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Cracking the Code Between Smart Building Technology and HVAC Systems

Feb. 6, 2019
Applying smart building technology to HVAC systems has vast potential. Technologies such as IoT can help meet current and future energy goals by providing the needed tools.


Many believe that a smart building 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. Frequently, they help in enhancing the efficiency and operational effectiveness of building systems like HVAC, while also increasing reliability and robustness. Reduced energy consumption and greater operational efficiencies often result.

Smart buildings achieve all this and more with the help of sensors. Sensors in combination with robust cloud software platforms help communicate, manage, automate and control the systems remotely 24/7/365.

The Internet of Things (IoT) mobilizes advanced technologies to monitor various environmental measures such as temperature, humidity, light and motion, to analyze the operational efficiency of building systems, and to optimize facility operations using data intelligence gathered in real-time. An example market report expects the smart building market to grow from an estimated USD 7.42 Billion in 2017 to USD 31.74 Billion by 2022, at a Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 33.7% from 2017 to 2022.

HVAC: The New Frontier in Building Efficiency
It is a well-known fact that buildings consume about 40% of the energy consumption in the world. Out of this total consumption, HVAC systems represent the largest consumer class. This comes as no surprise because HVAC systems perform one of the most essential functions of delivering comfort to building occupants. A mission-critical function to be sure.

The amount of energy that HVAC systems consume depends on many factors. The building location, climate, temperatures during the day and night, room occupancy, building age, windows and insulation, and so on, can drastically change the heating/cooling demands placed on the HVAC system. Automation and control of HVAC systems has become a complex task; high levels of energy efficiency can result if done correctly.

LED retrofits have become popular to achieve greater energy efficiency in buildings. This low-hanging fruit has been relatively easy to capture due to the predictable ROI models obtained through quantifiable replacement and operating costs. 

HVAC represents a much larger energy-efficiency opportunity in buildings, but suffers because of the high complexity surrounding such an exercise. HVAC is the next, great frontier of achieving energy savings in buildings.

Applying smart building technology to HVAC systems has vast potential in the enterprise. Technologies such as IoT can help you meet your current and future energy goals by giving the needed tools to take on such a task. Below, we take a look at different ways smart building technology can give you the critical edge in gaining maximum impact from your HVAC systems. 

1. Energy Efficiency
Smart Buildings can incorporate a variety of communication technologies that enable integration with various HVAC systems in a building. Available energy efficiency opportunities will depend on the current HVAC infrastructure installed within the building. 

Remote Management/Scheduling: Many buildings have not been equipped with a Building Automation System (BAS). Older buildings or small/medium sized buildings may not justify the prohibitive expense of installing a modern BAS. Typically, these types of buildings have unconnected HVAC sub-systems that operate independently. As such, they rely on manual facility management, which can produce inconsistent performance with respect to energy budgets. Too often, for example, HVAC sub-systems can rely on manual establishment and modification of temperature setpoints. 

IoT brings remote visibility to disconnected HVAC sub-systems. In a simple example, IoT devices can interface with stand-alone thermostats using standardized protocols such as BACnet and Modbus, and can present a cloud-interface for management and control of that thermostat. This effectively creates a type of virtual BAS. This example use case provides large energy savings opportunities in defined HVAC zones such as small retail spaces, construction or educational trailers, individual tenant spaces, or any commercial or industrial space featuring limited smart building functionality. 

IoT can enable retrofit applications that target specific needs with surgical precision. Small, targeted IoT installations can produce outsized energy savings in facilities starved for technology.

Advanced Sensor Integration: Even the most advanced BAS has access to limited sensor data such as temperature and humidity. The automated HVAC control loops programmed therein are limited to the available sensor data set. Smart HVAC systems will increasingly incorporate additional sensor data to deliver maximum comfort to building occupants. 

Is your office too hot or too cold? The fact that most would agree points to the insufficiency of the temperature data available to the HVAC system. Most heating/cooling zones don’t have enough temperature sensors. The limited temperature data they do have provides only a coarse level of temperature control. Additional temperatures sensors that cover the entire heating/cooling zone will provide fine-grained temperature controls.

This example of fine-grained temperature controls has arisen because of the need for better data in the HVAC control loop. Don’t get put off by the emphasis on tenant comfort. This example points to the current overhaul of the traditional model of HVAC infrastructure. Additional data based on weather forecasts, occupancy schedules, personal occupant preferences, Indoor Air Quality (IAQ), or any additional comfort factor, can be aggregated in the cloud to provide advanced HVAC controls that leverage IoT. 

Unit Efficiency: HVAC systems include various components. As noted, 39% of the building’s energy consumption is consumed by HVAC. This consumption can be further broken down into individual HVAC system components. 

Sadly, most organizations have little to no visibility into critical HVAC assets such as chillers, cooling towers and Roof Top Units (RTUs). Even if the HVAC system is controlled by a modern BAS, limited insight is available to individual HVAC unit efficiencies. Certainly, critical HVAC assets that operate outside of manufacturer’s specifications will have poor energy efficiency.

IoT can capture granular data from critical HVAC assets in a building. For example, inexpensive wireless IoT sensors can capture real-time operational data regarding supply/return temperatures, fan speeds, vibration, flow rates, compressor run times, pressure, total asset energy consumption, etc. The real-time capture of asset-specific data will enable insights into the true operational efficiency of critical HVAC assets. Energy efficiencies will follow naturally when unit inefficiencies are corrected with modern, real-time Asset Condition Monitoring (ACM).

2. Predictive 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. What happens, however, when a fault occurs in-between maintenance checks? Further, what happens when a visual inspection does not reveal the existence or potential occurrence of a catastrophic fault?

As we all know, minor issues will grow into major issues. Smart building technology that provides real-time visibility into the operational condition of critical HVAC assets provides the best solution for early Fault Detection and Diagnostics (FDD) and predictive maintenance. Wouldn’t you like to know that your cooling tower was performing outside of the normal specifications established over the last 60 days? The potential for catastrophic failure could implicate costly emergency repairs and severe compromise of tenant operations. Concerns over energy efficiency will seem minor when these issues arise.

The aggregation of real-time data from critical HVAC assets using IoT will enable Artificial Intelligence (AI). AI can be used for advanced analytics that identify potential problems before they manifest. 

In many cases, simple HVAC analytics will be sufficient. Real-time alerts and notifications can be programmed to signal warning conditions. For example, you can program alerts and notifications when the RTU airflow is compromised or vibration levels exceed programmable thresholds. These alerts can enable timely maintenance action to prevent catastrophic failures. The key here is access to real-time data that assesses the ongoing operational status of critical HVAC assets.

3. Real-Time Cloud Visualizations

IoT enables real-time dashboarding via a cloud platform. Anytime, anywhere access to real-time HVAC data is a game changer. It isn’t enough to see monthly energy consumption for a building. You need to go beyond the meter. 

Power in the Palm of Your Hand
Real-time HVAC data enables real-time alerts and notifications. Your facility management teams will thank you. In general, continuous monitoring of HVAC assets and systems saves time for building engineers because they can remotely monitor equipment operation from their mobile devices while off-site. Their productivity will not depend solely on their time on-site. They will be freed up to address more immediate and urgent issues. 

IoT smart building technology connects you to critical HVAC assets in a building. This asset digitization trend will continue to revolutionize the Commercial Real Estate (CRE) market especially as it relates to HVAC. The benchmark data delivered by real-time cloud delivery systems will ensure that you have the tools to truly crack the code between Smart Building technology and HVAC systems.

Smart Building technology will change your expectations of HVAC system performance in your building. While the potential for energy efficiency can surely be realized, the  impact to your enterprise will be profound. Take control of your energy consumption and facility management budget with the tools that today’s IoT Smart Building solutions provide. 

Duane Kobayashi is the Chief Strategy and IP Officer for Senseware, an IoT company connecting customers to critical assets, Big Data, and real-time visualizations using a tightly-integrated hardware, software and cloud data services platform. Mr. Kobayashi is responsible for protecting Senseware’s strategic IP assets, and for developing product and go-to-market strategies