Five questions that building owners should always ask about building automation modernization

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Jeff is the Executive Vice President, Wadsworth Solutions, a Master-level BMS EcoXpert™

As a Schneider Electric Master-level EcoXpert, our company Wadsworth Solutions, supports building owners and portfolio managers in their efforts to modernize and integrate their building automation infrastructures. Most clients I meet are concerned about their building performance and, in order to remain competitive, often ask me about cost-effective options for building infrastructure modernization. Listed below are some of my responses to their most common questions that I believe every owner should ask:

Question: My systems have been working fine for years. Why should I modernize now?

Answer: When building automation platforms are more than 20 years old, the memory capacity of that entire system is likely to be two megabytes or less. That is equivalent to about one quarter of one photo taken on a modern cell phone. Modernization is enabled by two key elements: the connectivity and memory capacity capabilities of the building automation server. Memory capacity is what drives the programs. You can’t have much of a sequence of operations with only two megabytes of memory. There are literally thousands of buildings in the United States today that have capacity-starved building automation servers in place. The penalty they pay for perpetuating such systems is limited access to cost and time-saving applications and functions. Graphical user interfaces and smart phone system access are not possible, for example. As a result, facilities engineers spend lots of time programming and trying to work around antiquated system bottlenecks. They often have little to show for their efforts in terms of significant system performance improvements.

Question: To modernize, do I have to rip-out and replace all my old technology?

Answer: The answer to this question hinges on whether the platform you have in place is proprietary or open. If your architecture is proprietary, “rip and replace” may be your only option, especially if the vendor no longer supports the platform. If your system is more of an open architecture, however, then you are in luck. Companies like Schneider Electric have done an excellent job of building an architecture that avoids planned product obsolescence. Because of the open nature of their building automation platform, their customers could modernize without ripping out the field-level devices. Schneider is renowned for the phrase, “No controller (we actually say no customer) left behind.” An upgrade to the automation server enables modernization at a fraction of the cost of wholesale replacement. The additional memory in the automation server also enables much tighter control of building operations which drives efficiencies, thereby lowering engineering, programming and energy costs.

Question: How much can I save when pursuing a modernization strategy over a “rip and replace” strategy?

Answer: The modernization investment is typically five times less than the cost of ripping out and replacing a typical system. Also, since most of the existing infrastructure remains in place, building owners can further prolong the use of their older infrastructure and use that extension in time to proactively plan for the next wave of modernization.

Question: Since my current budget for modernization is limited, what’s the best approach for modernizing in phases?

Answer: Although no two situations are completely alike, oftentimes a useful strategy is to divide a building asset into quadrants. Take, for example, a very large 100,000 square foot building. First focus on a block of 25,000 square feet, upgrade that quadrant to the new field devices, and store the existing, older devices in inventory. Then reuse those older devices as spares for the remaining three quadrants until your budget allows you to gradually deploy a complete replacement, quadrant by quadrant, over an extended period of years. In this way, clients can preserve their initial investment by spending less on building infrastructure modernization and more on other facility improvement projects.

Question: How will my investment in modernization benefit me?

Answer: There are three good reasons to modernize. First, your engineers and programmers will be significantly more productive and improvements to systems will rapidly accelerate. Second, with more memory, new programs will provide both the building owner and the facilities staff with access to an entire new range of building performance trending data. This will dramatically lower operations costs. Third, with a newer system, building integration into other platforms will now be possible because of the enhanced connectivity. This allows the facilities staff to make better decisions that positively impact profitability.

To learn more about how digitized building automation solutions can activate modernization under an open platform, visit the Schneider Electric EcoStruxure™ web site.

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