4 ways smart building technology helps optimize operational efficiency

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This blog series has been discussing important steps to take as employees are returning to the workplace. In this post we’ll focus on operational efficiency and how smart building technology can help optimize facility management and reduce costs.

According to a survey by the International Facility Management Association (IFMA), “utility cost is the largest component of a facility’s operating cost.” Running a close second is maintenance costs, followed by janitorial costs. As organizations return to a ‘new normal’ during and post-pandemic, they will have to address a wide range of challenges to ensure their buildings are healthy and safe for returning occupants while still operating efficiently and cost effectively.

While a facility depends on its HVAC and electrical infrastructures, its facility teams must ensure everything is operating and maintained properly. But with fewer resources, they are now expected to manage an even greater scope of responsibilities, including finding ways to reduce operational costs further. Under the current situation, they may also have limited onsite access.

Fortunately, new digital tools and remote services can help facility teams work more efficiently, get more from their investments, and manage operations remotely when necessary.

Four ways smart building technology can take facility operations from good to great.

1.   Save time, effort, and money

Schneider Electric surveyed hundreds of its global customers and determined that 37% of facility equipment was not working as it should. As part of this, approximately 12% of air handling units (AHU) had major issues that caused wasted energy while potentially affecting air quality. Prior to having the right monitoring and analysis technology in place, most of these problems were essentially invisible to the facility teams while causing unexpected behaviors.

A digitized HVAC and electrical infrastructure – including a network of IoT-enabled connected meters and sensors – provides maintenance teams early risk warnings to equipment reliability or occupant well-being. Whether hosted in the facility or in the cloud, an analytic app also delivers the insight needed to uncover opportunities to improve energy efficiency; for example, by improving equipment controls and minimizing anomalies. Going further, some analytic applications may offer a ‘digital twin’ that has mathematically modeled the physical infrastructure. A digital twin helps improve the accuracy of insights, avoids mistakes or errors (false positives), and can improve diagnostics for inter-dependent equipment.

The analytic platform acts as a ‘single pane of glass’ to enable remote access to equipment and workspace conditions across an entire portfolio of facilities. With the inclusion of control capabilities, 80% of issues can be resolved remotely. For example, real-time occupancy and air quality can be monitored throughout a facility. If the number of people exceeds a set threshold, the facility team can be alerted and actions can be taken remotely to shut down a floor, or an entire building, if required.

The most powerful of these tools help teams prioritize situations so they can act quickly. This simplifies decisions regarding what should be done now and what can be scheduled later. In this way, maintenance can be done more proactively versus reactively, by turning data into prioritized actions.

2.   Optimize facility services

As noted above, janitorial services are a major contributor to operational costs with cleaning typically the highest part of that cost. Historically, janitorial staff has usually cleaned desks and equipment, and sanitized telephones and keyboards, only ‘on demand’ rather than a regular basis. However, the pandemic has escalated the need for frequent sterilization. To help maximize efficiency, smart building technology takes advantage of occupancy and desk sensors to determine space utilization, which can then trigger schedules to focus cleaning only where needed.

Some organizations may need to operate their buildings with a reduced contingent of security guards. Their work can be made more efficient by using occupancy sensor data to track the movement of people throughout a facility. Smart building applications should offer interoperability with security systems to enable this functionality.

3.   Take the opportunity to modernize

This unusual period is a good time to consider your operational strategy, from auditing needs, to implementing pragmatic short-term actions, to planning longer-term investments to improve building health, for example.

This situation drives the question of whether to optimize or modernize. Consider this analogy. If you have an old oil-fired furnace that is failing, you might decide to spend the money on having it repaired simply to keep it running. However, there may be far greater long-term benefits in modernizing your heating system by replacing the old furnace with a new gas-fired one that will be more efficient and reliable.

The data provided by a smart building management analytic application helps you calculate the economic payback of upgrades and make the best decision. For example, for facilities is it better to fix a stuck damper on an AHU, or modernize the overall performance of your HVAC system by adding a variable speed drive to dynamically control the damper. In these types of cases, modernizing can be done by adding new controls or sensors while not requiring the cost of total equipment replacement.

In many countries there are financial incentive programs for modernizing buildings. For example, in the U.S. 2020 Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Stability (CARES) Act allows a full deduction of certain project costs in a single year, with no limit on the size of the project. Similar programs exist in European Union, with each country supporting the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive with their own funding mechanisms. And in Singapore, the Green Building Masterplan incentive scheme will co-fund up to half of the cost of retrofitting buildings for energy improvements.

4.   Make smart buildings ‘remote services ready’

With many organizations facing the challenge of limited facility operations and maintenance personnel, all types of facilities can be impacted, and small to mid-sized buildings can especially feel the impact of reduced resources.

Cloud-based smart building management apps act as a portal to expert services. Remote service teams can augment onsite facility staff with the expertise they need to:

  • Remotely monitor all systems and building performance, 24/7
  • Diagnose problems and recommend solutions
  • Identify opportunities to save costs and improve comfort and well-being
  • Provide regular reporting and expert consultation, including ROI justification

Remote services help organizations do more with less to help facility teams move beyond planned preventative maintenance to focusing on ROI-based activities. A condition-based maintenance approach can reduce unscheduled maintenance and associated costs. A further savings in energy costs can be achieved through continuous commissioning of building equipment. And with the help of service experts to diagnose energy, comfort, and maintenance issues, an organization can expect far fewer occupant complaints.

Our EcoStruxure™ Building Operation solution delivers the actionable insights that facility teams need to better manage and optimize buildings, improve engineering efficiency, and meet increased cybersecurity and compliance needs. EcoStruxure Building Advisor is a suite of analytic monitoring services that keeps building systems performing optimally, helping you optimize operating costs, occupant comfort and asset value while working with limited budgetary and maintenance resources. In my next post we’ll be look at the benefits of keeping your BMS upgraded.

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