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Keeping Up with Building Controls

May 24, 2010
A facilities manager shares his perspective on how to make your building control system work for your building

Building control technologies have changed drastically over the last 8 to 10 years. We’ve moved to open-protocol, web-based systems, and the demand for these systems to do more and provide better information has thrown a new learning curve at facilities managers.

This newer technology has become so capable and flexible in its ability to control and interface with so many kinds of building systems and data points, getting the building control system you want can be difficult.

Changing much faster than most people have been able to keep up with, sometimes even the sales, engineering, and installation staff can’t stay up-to-date with these systems. And that can be a problem: If the control system isn’t designed, engineered, and installed correctly, the operation and maintenance of the system will produce less than favorable results for you and your team.

My opinion? Building control providers – manufacturers and installers – need to take a stronger role in the education of building owners, facilities managers, and specifying engineers.

To help accomplish this, here are some of the things I’ve learned after being involved in moving more than 50 school sites from legacy systems with dial-up modem access to web-based control systems.

Tip No. 1: Read, Read, Read
And after you’re tired of reading, read some more. Become educated about newer system technologies and their capabilities. Learn about the other systems you’ll interface with, such as your IT systems.

A Note from the Editor

Robert Bittner, director of energy and physical plant at the Wake County Public School System in Raleigh, NC, shares his thoughts on building controls after reading Preventing Problems with Building Controls in the February 2010 issue of BUILDINGS.

Tip No. 2: Build a Relationship
You need to establish relationships with a controls vendor you can trust to provide you with good information, and a vendor with a well-trained staff. Don’t be shy about asking to see the certifications of the people who will be working on your systems. No matter how good a system is, if it’s poorly installed, you won’t be happy with it, and it won’t provide a good return on your investment.

Tip No. 3: Find a Friend
Identify an ally or two in your IT/technology department. You will need their support; do not try to do it without them. If you don’t have their support, the day after you install the system and head back to your office to view it on the web, you may discover an issue with firewalls and security permissions. Having IT on your side will make all the difference, especially if they understand what you and your team are trying to accomplish with building controls. At the Wake County Public School System, we’ve had great luck in this area. I found my ally in the technology department and included him in the decision process upfront. He became as excited as I was about bringing this information to the desktop.

Tip No. 4: Swap Stories
Talk to other system owners; share stories. See what they’re doing, and share lessons learned. Be sure to talk to system operators and the maintenance staff about what works and doesn’t work, and what they would do differently if they did it all over again. A tip: The end-user will be more open about the facts than a department head or project manager.

Tip No. 5: Be Detail-Oriented
Develop a very detailed specification; seek help if you need to. Don’t leave it up to your specifying engineer – unless you have a very rare breed, engineers aren’t well-versed in the fine details that will make your building control system a success.

Spend time on naming conventions, user security definitions, alarms and their message content, and points you want to trend. Be cautious of terms like "system must be capable of." Most systems are capable, but require set-up.

Also remember that open systems are not truly open. Make sure you’re very clear about what you expect when the system is delivered to you. Most vendors will be more than happy to make your system perform to your specifications – as long as they know what your specifications are upfront. The more detail you can provide about the way you really want it to end up, the better the chance that you‘ll get it.

Robert Bittner is the director of energy and physical plant at the Wake County Public School System in Raleigh, NC.

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