Facility Management Mobile Applications

Jan. 23, 2012
The next generation of facility management mobile applications brings hundreds of new choices to the smartphone and tablet.  Which app is right for you?

Remote monitoring by telephone and computer debuted in the 1980s under the “smart building” moniker. The possibilities suggested a new paradigm for facility management, especially for operating HVAC plants. Yet their cost, complexity, and proprietary nature stalled adoption of the new remote tools.

A second generation of mobile products for FM and HVAC began to appear two decades later. Examples included the alliance between Carrier and IBM called MyAppliance.com, a wireless remote monitoring and control service using a secure website and an e-infrastructure supported by IBM services, software, and hardware. But adoption of the technology remained limited.

Things may be different today for two reasons. First, the smartphone is quickly taking over the world. Hardly phones at all, these are miniature, Internet-connected computers with an on-board global positioning system (GPS). The combined technologies let users host and perform myriad functions, driving their wild popularity. This year, a half-billion smartphones will be sold globally, about five times as many as in 2011, according to high-tech research firm Gartner. In fact, smartphone sales will soon outpace PCs, says Morgan Stanley Research.

Second, an entire industry has emerged for creating new software applications – or “apps” – that run on smartphones. Many provide specific business and productivity benefits for FMs. In Apple’s online iTunes store last month, I found 135 apps for HVAC alone, ranging from simple conversion tools for sizing ducts to full platforms for energy management systems, plus 102 apps for property maintenance or management. Most can be used with smartphones (Droid, iPhone, Blackberry, and more) as well as tablet computers running on Apple iOS, Android, and other operating systems.

Core Benefits of Smartphone Apps
At least three core functions related to HVAC operations can benefit from mobile smartphone apps, according to Matt Sheehan, a principal with Salt Lake City-based WebMapSolutions, which makes location-based mobile applications:

  • Reporting and tracking. This includes managing field teams, such as physical plant engineers or remote FM personnel, who can input information on their smartphones while working away from the office.
  • Data collection. Using a smartphone or other mobile tool, building owners can collect such data as temperature readings, CO2 levels, and equipment operations and status.
  • Maintenance and inventory control. This function helps keep track of HVAC equipment and related assets.

Facility managers with mobile app experience add a fourth function: computation and calculation, such as sizing a duct or ordering a replacement fan while at a remote facility. A fifth and growing category covers mobile HVAC operations, such as changing setpoints or shutting down equipment remotely on the fly.

The computation and calculation category is full of shortcuts for estimating HVAC system needs. Among the most sophisticated (and expensive, with a $19.99 cost through the iTunes store) is the ASHRAE 62.1 app for iPhone or iPad. Based on the ASHRAE standard for minimum ventilation of indoor spaces, the app determines needed fresh-air levels for a wide variety of commercial buildings. Not surprisingly, ASHRAE’s 2012 Winter Conference featured a seminar in January called “Loads on the Move: Mobile Apps” as part of its HVAC&R Fundamentals and Applications track.

Other associations offer calculation tools, too. The Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association (SMACNA) offers DALC – Duct Air Leakage Calculator – so facility managers and mechanical tradesworkers can estimate air leakage from ductwork and determine the pass/fail mark for DALT, the Duct Air Leakage Test. The Air Conditioning Contractors of America offers ACCA Today, a mobile app that doesn’t do math but does deliver industry news to the iPhone or iPad.

Estimating and calculation tools are also available through many HVAC manufacturers. Danfoss offers KoolApp, which makes quick pressure-to-temperature conversions for refrigerant using a familiar-looking slider tool. Users choose from 48 refrigerant types, and either manually enter the exact figures or use the slide ruler to get instant, precise answers. Can’t find the old analog refrigerant slide on a messy desk? No worries – just grab the phone.

To determine mechanical cooling or heating needs for individual rooms up to 550 square feet, a German company named KlimaShop! offers the KlimaKonfigurator. The app takes such data as room size and height, type of roof or ceiling construction, window area receiving direct sunlight, number of occupants, and devices generating heat in the space (such as lighting, computers, and electronics). The tool then churns out the air-conditioning requirement value calculated by power (wattage or BTU/h) to maintain a temperature difference of about 10-15 degrees F. between the room and the outdoors.

For a few bucks, an FM can own HVAC Quick Load, which computes rule-of-thumb HVAC load requirements from input on building type, number of occupants, and total area. It works for commercial, residential, institutional, and industrial buildings. HVAC Formulator and HVAC Professional Formulator are more sophisticated, with about 200 formulas on everything from air changes to piping equivalent lengths. These apps from MultiEducator, Inc. retail for $7.99.

The world of apps includes a multitude of low-cost calculators, but some are of dubious value. Start your investigation by reading online user reviews to determine if an app is worth the few dollars and minutes to download.

Information vs. Control
One of the biggest areas for mobile HVAC apps has been the simple translation of product catalogs and brochures for use on the smartphone or tablet. Many of these also include sizing tables, details on replacement parts or retrofit options, and mobile ordering information – essentially bridging the categories of maintenance, mobile operations, and inventory – and are ideal for visiting sites with phone in hand. When calculation tools are included, the company literature is all the more valuable.

Launched mid-2011, the Siemens Building Technologies Download Center offers access to all the company’s specifications, data sheets, and manuals through Apple’s iOS Universal operating system. It covers more than building automation and HVAC, with related browsable and downloadable details on fire safety, security, and electrical distribution systems.

Brochures and specs are one thing. But mobile apps that actually allow the management and remote operations of facilities are still rare – even though they are far more common than back in the days of Carrier’s MyAppliance.com. Some of these apps are expensive, too, both in terms of the mobile app’s cost and the time and manpower required to use them effectively.

Many remote HVAC tools serve only a single, simple function. Proliphix – a provider of Internet-managed energy control systems that claims to have introduced the industry’s first Internet thermostat back in 2004 – has launched a smartphone app for Android version 2.2 or iPhone. Called Remote Thermostat, the tool interacts with Proliphix model NT thermostats from the road. After password authentication, the user can view zone temperature and HVAC mode and then read or adjust heating and cooling settings – or shut the thermostat off altogether. A similar tool, ecobee’s Smart Thermostat, is a WiFi-enabled smart product that works only with the company’s thermostats. Trane Controller from Ingersoll-Rand can monitor and control the Trane Mini ICS Compatible systems, many of which are installed overseas.

These mobile apps are limited not only in scope but also in application. They were developed for the residential market, although they have been applied to commercial buildings.

Hunting Down HVAC Inventories

A new category of smartphone apps is aimed at either field maintenance or equipment identification.

For facility managers, these apps provide instant inventory and data storage on HVAC equipment, helping make quick decisions on the availability of replacement parts and refrigerants.

One new entry is HVAC Equipment Locator, a software application introduced last year by Carmel Software for the Apple iPhone and iPod touch. The system allows facility managers and plant operators to input information on all HVAC equipment and upload it to a secure remote server.

Once the data is entered and stored, building teams can share information about equipment inventory status with other professional and maintenance staff.

The app takes advantage of the GPS sensors in smartphones and tablet computers like the iPad. The locator identifies equipment by GPS coordinates, which become the globally unique identifier for each spare part and appliance. In this way, a user can input and retrieve info by doing nothing more than standing next to the item.

Remote HVAC Management For full mobile control of HVAC, there are facility management apps that attempt to allow universal building and mechanical systems functions. Some building owners have deployed the products on remote buildings, such as telecommunications sheds and the like. Others have tried them out with test sites inside larger buildings – or entire buildings – with good results.

“In the first year, we probably saved about $50,000 in heating costs,” says Mike Schmelzer, president of Tryax Realty, Inc. in New York City, whose company uses a system called USE Manager, a web-enabled building status and control system. “After we saw that, we said we need to install this in every building we own. It allows me to give tenants the amount of heating that is appropriate throughout the winter heating season.”

Made by US Energy Group, USE Manager 6.1 provides automated control and real-time status of subject building systems. Integrating EPA’s Portfolio Manager with its own USE Tracker, Real-Time Management, and USE-Mobile modules, the product allows online energy monitoring and control. It typically shows a payback of two years or so, according to Schmelzer and other users, mainly through reductions in fuel use as well as productivity gains and time saved traveling among properties.

Similar products with smartphone mobility can be used for small buildings and single sites, such as convenience stores or rented outbuildings. Crestron Mobile Pro, on sale for $99.99 at the iTunes store, provides integrated control of lights, media, climate, security, and more. A similar product called ilivecenter Client uses such building automation protocols as LonWorks, Zigbee, and PLCBus.

Examples for large commercial use are available from companies such as ASI Controls. Last year, the San Ramon, CA-based company worked with Envirotrols Group to install an energy management system that included ASI Controls WebLink and submeters from Dent Instruments. The system was installed in a New York City pilot facility owned by Safeguard Self Storage, which operates a national building portfolio. Based on the success of the initial application, which slashed energy consumption by more than 40%, the company rolled out the system across multiple facilities in Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Florida.

“To maximize our energy savings, we wanted to partner with a company that offered a web-based product focused on monitoring and controlling the total energy consumption of our buildings,” says Mike Frosaker, Safeguard’s vice president of asset management. According to the company, the system enables user control and monitoring of all HVAC equipment and outdoor lighting to develop setback schedules, occupancy set points, and demand-control techniques. Live data used by facility managers includes power, current temperature readings, and humidity levels. The mobile product can also schedule lighting and HVAC operation.

Adds Frosaker, “By monitoring all HVAC units, we were able to reduce our maintenance cost by 28% with a savings of $44,000.”

Saving energy has been a motivation for most of the interactive HVAC mobile apps on the market. Under the category of energy management, there are hundreds more mobile apps for heating and air-conditioning systems, with names like Kill-O-Watts, Watts Plus, and Meter Read. Many are ideal for individually metered appliances or central plants. And given their low cost, the bar is not high in order to achieve a positive return on investment.

C.C. Sullivan ([email protected]) is a marketing communications consultant and writer specializing in architecture, design, and construction technology.

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