Cracking the Code Between Smart Building Technology and HVAC Systems

by Serene Almomen, Ph.D.
(CREE Director’s Note:  Dr. Serene Almomen is a Research Affiliate of the George Mason Center for Real Estate Entrepreneurship, was on the faculty of the Volganeau School of Engineering, and is the CEO and co-founder of Senseware, a smart building sensor company. This article first appeared as a blog post for Senseware.)
One would think that a smart building is one that has been enhanced with intelligent systems and implements green building concepts. That is far from the truth. A smart building uses a combination of multiple technologies, automated controls and decision-supporting software that provides a rapid and responsive environment. This helps in achieving the comfort of the tenants as well as the business goals of the building owner or operator. They help in enhancing the efficiency and operational effectiveness of building systems like the HVAC. They also increase systems’ reliability and robustness. This in turn leads to reduced energy consumption and improved comfort for the tenants.

Smart buildings achieve all this and more by enabling various objects and systems in the building with the help of sensors. This helps to communicate, manage, automate and control the systems remotely 24x7x365. Most often it incorporates advanced technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT) to program the automatic adjustments, control remotely, monitor various factors such as temperature, humidity, light and motion in the buildings. According to a market report, the global smart building market is projected to hit USD 36 Billion by 2020.

Let us take a look at the energy consumption of buildings. It is a well-known fact that buildings consume 40% of the energy consumption in the world. Out of this consumption, HVAC (Heating, Ventilation, Air Conditioning and Cooling) systems are the largest consumers. But, HVAC systems are the most essential component of a building’s comfort goals. The amount of energy that HVAC systems consume depends on many factors such as the building location, climate of the location, temperatures during the day and night, timing of the use of the rooms, building age, windows and insulation and so on. Hence controlling and automating the HVAC systems is a complex task but one that yields the most results if done correctly.

Below we take a look at the pattern of energy consumption in commercial buildings:

HVAC Energy Consumption

Source: Fact Sheet of HVAC energy consumption

Hence using smart building technology to control and automate HVAC systems will help in obtaining your energy goals in your building.

In this post, we will take a look at how you can take advantage of smart building technology to gain maximum impact from your HVAC systems. Here are some of the benefits of integrating both the systems and how they can be accomplished:

1. Energy Efficiency: 

The advantage of Smart Buildings is that they use a variety of communication technologies that enable integration between various systems of a building. This technology also helps connect various subsystems that generally operated independently. This allows in controlling the HVAC systems effectively.  Smart HVAC systems that are embedded with various types of sensors that have the ability to adjust quickly and automatically according to weather forecasts, occupancy, ineffective systems etc.

Take the example of a multi-room HVAC system that can be easily integrated using temperature based sensors and controllers. The goal then is to control the room temperatures and at the same time does not compromise occupants’ comfort and energy consumption. The sensors and controllers provide data that is in turn used to turn on/off the HVAC systems. A smart building also takes into consideration the effects of hot and cool air supplies provided by HVAC systems on the heat flow of the building. In recent decades, most commercial buildings that have been equipped with a building management systems (BMS) or building automation systems (BAS), allow the building engineers and facility managers  to control the various systems in the building. By introducing a smart building solution, the BMS and BAS are further augmented to provide centralized control of the HVAC systems that are spread across various rooms, various buildings and in some cases across various locations. This helps with maximizing the efficiency of the HVAC systems as well as ensuring that the energy savings are obtained.

In addition, smart building enabled distributed monitoring of the HVAC systems on mobile devices so that facility operators are not constrained. A good smart building design takes into consideration various energy-saving policies of the building. By implementing the location application on the smart devices, remote control and adjustment of energy consumption can be made quickly and efficiently. Smart buildings offer systematic tracking and optimization of energy consumed by HVAC based on information provided about the performance across various time periods. It also optimizes the energy consumed based on building occupants’ behavior. This is easily achieved by using dashboards and benchmark data provided by the smart building solution.

There are certain smart building projects that consider integrating with smart grids as well. This manages the energy supply and demand dynamically at a particular location. This goes a long way in optimizing the energy consumed by HVAC system as well as increase efficiency.

2. Preventive Maintenance:

HVAC systems generally have regular maintenance schedules since they form the heart of any building. This includes general checkups, service and maintenance at pre-determined time periods and frequency. However what happens when there is a fault that occurs in between that time period? More often than not the minor faults become major ones in this period. Smart buildings offer the best solution for this challenge in early fault detection and diagnostic techniques.

Smart buildings can also be programmed to send alerts when things need to be done. For example, when air filters in the HVAC need to be replaced. You can also program alerts to send notifications when the airflow is compromised or a part is about to fail and to take automatic action (e.g., shut off the system).

Smart buildings also offer sophisticated and advanced diagnostic rules that help with proactive fault detection across your entire suite of buildings. They also offer continuous monitoring of the HVAC systems that avoids any wastage and optimizes resource allocation. Continuous monitoring actually saves times for facility operators and engineers since they now can monitor remotely on their mobile devices instead of manual inspections by walking around. This frees up their time to address more immediate and urgent issues.

Alarm management is another great option that smart buildings offer. This feature offers the ability to prioritize the many notifications generated by the HVAC systems and point engineers and facility managers to the most impactful issues. Below is an example of fault detection and diagnosis output for the various systems of a HVAC.

Energy Smart Buildings

Source: Energy Smart Buildings Whitepaper by Accenture

3. Reduce energy waste: 

One of the biggest advantages of using smart building solutions to operate your HVAC systems is to reduce energy wastage through identification, collection and aggregation of data from the HVAC systems. This means that you need to set up automated aggregation of building, weather, utility and system data from the building management systems and other sources to feed into the smart building solution. Most of this data is stored on a cloud platform that allows one to gather, store, exchange, and process huge amounts of data in a secure and scalable way.

4. Advanced Analytics:

Advanced analytics and various data analysis methods can be used to present a visual graph of various energy savings tactics. Smart building solutions help with identifying those that give the biggest bang for the buck. This is achieved by enabling a powerful analytics engine that uses various rules and algorithms to prioritize these energy saving measures.

Analytics software can also help with detecting various sources of waste such as:

  • HVAC equipment that is simultaneously heating and cooling a given space due to failed components
  • Engineers dealing with low priority or false notifications about building anomalies, while the notification system fails to highlight more impactful issues.
  • Default configurations for all systems that make them run at suboptimal set points and are rarely updated after initial configuration.
  • Lack of a single dashboard to monitor energy waste in various parts of the building.
  • HVAC systems running at full capacity during periods when buildings are largely unoccupied.

Smart building solutions often provide predictive analytics, which is the capability to predict future energy consumption trends based on historical data. With the help of the energy consumption predication and the cost of energy, the performance of the HVAC systems can be optimized to increase efficiencies.

In conclusion, the power of smart building solutions can aid in obtaining the energy efficiency of HVAC systems in a building, thereby meeting the energy and cost savings goals of the building. The potential to improve the efficiency of HVAC systems in buildings is huge given the advanced solutions that can increase efficiency by automation, preventive maintenance and advanced analytics.


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