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How Advanced Building Management Systems Ensure Reliable Operations

In the movie Apollo 13 about astronauts trying to return to Earth after an explosion crippled their moon-bound spacecraft, the flight director in Houston says about NASA’s work to get them home safely, “failure is not an option.”

It’s a rallying cry that operators of data centers, hospitals and other “mission critical” facilities live with every day. Simply put, if their facility were to be disrupted in some way, the impact would be catastrophic to human well-being or business operations.

To help ensure that mission critical facilities continue to function 24/7, more facility professionals are using building management systems (BMS). Similar to other FMs, they deploy BMS to help reduce energy consumption but also use the systems to monitor and control essential equipment for which “failure is not an option.”

For example, many healthcare facilities use a BMS to ensure that life-saving equipment operates within tight tolerances. Such is the case at Emerson Hospital in Concord, Massachusetts. The medical center’s radiation-oncology department relies on its BMS to monitor water temperatures in a linear accelerator that generates external beam radiation to treat cancer. If the temperatures go out of spec, the BMS sounds an alarm so that technicians can take corrective action quickly.

Similarly, data center operators rely on BMS to monitor the temperatures throughout their facilities as well as the cleanliness of the electricity going to the servers. Computers are notoriously heat sensitive, so the BMS helps ensure reliable computer uptime by monitoring and controlling temperatures at hundreds of points throughout a data center. Additionally, a well-equipped BMS can monitor the frequency, amplitude and other characteristics of the power going to the servers to ensure they don’t trip off and take down critical enterprise functions.

Choosing a BMS

Building professionals in the mission critical facilities field face numerous choices when specifying a BMS – which vary widely in their capabilities and ease of use. To ensure that the system delivers maximum benefits, one essential feature to look for is software that is human-centered.

As the portal to the BMS, it is crucial that the software makes sense to the facility operators. Cumbersome software results in either untapped potential in the system or costly and time-consuming operator training. By comparison, programs developed using a human-centered design process make it simple for users to figure out how to work with the program.

In a human-centered design, the software developers watch how actual users interact with the system. They measure users’ performance and note areas where they struggle with the software. The developers then reconfigure the program and again test it with actual people. Results can include restructuring menu trees to make them simpler to navigate, revising graphic images to make them easier to interpret and placing icons where people naturally look for them.

The easiest to use BMS software is built with graphical interfaces. Compared to text-based systems, graphical interfaces enable users to readily see the building or campus as a whole and to zoom-in on individual floors, rooms or specific equipment to check its status. Such interfaces also make it easy to program alarms and to change set points for temperature, humidity, and many other factors.

Also, BMS software that relies on the latest edition of HTML (HTML5) can deliver complete user management of trend logs, alarms and schedules via a web browser. As a result, facility professionals can monitor and control building systems from desktop computers, tablets, smartphones or any internet-enabled device – especially handy for those data center professionals who have to hop on a scooter to zip around their massive server farms.

As you consider how to keep your mission critical facility operating at peak performance when “failure is not an option,” recall the astronauts of Apollo 13, who relied on computerized alarms to let them know when CO2 and other environmental factors were out of whack. With a BMS, like them, you’ll be able to help prevent problems or to respond effectively if something goes wrong – and maybe even get your own heroes thank you for a job well done!

Kevin Callahan is a product owner and evangelist for Alerton, Lynwood, Wash., a Honeywell business specializing in building management systems. He has 39 years of experience in the building control technologies field, including control systems design and commissioning, facilities management and user training. Callahan can be contacted at kevin.callahan@alerton.com.

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