Building Dashboards: Measuring to Manage

Feb. 1, 2012
Dashboards turn raw facility data into actionable information that's easy to share with owners, tenants, and building managers

Facilities are by no means perfect when it comes to operations and processes, and facility managers are aware of the need for constant improvements and maintenance. Consequently, they always are on the lookout for ways to gain additional insight into building processes, seeking to uncover ways to make their facilities run more efficiently and drive actions and improvements that positively impact the bottom line.

Improving or automating a process is not always a simple task. Rather, changes to processes must be done incrementally and with great care and precision. Each process change is in essence a small experiment, and the results help outline a path for continued optimization.

So how can a facility manager know when a process improvement is delivering benefits such as improved energy efficiency? Data-driven insight into specific processes is not always available, and clarity into how a given process is functioning historically has been a hard-to-obtain luxury for those involved in the decision-making process. This is changing, however, particularly when it comes to managing a facility's energy consumption.

Today, improved methods of measuring energy consumption — along with the availability of intelligent instrumentation — enable facility managers to extract much richer facility operational data than in the past. Energy-dashboard software is helping drive this change, providing facility managers with access to key actionable information in real time. This enables them to visualize, evaluate, and detect abnormal conditions and quickly act to optimize facility operational processes. Dashboards also provide an effective means of sharing contextualized energy information with a facility's user community, helping drive behavioral change in energy consumption and sustainability practices.

Measure: Windows to Energy Consumption

Measuring facility energy consumption traditionally has entailed reviewing a utility bill at the end of each month and identifying energy-consumption trends. Unfortunately, utility bills only give a bird's-eye view of what is happening inside a facility, providing general observations such as a facility's total energy consumption, peak consumption, and overall energy costs. What is missing is deeper insight for operators, including specifically when, where, and how a facility is consuming energy.

The lack of intelligence in traditional metering systems is one reason why delivering this necessary information is difficult. Traditional analog meters log kilowatt-hours monthly and are read manually to determine energy usage in a facility. Such meters are unable to provide information regarding when energy was consumed and when peak-energy usage occurred. The lack of a real-time view can prevent the detection of fault conditions, allowing them to continue undetected for up to 30 days.

Fortunately, metering technology is evolving, with digital smart meters leading the way. Smart meters can track energy-consumption information in real time, identify energy trends, and communicate directly with building-management systems via open protocols.

Smart meters make it easier and more cost-effective to implement submetering within a facility. This provides operational personnel with a granular view of a facility's energy-use profile. For example, submeters can be deployed to measure key subsystem loads, such as lighting, HVAC, chillers and boilers, and individual tenant spaces. This real-time information enables facility personnel to see exactly when and where energy is consumed and where inefficiencies lie, as well as opportunities for improvement.

The key to fully leveraging this information is establishing a method to easily understand the data, identify key performance indicators, and quickly discern abnormal consumption patterns. Energy dashboards can meet these requirements and help personnel make sense of the energy data.

Evaluate: Visualizing Data for Context

If done correctly, visualization of facility information can be particularly effective, and energy dashboards are useful tools for tying several sets of data together.

Previously, facility operators integrated data in a spreadsheet. Operators sampled energy usage and environmental data periodically and captured it within the spreadsheet. Unfortunately, it was difficult for operators to discern patterns and trends within a spreadsheet filled with numbers. As spreadsheet tools improved, the addition of charting features allowed users to plot data and realize the value of visualization.

Today's dashboards take this visualization to the next level. New visualization tools — including multiple dimension charts, time-series charts, gauges, and other displays — make it easier to focus on key performance indicators, correlate several seemingly disparate data sets, and convert streams of numbers into a visual, understandable format. Each of these tools can be used to accelerate recognition of abnormal use patterns, shifts in operational efficiency, and processes drifting out of control, ultimately helping to turn the data into suggested actions for improvement. For example, a facility manager can develop demand and consumption baseline profiles. As he makes changes and improvements, he can evaluate their impact in real time against the baselines, building data-driven conclusions of progress, as opposed to subjective best estimates.

Manage: Driving Actionable Change

Dashboards are important communication tools that, when properly implemented, provide concise summaries of an intended message for a target audience. From a facility perspective, the message might entail how well a facility is running, how much energy it is saving, or how much impact the facility users are having on the environment.

Digital signage dashboards, for instance, are automated “digital story” packages. These are intended to drive behavioral change among tenants by providing energy information in a format an average occupant can understand. This could include equivalency measures to add context to a figure, such as the number of trees it takes to consume the carbon dioxide generated by the facility's energy use.

For the engineers and operators in a building, facility-management dashboards enable data to be de-cluttered and filtered so operational personnel can quickly detect problems and take corrective action. The example image of a facility-management dashboard (Figure 1) shows an energy trend plot in the middle of the screen, with additional information regarding the energy consumption, demand, power factor, and carbon-dioxide emissions of the facility This window into facility performance is tailored to goals of the department and can include elements such as power demand or consumption gauges with color banding to alert personnel of normal or abnormal situations (Figure 2).

Operators and engineers also can benefit from facility-management dashboards because display indicators reflect the real-time performance of the chillers and boilers or electricity use by floor. These dashboards provide a snapshot of a building's performance against baselines and can help determine if energy equipment and processes are performing optimally.

Dashboards also have a place in the corporate world. Corporate-suite dashboards benefit executives who oversee overall organizational performance, environmental impact, and compliance with regulatory requirements. A corporate-suite dashboard typically tracks elements such as energy spend against the company's planned budget, energy intensity, kilowatt-hours per square foot, ENERGY STAR rating, and greenhouse-gas emissions. Overall, the dashboard can show if energy use is tracking against budgetary restrictions and how improvements are helping the overall bottom line.

Educational sustainability portals exemplify another useful application of the energy-dashboard concept. These portals can engage and educate specific user communities to help modify and improve their energy and environmental activities. Colleges, for instance, can hold competitions across campus dormitories to help drive sustainability initiatives and reduce energy consumption. Dashboards that encompass various energy-related charts and diagrams show students which dorms are doing the best in terms of saving energy. These accessible dashboards can help positively influence student energy-consumption behaviors and help further campus sustainability and environmental consciousness.

For example, the University of Toronto recently employed a dashboard to show the benefits of various facility improvements to senior staff and the impact the improvements made on the campus' energy budget.

Year-over-year enrollment at the university had increased over the course of several years, and facility improvements across the campus simultaneously helped drive down energy costs. Through measures including lighting and boiler and chiller-plant upgrades, campus efficiency improved, energy spend decreased, and student energy intensity (measured in kilowatt-hours per student) decreased.

When challenged by management to showcase what had been done to improve the campus infrastructure, the team realized it had overlooked an opportunity to illustrate their work and the gains made in overall energy efficiency. Unfortunately, the facility team conducted much of its retrofit work outside of the public eye and did not publish any information on their work.

However, a Web-friendly energy dashboard helped the team tout its work by showing campus energy information and consumption-rate decreases, demonstrating how successful the facility upgrades were and what the campus had done to decrease consumption. Through the dashboard, facility personnel had an easy, actionable, and visual way of showing exactly how much of an impact the upgrades had made on campus.

Visualizing Impact

Because of the increased ability to measure energy usage through improved monitoring capabilities such as smart meters and submetering, facilities can thoroughly and concisely present energy-consumption data in a way that promotes change among key audiences.

For facilities that have made building upgrades and improvements, dashboards provide real-time methods of monitoring and visualizing energy usage and offer context, visibility, and insight. With such information at their fingertips, facility personnel are better able to improve processes and drive behavioral change that directly — and demonstratively — impacts the bottom line.

Did you find this article useful? Send comments and suggestions to Senior Editor Ron Rajecki at [email protected].

Harold Matherne Jr. is the global manager for service and energy offerings for Honeywell Building Solutions. He is responsible for the development and deployment of service and energy products. He has more than 30 years of industry experience. He received his bachelor's degree in engineering from the University of New Orleans.