optimization, and intelligent alerts. These platforms monitor for critical conditions to create a sense of safety and comfort in the new normal, but also minimize the design and validation required such as new setpoints and air requirements that will occur as buildings are manually brought back online.

At the start of the shutdown, building managers were unsure of just how long they would have to keep their campuses quiet. As it became clear this wouldn’t be a short-lived event, adjustments and automated system overrides in mechanical and electrical systems were implemented to curb energy use while occupancy was reduced. More importantly, operational adjustments were and continue to be made to HVAC systems in order to address new building safety guidelines around air filtration, ventilation, dilution and circulation.

What many people don’t realize is that turning everything back on cannot be done with the simple flip of a switch. As states continue to roll out plans for reopening, building managers will take on the tedious task of transitioning the building operating parameters and procedures to adjust to the new post-COVID-19 CDC driven demands.

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Furthermore, they will need to figure out the best approach to prepare for these situations in the future, should they have to shut down again for a pandemic or any other reason. More importantly, you want to know these changes are validated throughout the year as environmental conditions change — a daunting task for any individual.

Adjusting Manual Building Operations

What has been done must now be reevaluated as thousands of setpoints within campus buildings are reset to meet the demands of the new normal. Changes to accommodate airflow, ventilation and dilution are among the key concerns that HVAC systems will face as safety precautions for minimized transmission risks are presented by associations such as the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE).

Each component of the system, including air handlers, conditioners and dampers, and chilled water systems, has multiple setpoints that will need to be adjusted to ensure efficient air optimization.

For example, let’s take a look at air dampers, which limit the amount of outside air that is pulled into the building. When the pandemic hit, many dampers were opened to 100% — a significant uptick compared to the standard. With people expected to return to campuses in the near future, some buildings will be able to reduce that percentage, enabling energy conservation.

This then creates a snowball effect, with building managers then having to recalibrate the amount of conditioning needed for incoming air, and the temperature adjustments that each air handler will need to take on. Building managers may need to reset setpoints per piece of equipment, creating new parameters for every single zone to attempt to create a comfortable experience for returning staff and/or students.

As adjustments are made to HVAC systems, either from shutdowns or ramp-ups, the impact goes beyond comfort and safety, taking a toll on energy use. Many campuses aim to be environmentally conscious and energy-efficient, both to reduce costs and achieve more sustainable practices. The swift action, recommended by ASHRAE and the need to increase airflow into campus buildings to minimize airborne transmission, required manual overrides to these predetermined setpoints. As we start to re-open, energy efficiency and cost savings will once again return to the priority list, directly behind safety.

Keeping Occupants Safe with Monitoring

While it may seem obvious, if even silly to say, people’s safety is paramount and smart building monitoring plays an important role in that process. The manual resets and optimization of airflow are an important part of enhancing the comfort and safety of all those inside the building, but there are other considerations as well. Air system equipment failures can foster an environment that is conducive to bacterial growth and the spread of infectious diseases beyond COVID-19.

Keeping a building’s humidity in check and temperature low, for example, is one of the ways campus building managers can keep occupants safe and comfortable. A major concern for campuses has always been breeding legionella — a bacteria that causes pneumonia-type and flu-like illnesses — in the water and air.

As campuses reopen from the quiet period, there is even more concern that shutdowns and areas with limited airflow could have created an opportunity for legionella growth. Many buildings, to prevent this, have been actively managing the humidity in these buildings even when they have remained empty. With many large campuses, however, it can be difficult to gain a clear and full picture of humidity, temperature and airflow conditions in each room without the use of technology.

Creating the New Normal

This leads to a larger conversation about reopening buildings in the near future and the role that technologies will play in creating the “new normal” for buildings. Consistent, remote visibility is important, both while campuses are shut down and as they begin to reopen, giving building managers the full picture of how systems are operating across the campus or within in a single building.

This is where monitoring-based commissioning (MBCx) comes into play. Advanced analytics and intelligent alerts within MBCx platforms help building operators gain visibility in a way that is more efficient and productive – precisely identifying where potential issues such as airflow, humidity and temperature exist before they create safety issues. For example, sensors may find that humidity in one of the central air vents is far higher than usual and can address the issue before there is significant moisture and bacteria build-up.

MBCx can also help you see what setpoints have been adjusted and what have not, simply by setting the data parameters for the new normal. Buildings are large, and many pieces of equipment can be missed. Using intelligent alerts, operations outside of the parameters can be flagged and addressed to ensure your entire building, not just most of it, is operating as it should be for the new normal.

While health and safety are being addressed, these solutions also provide guidance on where energy inefficiencies and cost savings exist, helping campuses recover from high energy use despite many being empty. Advanced analytics can remotely show building and energy managers just how much the inefficiencies are costing them and prioritize which ones should be addressed to significantly cut costs. Furthermore, it can reveal inefficiencies that are often lost while the campus is running as they become more apparent during the shutdown.

As things return to “normal,” it will not be anything like what building managers and occupants were used to before. These changes are going to have a massive influence on how operations, air quality, energy efficiency and much more are carried out and this will not be temporary. This shift will create new burdens on campuses across the nation but by introducing monitoring-based commissioning technologies, they can be better prepared to ensure health, safety and sustainability across campuses as we all enter into the new normal.

Rhonda Landis is VP of Operations for FacilityConneX, a real-time data monitoring solution designed to improve facility and equipment performance and costs.

The views expressed by guest contributors are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, Campus Safety magazine.

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Strategy & Planning Series
Strategy & Planning Series
Strategy & Planning Series
Strategy & Planning Series