Using the “Internet of Things” to Improve Building Performance

Our company has been using the “Internet of Things” to help building owners and managers improve the performance of buildings for about 14 years. Over that time blogs, webinars, seminars and articles on the subject really caught my eye as they were few and far between. However, since the beginning of 2017 there seems to have been a lot more discussion around using IoT to improve building performance; in fact I have attended a webcast and a conference on the subject within the past couple weeks alone. The webcast was an ASHRAE event titled “Take Control: Using Analytics to Drive Building Performance” and the conference was local, hosted by controls equipment distributor that handles products from several different BAS and technology manufacturers. Highlights of what I heard and my related feedback are as follows:

A significant amount of technology is available to enable IoT for the purposes of improving the performance of building HVAC systems.

I agree with this statement with the caveat that not all technology is suitable to all buildings or asset management investment strategies.  Using the IoT to improve the performance of HVAC systems over the years has taught me to think much more broadly than what was suggested at these IoT events. For example, all the speakers at these events generally accepted that BACnet is everywhere, but in my experience that only holds true for HVAC systems in relatively new buildings. Furthermore, there is a significant amount of data that could be used to improve the performance of buildings embedded in devices and equipment where BACnet is not used at all. By broadening the accepted protocols to include Modbus, ASCII serial, SNMP, custom APIs, SQL, RFID, HTML, etc. (and all the derivative data that can be cultivated from such disparate data sources), analyses and improvement opportunities can be much more tailored to suit the investment strategies of asset managers.

The evolution of technology and the Internet has made gathering a building’s HVAC data easy and inexpensive.

As mentioned above, I have found that this is only true for relatively new buildings in which the equipment, devices, and networks are purchased and installed in a manner that’s immediately ready to support the exchanging of data using IoT. For existing buildings, which accounts for approximately 86% of building stock in North America, it can be challenging and expensive to gain access to the data unless the data collection system has the means to accommodate a broad range of protocols and an ability to accommodate any naming convention that might have been used therein. Furthermore, using IoT to supervise the management of HVAC systems in real-time requires the various networks to be robust and the methods of data collection to be secure. While connectivity has been steadily improving over the past decade, we find that at any given time between 3 and 5% of buildings have some sort of communication problem that prevents data from successfully reaching the cloud in real time. And in cases where the IoT technology does not have a device on site to buffer and back-fill collected data during Internet outages, the data might not ever reach the cloud at all.

The savings that result from using IoT to improve building performance is real and amounts to 20-30% of the energy costs.

I agree that the savings are indeed real, but to achieve 20-30% energy savings would require somewhat significant capital investment into the BAS and/or HVAC equipment. We have found that the savings available without any significant capital investment typically ranges from 5% to 15%.

The savings that result from improving maintenance practices and extending equipment life are of more value than energy, but it’s difficult to assign a specific savings amount on an avoided cost.

I agree with this completely. We see that buildings are becoming more technologically complex which makes it increasingly difficult to promptly identify and resolve issues that increase maintenance costs and/or impact the capital renewal strategies of its HVAC equipment. Furthermore, new technologies to improve the performance of buildings are continually evolving but not all of them are suitable to all building types and asset managers’ investment strategies. Some property management companies attempt to navigate their way through these waters using their building operators, but we have found that many of them need help because they simply don’t have the time or skills to play Sherlock Holmes for every little issue that arises, nor do they have the opportunity to stay current on new technologies and their real-world effectiveness.  Of course there are some exceptions, but even in those cases the building operator draws from his/her own experience which is often limited to fewer than five buildings and of only one or two types. To maximize maintenance, repair, and capital renewal savings requires experience drawn from hundreds of different buildings of all types and varied asset management strategies. The level of success is highest when Subject Matter Experts leverage lessons learned in a multitude of buildings to provide maximum benefit to every building being analyzed.

Analysis of operational data is automatic and completed by Artificial Intelligence algorithms to directly provide actionable information to property management.

While such technology has been available for many years and has been improving over time, we notice that in most circumstances they aren’t very successful because property management practices tend to be accountability driven and automatic processes circumvent accountability to some extent. The people that make decisions about how to invest money into an asset aren’t often Subject Matter Experts in the operation of buildings and HVAC equipment. However, they are keenly aware that they are going to be held accountable for the financial outcome of the decisions they make. As such they usually want to discuss and understand the financial implications of an operational improvement with a Subject Matter Expert so they can make a more informed decision about the investment. In our experience, the initial attraction of using IoT to improve building performance is energy savings but most property and asset managers quickly realize that there is significant ongoing value in having perpetual Subject Matter Expertise fed with real-time data that lives as the building lives.

Analysis services are available for purchase from BAS and HVAC equipment manufacturers.

No surprise here. It’s rare to get through any seminar that has multiple guest speakers without at least one of them throwing in a bit of a sales pitch. However, I have had a number of property and asset managers tell me that struggle to see how they can be assured that the BAS and HVAC equipment manufacturers will be objective when given the responsibility to analyze the operation of the very equipment they are paid to support. It seems to be a concern about “who polices the police” or “having the fox watch the hen-house”, which is a conflict of interest that I completely understand. It also reminds me of all the issues that have arisen over the years where Energy Savings Companies (ESCOs) offer to install energy saving measures at no cost to the building owner in exchange for a portion of the energy savings over the next 5 to 20 years. It almost doesn’t seem to matter if the savings are too much or too little; if the savings are too much the building owner feels the ESCO took advantage of them and if the savings are too little the ESCO insists in being paid extra citing that the building owner did something to undermine the effectiveness of the savings measure. Competing over money seems to put the parties on opposing teams, which doesn’t exactly support the primary objective of making the building better. Combining these observations suggests to me that the most successful path forward is one in which the Subject Matter Experts who are collecting and analyzing the data become the building owner’s trusted advisers first and foremost. And if the building owner wishes to have the Subject Matter Experts assist with supervision of small improvement projects, such projects are executed open-book.

 

The above represents only a small portion of what was discussed at the two IoT based events that I attended, but without hesitation I would say that both events were interesting and informative in their entirety. I would encourage anyone with interest in this subject to watch for upcoming webcasts, seminars, or conferences and attend a few if possible. Without a doubt I believe IoT can indeed be used to improve the performance of any building by maximizing the use of existing resources at a very reasonable cost, but as implied above I would encourage everyone to recognize that IoT is a catalyst and to not underestimate the importance of the role of the Subject Matter Expert. The majority of buildings exist to serve people and the decisions about their ongoing care, maintenance, and profitability are made by people. Until such time that computers can autonomously read people’s minds a Subject Matter Expert can help understand what the IoT data suggests is an improvement opportunity and confirm (in the appropriate context) that it is suitable to the building’s purpose and the management objectives of those that own it.

 

Connecting building data to its owners

Data from Building Automation Systems provides insight into the building’s operation and can be used to provide value to the owners and managers

 

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