Jan 23 2020

The Tech Behind Smart Building Automation Systems

Federal agencies need to know what actually makes a building “smart” if they want to reap the benefits of going green.

In terms of energy consumption, federal real estate is a money pit. The government used 897 trillion Btu of electric and thermal energy in fiscal year 2018, along with 121 billion gallons of water, according to the Energy Department. That’s a $17 billion utility bill. 

Agencies want to drive those numbers down, both in order to save money and to decrease the government’s environmental impact. Many are turning to smart building technologies to better monitor energy and water usage. The General Services Administration, which manages more than 8,000 federal buildings across the country, has established a smart building program to improve energy efficiency and save money in both existing and new buildings.

In order for the federal government to successfully implement a smart building approach, it’s helpful to take a deeper look at just what makes a building “smart,” to define what building automation systems and energy management systems are, and to explore the technology and controllers behind each. 

What Is a Smart Building Automated System?

Smart buildings leverage technology to create “a sophisticated understanding of the overall health and operation of a building,” says a GSA spokesperson. “GSA utilizes this technology across its portfolio to improve energy efficiency, operations and system reliability.”

When Government Accountability Office analysts spoke with GSA experts, they came away with a data-driven vision of the emerging smart building. “These officials told us that analyzing data from buildings equipped with smart building technologies allows GSA building managers to more directly oversee the operations of these buildings,” says Lori Rectanus, a director of GAO’s physical infrastructure team.

GAO found two key technologies undergirding this effort. First, smart buildings rely on internet-connected advanced utility meters to measure utility use (such as electrical power, natural gas or water use) in real time. Second, the agency highlighted the use of GSAlink, a software program that collects and analyzes data from advanced meters and uses this data to alert building staff to potential problems.

Experts say that a smart building approach could do more than just save the government money. As a digitally connected space, a smart building can “enhance the user experience, increase productivity, reduce costs and mitigate physical and cybersecurity risks,” says Michelle Meisels, Deloitte’s engineering and construction practice leader.

Government can leverage smart technologies to improve workers’ daily lives. “You can use these technologies to get better comfort, space utilization and customized lighting to meet the occupants’ preferences. Ultimately, you are driving better productivity,” says Casey Talon, a research director in Navigant Research’s intelligent building management group.

MORE FROM FEDTECH: The Army is exploring smart city Internet of Things tools.

What Is a Building Automation System?

At the heart of the smart building is the building automation system (BAS), a software implementation that ingests data and makes automatic adjustments to building performance. “A BAS generally takes all the controls required to operate a building and rolls them up into a user-friendly interface. GSA uses BAS in its buildings for operations, system control and maintenance,” says the GSA spokesperson.

897 trillion Btu

The amount of electric and thermal energy the federal government generated in fiscal year 2018

Source: "Comprehensive Annual Energy Data and Sustainability Performance," Energy Department

While smart building automation systems have been around since the 1970s, past iterations required manual inputs or were geared to work on obsolete hardware. The 2000s saw the rise of software interfaces for controlling these systems, and more recently these systems have begun to incorporate input from sensors and Internet of Things devices, Meisels says. As IoT and building management converge, building managers will be able to gain greater insights into building operation.

In a modern BAS deployment, “there are networks and sensors, specific controllers that can be utilized together to gain insights and direct changes within the systems,” Talon says. “You drive up and your access badge identifies what parking spot you go to. The elevator takes you directly to your floor, a mobile app tells you what desk, and the lighting and heating there are set for your comfort levels. It’s a really customized experience.”

What Is an Energy Management System?

Energy management systems bring together a number of key technologies with the goal of driving energy conservation and providing cost savings. Such systems “analyze electrical, water, gas and steam meter data to target areas of improvement to reduce overall energy usage,” the GSA spokesperson says. “In some cases, the EMS may be included in the BAS design, or it can operate alone.”

Energy management systems in smart buildings “are those systems that drive energy conservation and help deliver the dual benefits of supporting the environment and providing cost savings,” Meisels says.

One of the chief advantages of a modern energy management system is its ability to be proactive rather than reactive.

As demand for energy rises and falls, “you can use it to respond to changing pressures on the grid — adjusting to meet demand in an automated fashion,” Talon says. “You can also use it for predictive analytics. Instead of always servicing this piece of HVAC equipment in this month at this time, you can leverage the analytics to tell you when service is needed, which in turn creates new operational efficiencies.”

VIDEO: What are some common myths about the Internet of Things?

What Are the Controllers of Building Automation Systems?

Sensors are among the core technology drivers behind building automation. These will typically monitor such systems as HVAC and lighting, electrical controls, access control and video security.

“With smart lighting, for example, you might put in an LED retrofit. Within that, the sensors detect movement or occupancy to turn the lights off and on. They can also track the way people move through a space, which can tell you how often spaces are being used,” Talon says.

The sensors in turn feed a variety of controllers that can help to automate building management. Controllers may be set to keep climate within a certain range, for example, or to run the lights based on an occupancy schedule. They may also monitor systems performance and alert facility managers to potential problems or system malfunctions.

In addition, smart building automation systems will include an IT backbone to tie together the various sensors and controllers. “With any of these systems, the value is tied to the data, so the software and analytics are hugely important,” Talon says. “You also need the networking infrastructure to move that data, so cloud computing becomes a big piece of the puzzle.”

MORE FROM FEDTECH: Discover how edge computing can benefit your agency.

Types of Building Automation Systems

Like building automation systems, energy management systems rely on sensors and controllers to deliver enhanced efficiencies. Here, the specific aim is to reduce energy use and bring down the cost of building operations.

Meisels describes four key technologies of smart building automation systems:

  1. HVAC: Smart HVAC controls help limit energy consumption in unoccupied building zones, detect and diagnose faults, and reduce HVAC usage, particularly during times of peak energy demand.

  2. Smart lighting: Smart lighting includes advanced controls that incorporate daylighting and advanced occupancy and dimming functions to eliminate over-lit spaces.

  3. Automated system optimization (ASO): ASO uses advanced technology to collect and analyze building systems’ operational and energy performance data and to make changes in operations based on external factors such as occupancy patterns, weather forecasts, and utility rates.

  4. Distributed energy resources (DER): These are energy generation and storage systems placed at or near the point of use, independent of the power grid. Examples include combined heat and power, solar photovoltaics and other renewables, and battery and thermal storage.

While all of this may sound like a lot of moving parts, the government stands to reap substantial benefits through a move to smart buildings. Deloitte analysts say an upgrade of a single component can yield energy savings of 5 to 15 percent, while an integrated approach to smart building systems could help realize 30 to 50 percent savings in existing buildings that are otherwise inefficient.

sturti/Getty Images