Navigating the Complex World of Automated Window Shading

Sept. 22, 2016

What you should know when considering motorized window coverings.

Over the last decade, the United Nations has been making efforts to make its New York headquarters a more sustainable location. To meet this goal, the UN’s Secretariat Building underwent a major retrofit to install automated window shading to cut back on energy consumption and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

However, not every building can be retrofitted at that level, as it’s safe to say most FMs don’t have access to the resources that the building housing the UN has. Even if shades are within the realm of financial possibility, there is a tendency to underestimate or simplify their potential.

“Shades are often thought of as decorative,” says Ben Kutell, Product Manager of Shading at QMotion. “They may not be considered for the depth of capabilities that they can offer.”

The vast variety of options inherent in automated window shading systems open up many avenues for problem solving in a building. Is automated window shading is a possible solution for you?

Energy Conservation

The most common reason for installing automated window shading in a building is to save on energy costs. By blocking out some sunlight that causes heat gain, shading can generate major reductions in cooling expenses. Research conducted by Lutron Electronics in Coopersburg, PA suggests 10-20% cooling savings.

Why the wide range? Determining exactly how much you could save through automated shading is based on an array of variables. Geography, outside conditions, glazing types, shading fabric and interior space dynamics are just a few of the factors that will determine how much you can save. You will need to consult with experts to determine the actual energy potential of your space.

Moreover, the type of system you choose will influence the potential of your savings. There are two basic types of shades that come in a seemingly endless variety of options to personalize a space. The first is motorized shades with manual control, which gives users the ability to move shades to their preferred setting with a remote control. The second is completely automated with solar adaptive shading, meaning the shades automatically move based on the lighting conditions of a space.

“FMs need to be familiar with how the system is going to be organized and installed,” says Sam Chambers, Commercial Shades Business Manager at Lutron. For example, in open areas with many people working, fully automated shades might work best to cater to the whole population. In more private areas like individual offices, personalized motorized shades might be more appropriate. Chambers notes that some building operators include a combination of both in a building when approaching different types of spaces.

The most advanced shading systems work in conversation with an automated lighting system, adjusting both the light that enters a space and dimming the lights to develop an equilibrium. This type of system can save in excess of 65% in lighting energy. However, these types of systems are going to be much more expensive.

In general, adding automated shading can be expensive, so it is important to weigh the energy savings you may receive to make the best decision.

Workplace Productivity

Many desire the perfect view of the outdoors in their workplace, but that view can come with some negative side effects like glare distracting occupants. In addition to the improvements automated window shading can have on energy usage, it can provide major boosts to workplace productivity.

Measuring workplace productivity can be difficult because every facility is unique. However, looking at productivity through more general terms can indicate the value of automated shading. Productivity in the workplace is often considered with the 3-30-300 rule, which breaks down how a company or organization pays occupancy costs.

The $3 figure represents how much is spent on utilities per square foot, with $30 for rent and $300 for employee costs. Often times, FMs look to optimize spending practices in the 3 and 30 categories, as those are often the easiest places for FMs to immediately impact the bottom line. However, changes to the workplace environment can make the most use out of the 300 category.

Research conducted by Lutron and Purdue University have found that sunlight glare can reduce productivity by 20%, a substantial amount effectively stifling workplace output. In open spaces where many people are working, sunlight can drain productivity. So while it might take an investment to solve, it could end up boosting productivity and improving the bottom line.

Technological Integration

One of the greatest changes in the industry in the last five years is the focus on integration among systems and technology – both with basic controls and with other systems within a building.

The move to wireless systems allows simpler installation that circumvents the more invasive implementation of their wired counterparts. Installation of automated shading has historically been more difficult because it often required planning in the design stages or through expensive retrofits.

Whether the implementation takes place during construction or later, wireless solutions leave FMs with more options that involve a less expensive installation process. “The availability of automated shades that can be wired for power or powered with batteries that can be expected to last over three years make it an option either way,” explains Kutell.

In addition to wireless operation, automated window shading as an industry is working towards integrating their systems with other automated building systems. “As people try to optimize the performance of spaces from both an energy perspective and an occupancy comfort perspective, there’s increased focus on the operability of commercial systems along a variety of manufacturers,” says Chambers.

Shading systems can now work with the HVAC, for example, sharing data to inform each other’s operation, which can boost efficiency in the building. Because many use the BACnet protocol, automated shading systems can communicate with a wide range of systems in the building.

The key for users is to integrate available data from their systems with the experiences of occupants. “It’s about giving FMs the information about how the system is performing, explaining the energy savings that they’re getting and giving them data that can help them make good decisions to resolve issues for occupants quickly,” says Chambers.

Fabric Selection

Along with the constantly progressing technology surrounding automated window shading, fabric selection is becoming a focus in the industry. Often overlooked, fabrics are now being developed to address specific needs.

“Fabric is transitioning away from just an aesthetic element in a space and driving the performance of both occupants and energy,” says Chambers. “If you select the wrong fabric, it can have a negative impact on the occupant, as well as the energy performance of the space.”

Rather than addressing individual needs with a fabric choice, it is important to understand holistic goals of your shading in order to have the right material. “We see a marriage between the aesthetic and performance,” Chambers explains, “between things like how well a fabric controls glare, how well it preserves a view of the outdoors, how well it can help you save energy and what sort of formal protection it can provide for the occupants.”

Understanding your individual needs will go a long way in ending up with the appropriate fabric. Finding the right material to provide the best view, glare protection and energy savings ultimately depends on the space. To find what is best for your space, refer to an expert in the industry. In fact, some companies provide online tools to help you find the perfect fabric for your space.

Fabric also provides the opportunity to increase green efforts in a building. “From a materiality standpoint, there are a lot of fabric options, which meet many different green standards for third party certifications,” says Michelle Greene, Commercial Shades Marketing and Training Leader at Lutron. Some shading fabrics include sustainable attributes like GREENGUARD certification, PVC-free material, recycled or recyclable composition and LEED point opportunities for a building.

Ultimately, the options for automated shading can seem endless, but if you are aware of the variables that go into their implementation, you can decide if they are right to optimize the occupation of your building.

Justin Feit [email protected] is assistant editor of BUILDINGS.

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