Over a 35-year career in environmental and sustainable consulting, I have too often observed a major gap in communicating and understanding what buildings automation systems CAN DO and what base systems usually offer.

This asset is a sunk cost in almost every large, commercial, institutional, or corporate facility that, when fully leveraged, could provide better performing, better maintained buildings with little or no additional capital investment.

The asset goes by many names — Building Automation System (BAS), or Energy Management System (EMS), or Automatic Temperature Control (ATC) — but fundamentally provides the same function of building system and space comfort control. It is the building’s central nerve system.

Getting Better Performance

For many reasons, buildings systems are not performing at their peak levels. These include the way systems are specified and purchased for a new construction project, a lack of understanding of what systems can do, or a flawed approach in the value engineering (VE) process.

Optimizing the BAS will improve energy performance, indoor air quality maintenance and occupant comfort, as well as provide for continuous/retro commissioning of the system to improve maintenance and extend equipment life. Who doesn’t want all of that!

The Building Automation System front end or operating software of almost all of the major BAS systems in the market place today is incredibly powerful and capable of very sophisticated building system control sequences and strategies. Most of the BAS front ends have these capabilities pre-programed in routines that are smart and self-tuning.

Sounds incredible, right? So, that is what owners, developers, facility manager think they are getting in the BAS they buy when embarking on a new project. Let me offer an analogy to the real world BAS application situation.

Unlocking the Power of a BAS

Like BAS front-end software packages, Microsoft Excel® is an incredibly powerful and sophisticated calculating and analytical tool. However, when you open it, the worksheet is empty. The power of Excel is unlocked when the user knows what they want their spreadsheet to do, and has the knowledge and experience to write the algorithms and code to best leverage the functions embedded in Excel.

Too often, beginners use Excel as a word processing tool, completely missing its potential and power. That is analogous to the application of BAS software in commercial, institutional, and corporate building development projects.

Pick up 10 BAS or ATC spec sections from 10 different projects and it’s likely that the spec will call out and require in painstaking detail the functional prowess of the desired BAS front end software capabilities. But the spec will be very vague or completely miss how that power and capabilities are actually applied to the project being built.

Or the spec will not detail the peripheral BAS components to affect the desired intelligent control and management of the building and systems to deliver optimum performance and comfort.

Fault the Process

Herein lies the fundamental disconnect to fully leveraging a sunk cost asset for almost every large building built. The fault lies in the way the design, construction and development process has emerged over time alongside the rapid and astonishing advancements in BAS software capabilities.

This is not to disparage the professionalism or rigor of the design and construction team members that are saddled with every detail and perform almost flawlessly (and often thanklessly) to deliver buildings that function well, are safe, and beautiful.

Building commissioning, which has seen a reemergence driven by LEED and a general market pull towards sustainability, can build the bridge to the new paradigm, allowing for the discovery, implementation, and full utilization of the BAS asset in new and existing buildings. Including an experienced commissioning agent on a project development team, or having one review existing building operations, can help to bring the best out of the designers and operators and the BAS they have to work with.

Think of it as getting that “custom built spreadsheet” that optimizes the building performance, comfort, and longevity. The professionals in the BAS industry are among of the best in the building science and analytics space. The software capabilities they have developed attest to their skills.

There is desire and pent up demand in the mechanical, electrical and plumbing (MEP) disciplines to design and build the best buildings they can imagine. Working together, BAS and MEP teams can bridge the gap so that fully leveraged Building Automation Systems become the rule rather than the exception.

Stephen Keppler, CBCP LEED® AP, is President, Eastern Region, Paladino and Company.

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