Facility Automation 101 – Learn How to Save Money Every Year

Installing smart facilities operations systems is no longer enough; seamless interoperability is the key to efficiency and savings.

Knock knock. Who’s there? A building automation system (BAS) would know.

It would know when you come into work and when you leave. It would turn the lights on for you when you arrive and shut them off after you depart. It would keep you clement and cozy or cool and comfy. It could warn you in the event of an emergency and guide you to safety. It would prepare the meeting room you previously reserved for your upcoming presentation, adjusting light levels, turning on the projector and getting the space to the right temperature. It could stop making hot water when demand drops. It might even track your paper consumption when you print or copy. About the only things a BAS doesn’t know is whether you are sleeping or awake, or if you’ve been naughty or nice.

“What you want is to make sure lights are on only when they are needed, where they are needed, and only to the degree required for the task at hand,” says Kirk Davis, managing principal of environmental-engineering firm Glumac’s office in Portland, Ore. That’s just one piece of the puzzle. If lights aren’t needed, it’s a good bet that air conditioning or heating can be scaled back, too. It all works, however, only if these disparate systems can somehow understand what the others are up to. That’s building automation.

For those new to the concept of building automation, let’s take a step back and explore what it is, why it’s important and how to get started.

For our purposes, let’s define building automation as a group of interlinked networks and devices, each of which monitors, manages and controls one aspect of a facility’s core operations, services and utilities. The facility could be commercial, industrial, institutional, scientific, or increasingly, residential. The range of systems is vast, spanning electrical, HVAC, mechanical, plumbing, security, safety, telecommunications and transportation (elevators and escalators). IBM went so far as to add Petroleum Electric Hybrid Vehicles management to the mix in its Smarter Planet services portfolio, part of the company’s Tririga Energy Optimization solution.

The key is interlinking, a rather recent innovation. HVAC always monitored temperatures, delivering heating or cooling as necessary, but it had no way of knowing if a space was crowded with people or empty, or if the lights were on. Similarly, lights often remained ablaze long after the last person left for the evening. With systems existing in a silo, they had no way to obtain or leverage beneficial information owned by another.

“Integration is a big design point,” says Bruce Hammelman, a territory manager for lighting controls supplier Lutron. “In a modern building, discrete systems need to interoperate.”

Today, light fixtures, HVAC components, occupancy or vacancy sensors, and other devices contain sensors that report status information to applications or appliances via the IP network, increasingly via Wi-Fi. Once digested, information can be shared, allowing a room’s lighting controller to set illuminations levels in accordance with the facility’s scheduling software. Management consoles, which once required an on-site physical connection to the network, have moved to the cloud, permitting monitoring, management and intervention by authorized personnel from anywhere, down the hall or halfway around the world.

One example is Panoptix, a suite of cloud-based apps from Johnson Controls that allows a facilities administrator to see how systems and devices are functioning. Panoptix connects utility meters and other systems, collecting data from a single building and branch offices across the enterprise. The data is transmitted to the Panoptix cloud where it can be used with compatible applications to optimize energy use, equipment operation, and worker comfort. The suite is compatible with the company’s Metasys building management system platform. Metasys leverages the IT infrastructure with wireless capability, and, like other vendors’ solutions, uses BACnet as its backbone protocol.

Crestron’s current product line-up includes the Crestron 3-Series control system, which integrates building technologies so they work together as a single system. Crestron’s Fusion Enterprise Management Software adds intelligence, allowing users to monitor and control A/V and environmental systems, manage renewable and sustainable energy sources, and schedule rooms and resources on the network.

Other companies offer solutions that are more specialized. AMX provides secure, scalable solutions that simplify the use of A/V technology in meeting rooms and building-wide.

Integration Breaks Down Walls

“We’re seeing the breakdown of silos,” says Mark Valenti, president of the Sextant Group, a technology consulting firm that specializes in the planning and design of learning, communications, and entertainment facilities and systems. “We don’t have to have a particular application running on a particular piece of hardware managed by a particular individual. We’re seeing the convergence of all applications.”

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