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Data is The Key to All Things Building Automation

Oct. 1, 2019
From the October issue... Engineers today must consider all potential data streams needed to optimize operations, writes Schneider Electric's Jeff McClain.

By JEFFREY McCLAIN, Schneider Electric, Chicago IL

The biggest trends to emerge in the area of building automation all share one central requirement – data. Automation systems that can collect large amounts of data enable buildings to do things they never could have done years ago. 

It used to be that as a manufacturer, hardware was a selling point, but more and more the hardware itself has become a commodity. Today, the real selling point is our ability to utilize and manage the data produced by the hardware, software and edge devices that feed into the system. Building automation systems, enabled by the Internet of Things (IoT), collect and report real-time equipment performance data. This data, coupled with historic data and asset specifications can be used to optimize equipment operations for better energy use, such as phasing HVAC systems in and out. 

Engineered Systems for Modern Environments

If you consider the way projects were designed 15+ years ago, quite a lot has changed. Engineers then were including the controls layer in their HVAC systems in their mechanical designs. They didn’t have to think about peripheral systems. Their focus was on what they wanted to measure and control and how many points of intersection were needed to specify the system. 

As data collection and management are more commonly cloud-based, the data architecture has changed, and engineers must consider the potential data streams that could or should be included in the overall conceptual design. They have to include network professionals and think about how IT architectures and wireless technologies integrate into the building. 

They must also consider the overall user experience, which is greatly expanded and more interactive. Rather than individual workstations and a web-capable interface, they must engineer systems that can interact with iOS and Android devices used by end users to interact with the system. The specifications they produce have to account for the intersection points between various technologies. Designers have to understand what their customer needs from the system, not just the HVAC control. 

Machine Learning on the Path to Automated Control and Maintenance

One emerging trend that is changing how systems are designed and controlled is machine learning (ML). Historically, an engineer would design the equipment and specify how it would operate and define the sequence of operations. Controls providers would then design, program and configure the function of the system, according to the specification. As machine learning becomes more viable, there will be less need to define how equipment will operate. Rather, based on users’ commands, the systems will have the ability to learn through analytics how, for example, an air handling system is required to operate, and then essentially self-program.

The prevalence of analytic capability is what drives that. These systems will be able to self-analyze and compare manual inputs to the collected data. If a maintenance engineer is changing set points or air volumes, those data points are gathered over time. With ML, these systems have the ability to track those inputs and recognize resulting trends and make changes accordingly.

Some of that capability has been available for energy management for some time. For instance, one could program an air handler to analyze itself, and with a number of prescriptive evaluations, identify how to optimize the control of mechanical systems. That optimization can also be user-adjusted based on specific objectives such as occupant comfort or operating costs.

Emphasizing the Occupant Experience

In the next five years, we see the user experience moving from the building engineer and maintenance purview to the end user. Building automation systems (BAS) and how they’re used in a facility is changing rapidly. That’s not to say the core capabilities of BAS are going away. Building owners and managers still need these systems for engagement, management, control of maintenance systems, and numerous monitoring and reporting mechanisms. But, as emphasis shifts to the user environment and making spaces more attractive to occupants, moving the actual user interface input to the edge to give users more control is a big trend for the space. 

In keeping with the growing telecommuting trend, more offices are taking advantage of the “hot desking” or hoteling model where employees forego an assigned workspace and instead choose an open desk to work from when they’re in the office. With modern BAS and IoT-enabled applications, an employee can enter a building and use a mobile app to reserve a workspace for the day. The employee can use that same app to adjust light levels and temperature set points or book a meeting room. 

Such technology allows people to manage that space and the utilization of that space to understand how it’s being used. This ability is particularly important in commercial real estate to enable designers and building managers to plan and manage office space to optimize occupancy. 

Smarter Buildings are on Trend

Given all the smart devices emerging and available today, and the capability of building automation systems to gather and manage large amounts of data, we can do things we never thought of five years ago. Machine learning and IoT data enable building owners and managers to employ predictive maintenance strategies and optimize the user environment, creating more productive, efficient, smarter buildings.  


Based in Chicago, the author is Branch Operations Manager for Schneider Electric Digital Energy. He has more than 25 years of experience in operations and facilities management with a focus on building automation, energy efficiency, and sustainable building operation.