Smart Building Technology

Automation software, customizable networks, and data collection create energy savings.

Credit: iStock/enotmaks

Building energy costs are a significant expenditure for businesses and the public building sector. The smart building industry is responding with products and services that can help, but there are hundreds of choices. However, we have some great examples of smart technology that can get you up to speed. So let’s take a closer look.

We’ll start with some projects at educational facilities, a sector that’s seen great progress in energy efficiency, but one that also faces many challenges. According to a new study commissioned by Schneider Electric and the Alliance to Save Energy, energy efficiency is recognized among US higher education institutions as key to fulfilling their schools’ core mission. However, while 92% of respondents stated that their school had a culture that encourages energy efficiency, they still encounter organizational barriers, such as insufficient funding and lack of a clear definition of success.

The situation at these institutions is complicated by the fact that their buildings are old. The study found that 59% of the respondents reported that the average age of their buildings exceeds 15 years, and only one in five reported an average age of buildings below 10 years.

“A majority of the higher education buildings that stand today are expected to be in operation for the next few decades,” says Tara Canfield, Education Segment Director, at Schneider Electric. “The university segment is focused on how to develop sustainable plans for future infrastructure needs. As we work with these facility managers, the main point is collaboration across the divisions, so systems can be integrated and made smarter to help facilities managers to be more efficient. One of the things we do is look at space usage. The needs for space are changing. About 50% of the time on average, a space is not being utilized. One of the simplest principles of energy management is to turn off systems that are not in use. But turning things off can be daunting. Smart building technology simplifies that process by incorporating scheduling systems with building management systems. That way it’s not a manual process to change setpoints on HVAC systems and lighting.”

For a fully automated solution, Schneider Electric offers StruxureWare Building Operation, a software application for the company’s SmartStruxure solution suite. StruxureWare Building Operation provides integrated monitoring, control, and management of energy, lighting, fire safety, and HVAC to ensure facilities are energy efficient and effectively managed. The software transforms system data at the automation level into valuable business information, to maximize building efficiency and reduce operating costs across the entire lifecycle of a facility.

“Valuable business information can drive the adoption of energy efficiency programs,” says Canfield. “Facilities managers often need help with their business case, and one of the fastest things they can do to create a business case is to use reporting. Another option is to overlay building analytics, which helps analyze the data, and it gives the managers some added intelligence, which helps with decision making. Systems can also draw from, for instance, a weather data source. So you can add third-party data and now look at an upcoming storm or temperature change and know, based on the length of the event, whether to change setpoints.”

For institutions that are looking for a simpler approach, Schneider Electric has a room controller that’s more than a smart thermostat. It’s designed to be low cost and easily installed, yet they have sensors and can stand alone room-by-room, for use in dormitories, classrooms, and offices. “They are programmed to be out-of-the-box ready, so even a facility team that doesn’t have the capabilities or want to hire a contractor can still easily install it,” says Canfield. “You have menus and you can arrange your setpoints, so it’s very easy to follow and it can be wired or wireless.”

For a different approach to controls that are targeted for education and other small- to medium-sized facilities, Intermatic Incorporated, Spring Grove, IL, recently introduced its ET Basic+ Series of electronic controls. The ET Series Basic+ offers low-maintenance, automated control of interior and exterior lighting, bell ringing, water features, signage, and other load-consuming equipment. Designed to meet the needs of schools, small hotels, retail stores, restaurants, and small offices, the ET Basic+ Series features easy scheduling control and flexibility. A backup feature maintains power, function, and information carryover, for up to 100 hours.

Operators have the flexibility to accommodate complex schedules and the capacity to handle future changes and facility expansion. Configurable outputs allow for the ability to combine various types of applications and control these with a single unit. There’s even a cut-and-paste style function—the ET Basic+ Series has a USB port to easily copy and paste schedules from one control to another or simply to backup existing schedules.

The concept of easy setup and pre-installed programming is spreading, and these benefits were key selling points when the San Diego Community College District (SDCCD) chose Cree LED lighting to upgrade lighting at its administrative offices. Using Cree’s high-performing LED lighting with SmartCast Technology, SDCCD retrofitted more than 1200 fixtures with an intelligent system that consumes up to 75% less energy.

As part of the upgrade, SDCCD installed Cree CR Series troffers with SmartCast Technology. The system uses Cree’s innovative OneButton commissioning, and allows luminaires enabled with SmartCast Technology to create their own secure network, adjust light output according to their environment, and automatically form functional groups to maximize savings, all with the push of a single button. SmartCast Technology eliminates additional design, control wires, and the setup time often associated with complex control systems. The new lighting system also offers up to 100,000 hours of life expectancy, resulting in maintenance reductions and savings lasting up to 10 years.

The OneButton learning phase is unique, according to John Casadonte, vertical marketing manager, lighting at Cree Inc. “In the past, you had to worry about where to place your occupancy sensors, and ambient light sensors,” says Casadonte. “But the sensors are actually embedded in our product, which provides maximum energy efficiency benefits by enabling each fixture to react to movement or external light sources. Typically, fixtures are laid out in the interior and perimeter of a building. During the setup, each fixture determines the amount of ambient light in its area. The fixture will take measurements of the light that’s generated from other sources such as sunlight. This phase happens during the commissioning, but it takes a snapshot that will remain in the memory of the lights until it is asked to do a recalibration. The recalibration can be done as often as the building owner wishes, i.e., once a week, once a month, or once a year. So as an example, the building owner may want to recalibrate during the change of seasons, when sunlight projects from different angles and produces more or less light in areas of a building. Re-optimizing the fixtures will guarantee maximum energy savings with just the right amount of light output.”

The new automated sensors are saving about 70% of the energy used by the previous system, according to Christopher Manis, vice chancellor, facilities management, SDCCD. “We have a lot of glazing on our exterior walls and the natural light is strong, the function of the fixture to measure that window light and dim itself gave us additional savings. We were also surprised by the reduction in HVAC system operations due to the cooler LED lighting. We’re estimating about a 7 to 10% reduction in those costs.”

The HVAC cost reductions were estimated by comparing utility bills. But that task, and many others, could be automated by building automation software. For example, Ascent Compass Software, from Alerton, Lynnwood, WA, is designed to simplify building automation. Compass is part of the Alerton Ascent building automation suite of products, for monitoring and controlling building systems, including HVAC, lighting, security/access control, fire and life safety, elevators and escalators, and more.

Credit: Alerton Alterton’s Ascent Compass software

Credit: Alerton
Alterton’s Ascent Compass software

With so much power, such a system might appear daunting, but according to Kevin Callahan, a product owner and evangelist for Alerton, the company’s latest release, Compass 1.2, features an enhanced navigation tree that enables each user, or group of users, to tailor the building automation system to only present features pertaining to their work. The interface is simpler and reduces the number of steps required to complete a task. Another feature is context-specific menus that provide relevant data and tasks wherever a user is within the system. This allows users to easily view, create, and edit alarms or any system data points controlled by Ascent.

“This latest Compass version delivers complete user management of trend logs, alarms, and schedules, via a Web browser,” says Callahan.

The Web access is a significant convenience for common tasks that managers find most important.

“A property manager is typically interested in the overall operations and needs know if there are alarms hotspots and cold spots for problems going on in the building,” says Callahan. “But an energy manager might want to look at trend logs or energy logs to see the current performance of buildings. An onsite maintenance person might want to just go in and raise or lower the temperature or change schedule for a building if somebody has to work late. A mechanical contractor might come in to look at tasks such as correcting or troubleshooting the system. So they could look at system graphics to find out what’s operating correctly and where there are problems.”

Alerton’s products use BACnet (a communications protocol for building automation and control networks) to enhance integration with a building’s mechanical systems.

Credit: Alerton

Credit: Alerton

“I can have the Compass front end supervisor access HVAC controllers,” says Callahan, “but I could also integrate variable frequency drive pumps, or power meters and other meters, such as gas and water, that can all connect right in the system. If your chiller has a BACnet interface, you can imagine the amount of information that’s available about its operations—data such as pressure or oil temperature, how many starts it’s made, and the run load amps and current. And now with the analytics available, and leveraging in cloud computing, all of that data can be fed to the cloud for analytics, maintenance, and diagnostics.”

It’s not just chillers that can offer energy efficiency data to the cloud. Carrier, Farmington, CT, offers a building automation control system for its line of WeatherExpert 48/50LC 6- to 23-ton packaged HVAC rooftop units. The SystemVu rooftop unit controller is capable of standalone operation with a conventional thermostat, or it can be connected to the Carrier i-Vu System, Carrier Comfort Network or BACnet, for full integration with a building automation system.

Ease of operation is a key feature, an intuitive display menu allows quick and easy access to more than 300 possible configuration points and more than 300 status, troubleshooting, diagnostic, and maintenance points. There’s a USB port to make data exchanging easy and accurate, and it also has a quick unit status indicator to show if the unit is in run, alarm or fault mode. Actual unit refrigerant pressures can be read right from the controller display—eliminating the need for traditional gauges.

Storing HVAC data, and overall building data in the cloud could be a great help in complying with the growing demand for energy efficiency data sharing from city, state, and federal agencies. For example, in California, Assembly Bill 802 and The Clean Energy and Pollution Reduction Act of 2015 include disclosure laws on energy use in non­residential buildings, and enable collected data to aid in the creation of efficiency programs. It also requires that the State Energy Resources Conservation and Development Commission set annual targets to double efficiency and savings in electrical and natural gas usage by January 1, 2030.

Credit: Smart Utilities Systems

Credit: Smart Utilities Systems

Collecting data is also a hot topic with the US Department of Energy (DOE). The DOE joined with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the Institute for Market Transformation (IMT), the National League of Cities (NLC), and the National Association of State Energy Officials (NASEO), to announce the launch of the Standard Energy Efficiency Data (SEED) Collaborative, a strategic effort to assist as state and local governments manage, standardize, and share large building performance data sets.

This new collaboration builds on the success of the DOE’s software application called the SEED Platform, one of the tools in the Better Buildings toolkit that allows cities and states to streamline the complex and difficult process of managing and standardizing building energy data. Early adopters, such as Washington DC and Philadelphia, piloted the SEED Platform in 2014.

Cities are overflowing with data, according to Kathleen Hogan, deputy assistant secretary for energy efficiency at the DOE. Hogan notes that there’s an unprecedented amount of new data as cities and states help building owners better understand the opportunities available for energy savings. The SEED Collaborative will help cities and states leverage this data to unlock barriers and unleash innovative market solutions that will save energy and money, and grow businesses in their communities.

The data trend hasn’t gone unnoticed by utilities, and many are adopting cloud-based solutions designed to enhance customer engagement and improve operational efficiency through mobile and analytics technologies. For example, Smart Utility Systems (SUS),Irvine, CA, provides utilities with cloud-based, Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) solutions for customer engagement, workforce mobility, and big data intelligence and analytics.

According to Lance Brown, vice president of customer service solutions at SUS, the company’s Smart Customer Mobile solution (SCM) offers a single integrated platform that enables utility companies to establish real-time two-way communication with commercial and residential customers. Web-based access makes data available anytime, anywhere from devices including Web, tablets, and smartphones.

“Utilities can offer their customers up to 12 configurable modules, such as My Account, Usage, commercial and residential building analytics, historical and current billing information, payment processing, alternate efficiency programs, and outages updates inreal-time,” says Brown. “SCM is scalable because it supports customers as small as a mom-and-pop store, all the way up to multiple buildings connected together with building management. So they can compare their energy spending and compare like buildings within a suite. Additionally, it’s easy to request service, or implement efficiency measures and demand response programs.”

Credit: Cree San Diego Community College Chancellor Office

Credit: Cree
San Diego Community College Chancellor Office

In the past, utilities have a less than stellar reputation for providing simple data for demand response and other information on commercial utility bills. However, Brown says that if a building has a smart control system, the SCM mobile and portal platform can tie into it directly so the utility can provide simple data for demand response events. Moreover, the platform works with a wide variety of third-party energy efficiency devices.

“Integration is one of our strong points, and we integrate with almost everything,” says Brown. “That includes customer information systems, operational systems, as well as other backend systems. Each one feeds data right into our customer engagement platform. Even if a building has alternative systems, such as solar power or wind generation, we can show the generation on a system. Additionally, SCM displays the customer’s net usage and carries that forward for whatever tasks are needed. The graphs are all configurable as to how you see them and defining what’s most valuable.”

Credit: Cree SmartCast Technology lighting controls

Credit: Cree
SmartCast Technology lighting controls

Buildings that deploy solar PV can keep their systems performing at peak levels because managers can see their output in real time. In fact, they can pull out their smartphone, and see the load on the building as well as the generation.

“The API from the inverters will tell them what capacity they’re running at. For example if there’s a lot of obstructive film on the panels and they’re not running at full output, a building facility manager would want to know in order to take the appropriate action.”

The utility can benefit, too, because it’s possible to communicate with the API from the inverter.

“That’s very valuable because the utility needs to see patterns and trends that could predict an event,” says Brown. “And also the buildings statistics such as their load factor and what they will need.”

As we’ve seen, energy efficiency projects can be as simple as installing wireless thermostats, or as complex as creating a smart building with automation that analyzes and controls all of the building’s energy using systems. But no matter the level of complexity, it’s easy to contact the manufacturers and get the advice you need to move forward and to start reducing your energy expenditure.

So there are more than enough reasons. And the timing couldn’t be better. BE_bug_web


Bonus Benefits of Energy Efficiency

Are you missing the big picture?

Energy efficiency benefits don’t stop with savings on your utility bills. According to a recent report from The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) “Recognizing the Value of Energy Efficiency’s Multiple Benefits,” a variety of business types reported secondary benefits that included reduced maintenance materials costs, avoided procurement costs, and reductions in concurrent facility expenses (electricity demand, water consumption, maintenance, labor, and regulatory compliance costs). Other benefits include some combination of operations and maintenance savings, enhanced productivity, higher product quality, improved work environment, improved capital value, risk abatement, and more. One study described the value of multiple benefits as 44% of industrial energy savings, while another indicated 122%.

Various forms of tax relief are potentially valuable benefits, but they are grossly underutilized even when businesses make energy improvements. Why? Internal communication issues.


Energy Service Contracts Provide Low-to-No Cost Solutions

For large institutions that need significant energy efficiency upgrades, an energy service contract can solve financing issues. In these situations, the service provider does the work and is paid with the energy savings that it creates. A new report from Navigant Research predicts that the market opportunity for energy service companies (ESCOs) and energy performance contracting (EPC), will increase from $6.3 billion in 2015 to $11.5 billion in 2024.

Such contracts can be very beneficial for institutions struggling to finance energy efficiency upgrades. For example, the University of Illinois at Chicago signed a $63.6 million energy savings performance contract with Ameresco, Farmington, MA. The budget neutral project saves the University more than $1.8 million in avoided energy costs annually for 20 years, through energy efficiency and infrastructure upgrades to the Science and Engineering departments on the campus Laboratories Complex. It’s a big project, with four teaching and laboratory buildings, and an office building, exceeding 1.2 million square feet. Along with infrastructure upgrades, energy conservation measures include: new and recommissioned air handling units, HVAC control systems and equipment, chilled beams, high-performance fume hoods, lighting retrofits, weatherization of building envelope, and the installation of energy recovery systems. As an added bonus, the project helps the University reach its goal of carbon emission reductions 80% by 2050

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