Retrofit Guide for Building Automation

June 22, 2015

How to cut through the hype and find the best system for you.

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Building automation systems (BAS) can do so much more than energy management. Intuitive interfaces can help FMs find hot spots, catch malfunctioning equipment, and target maintenance where it’s most needed.

The market is flush with options for your facility, but buying one of these systems is a complex decision that must be customized for each building. Maximize your investment and hit the ground running with these BAS purchasing tips.

Scalability from the Start
It can be tempting to focus on your building’s biggest energy hog (typically lighting or HVAC) at this stage. However, tackling this first is short-sighted. Focus on your broader goal first – for example, reducing energy consumption – and then return to more specific objectives, such as trimming lighting-related energy use first. Aim for a BAS that can expand to control additional building systems later if you’re satisfied with the initial savings.

“People tend to say ‘I need an HVAC control system’ because that has historically been the biggest energy load in a building. They don’t realize that with broader solutions, they can save a lot more,” says Danny Yu, CEO of Daintree Networks, which develops wireless controls for building automation. “That’s the benefit of technology that has emerged in the last few years from companies that are more software-centric. In the past, companies were more focused on selling hardware, not on giving users more applications – like how phones were 10 or 15 years ago.”

Arby’s Restaurant Group took a similar path when they investigated HVAC improvements a few years ago. The initial plan – deploying programmable thermostats that would save 4-5% on each restaurant’s electric bill – quickly expanded once the team found a scalable BAS that would increase savings by enabling more control than a thermostat would provide. Their chosen system also allows greater visibility and performance tracking. The system has since been installed in roughly 880 restaurants and manages more than 2,600 HVAC systems. Another 60 restaurants will receive the solution this year.

“Our goals were simple – standardize our thermostats across our portfolio and manage setbacks to a company standard to benefit the savings offered from a proven technology,” says Frank Inoa, director of engineering for Arby’s Restaurant Group. “The entire process was a learning experience. The more benefits we uncovered from different manufacturers, the bigger the wish list became for our future system. By the time we were ready to pilot various systems, we were quite educated on what it should look like.”

Defining your objectives in this way will help you navigate the next step – examining your existing team and assets, a necessary hurdle that will help you weed out BAS products that don’t fit well.

“Assess whether all or part of your services will be self-performed or delivered by a service provider,” recommends Paul Oswald, managing director of CBRE/ESI, which provides building management services that include BAS integration. “Asking questions regarding available time and skill level is critically important to making sure that the people part of the equation is adequately addressed. Then, once this element is understood, assess the current state of the building’s systems and determine the best technology path to enable the solution.”

Integrate Upgrade Replace
No changes are made to the existing system Same controls and equipment, but with new software and interfaces Remove both control
hardware and software
Add gateways or interfaces Allow the legacy product to
interface with other systems
Keep existing equipment
Maintain access to information from the legacy system   New controls and software

Define Your Purchase Criteria
After thoroughly determining what your goals are and what existing resources (both human and technological) you have, start developing a list of requirements that your eventual BAS purchase will have to meet. ASHRAE’s 2015 update to Guideline 13: Specifying Building Automation Systems walks readers through typical features, important project considerations, and tips on creating a BAS specification that meets your needs. It can prove an invaluable resource in understanding what’s available and helping you weigh the pros and cons of different features.

Ron Bernstein, president of Ron Bernstein Consulting Group and a member of ASHRAE’s Guideline 13 development committee, recommends that you also find a neutral advisor or automation consultant and develop a master plan with them before you start speaking with vendors. This will help you avoid accidental bias from sales pitches. Ideally, your consultant should be familiar with the different configurations described in Guideline 13 to help you determine what setup is best for your building.


After bringing a trusted consultant on board, investigate product options. Consider these four steps as you move closer to the bidding and purchasing stage.

1) Team up with the right people. Bringing your organization’s IT department on board is vital, Yu says. Some BAS products can use your existing corporate network, while others form their own communication pathways. Either way, you need the IT department as a partner to make sure there are no conflicts between systems. Pairing with IT from the beginning will also ensure that the first tier of your system’s structure can support further development later in the process (see “Structure Your System By Tiers” at right).

“You have to make a conscious decision on IT, and people don’t necessarily know that when they enter projects,” says Yu. “A lot of systems either run on the corporate network or have some other connectivity between sites. You can decide not to use the corporate network, but there’s a cost tradeoff between different deployment options, such as whether you allow your tech provider to host your BAS technology or whether you have your own data center.”

2) develop an energy-saving strategy for your BAS. Which building system consumes the most energy? Are you overseeing a single building or a portfolio? What type of facility do you have? Now that the communications backbone in the first tier has been taken care of, you can return to identifying the building system that offers the biggest savings potential, which can then fund later integration of other building systems.

“HVAC control will always be needed. We find that monitoring HVAC energy use and supply-return duct temperature adds immeasurably to the ability to optimize HVAC performance,” explains Jay Fiske, vice president of strategy and operations for Powerhouse Dynamics, which developed the cloud-based energy and asset management offering used by Arby’s. “Lighting control may or may not make sense depending on many factors, so we often recommend monitoring actual lighting usage before making that decision. Control of plug loads may make sense in an office building, but typically doesn’t in other settings.”

Centralized wireless sensors for equipment monitoring are becoming increasingly affordable, Fiske adds, and enterprise-level controls with benchmarking can benefit most building portfolios.

3) Lay the groundwork for future expansion. Even if you have no current plans to expand, make sure your infrastructure is designed to allow additional integration over time, says Bernstein. He recommends a classic three-tier BAS architecture, starting with the first tier.

“Start by designing the communications backbone at the enterprise and site level. Don’t start with individual devices and build up or you’ll design yourself into a hole,” adds Bernstein. “If you begin with low-level sensor and actuator design, you won’t be able to get the information up into the front end effectively.”

4) Pick a system that’s right-sized for your building. The best system for you will be appropriate for the size and type of facility you have, says George Huettel, business solutions director for Ecova, an energy management company. Look for one that bridges the gap between too complex and too simplistic while leaving room to integrate other building systems later.

“Systems designed for large facilities cannot generally scale down efficiently, neither on price nor on the level of complexity,” Huettel explains. “Similarly, systems designed for smaller facilities may not be able to scale up to meet the controls complexity required in a larger facility.”

Smart Setup
Work with the BAS vendor closely to ensure that every facet of the system is set up in a way that’s maintainable for your team. “Too often I’ve been involved with jobs where as soon as it’s done, the renovation starts because the graphics need to be redone or the point naming convention isn’t logical,” says Grant Wichenko, president of Appin Associates and a member of the Guideline 13 development committee. “The FM needs to be part of the process of making the system maintainable from day one.”

These three areas in particular can cause trouble during the initial setup process.

Device naming: Follow a logical system that’s easy to remember and repeat on future installations. Wichenko recommends mimicking the file paths Windows uses – in other words, starting at the broadest level (with your campus taking the place of the hard drive in the Windows example) and working your way down through each subsequent level, naming the facility where the device appears, the building system being controlled, and finally the individual device.

“When building systems are maintained separately, you can end up with duplicate device names. When they’re all integrated into one database, those duplicates cause nothing but havoc,” says Wichenko.

Standardization: Avoid expansion problems on campuses from the beginning by developing a corporate standard for future BAS installations, Bernstein recommends. Spell out rules and procedures for your organization’s automation needs so that any future vendors have to comply with your requirements.

Alarming: Develop alarm rules customized to the season and time of day so that you’re not stuck with a plethora of false alarms, Bernstein recommends. “When I do a job, I try to make sure we have limited alarming and don’t get boiler alarms in summer or chiller alarms in January,” Bernstein adds. “You can set the alarms up more intelligently so that if something isn’t running because it’s out of season, you can suppress the alarm. Then your team will treat the other alarms more seriously.”

Measurement and Management
Once your system is up and running, the true test of its functionality begins. In addition to standard energy conservation practices like dialing back conditioning and ventilation overnight, Yu recommends using your BAS for fault detection – finding mistakes and dysfunction that can waste energy and wear out your equipment prematurely.

“The most common one is that cooling is supposed to be on, but it’s not cool, or it’s supposed to be heating but it’s not warm,” notes Yu. “It’s important to break those down. Short cycling and simultaneous heating and cooling are often easier to figure out with these systems.”

Better building insight at this level doesn’t just result in direct savings from using less energy, Yu says. To accurately track your savings – and to better demonstrate the system’s value to decision makers in your organization – also make sure you’re benchmarking for avoided costs as a result of your newfound ability to do diagnostics in-house.

“Look for trends on the operational side, like how many service calls you avoided because you were proactively managing maintenance or got information from the system instead of relying on a service call,” says Yu. “One major reason why systems are selected is that now users have the visibility to do preventive maintenance and reduce the number of emergency calls.”

Adds Yu, “Just start with getting information on your own facilities. BAS packages have capabilities far beyond energy management – they provide education.”

Integrate, Upgrade, or Replace?

Buildings with legacy building controls face a tough decision – is it better to take steps to integrate older controls into a new communications system to keep costs down or spend more now to build in new functionality? ASHRAE’s Guideline 13 offers a chapter on upgrade challenges and what factors can help FMs make the decision, explains Dave Kahn, chief mechanical engineer of the RHM Group and a member of the Guideline 13 development committee.

“There are specific criteria when you’re looking at existing systems,” Kahn says. “For example, is the server less than five years old? Is it performing satisfactorily?”

Fellow committee member Ron Bernstein adds, “A short list would include warranty issues and availability, parts, serviceability, reliability, and cost issues.” Typically, bridging a legacy system with new products falls into one of these three methods.

Janelle Penny [email protected] is senior editor of BUILDINGS.

About the Author

Janelle Penny | Editor-in-Chief at BUILDINGS

Janelle Penny has more than a decade of experience in journalism, with a special emphasis on covering facilities management. She aims to deliver practical, actionable content for facilities professionals.

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