Services & Maintenance: Web Based Energy Information Systems

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By Timothy B. Janos, CEM, CEA, CDSM, CSDP, BEP
Published in the September 2010 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

energy management technology facility management
The Internet revolution has made an enormous amount of data available at steadily reducing costs and increasing speed. Like those in other professions, fms might be hard pressed to execute their jobs effectively without such access especially in this era’s climate of economic necessity, which seemingly requires employees to do more than one person’s job. To that end, fms need to understand the scope of services and benefits available using the Internet to manage the energy use of their organizations.

Knowledge of information technology has emerged to become a critical job requirement, and the ability to use a facility data network or enterprise management system effectively is much like having a competitive advantage over less capable counterparts.

Information technology has become part of the energy management sphere. Many systems from various vendors provide off the shelf capability to interface with the facility at many levels.

Integration And Automation

Building automation and control systems for a facility’s HVAC components, for instance, are effectively standard today, and the ability to have these systems interact nearly seamlessly has developed as a result of published non-proprietary protocols such as BACnet, LON, oBIX, XML, and TCP/IP. An fm would be hard pressed to purchase a new HVAC unit from any manufacturer that was not already pre-integrated with a digital control panel capable of communications to both a central head-end interface and the Internet.

These same capabilities and interoperability exist in lighting controls, security, fire, and life safety systems, computerized maintenance management systems (CMMS), and at some level, in the ability to monitor utility consumption and patterns for control of energy use.

Some would suggest the “dashboard” has become the industry standard for viewing real time utility consumption. Many vendors offer energy dashboards that reflect present utility consumption, historical consumption and trends, alarm levels, etc.

One type of dashboard provides information-only type displays which show data to be used by the local operators to make decisions—perhaps to curtail usage or defer loads. Another type of dashboard not only provides real time consumption data but also takes action to shed loads based on predetermined levels set by operators. In some instances—based on the belief that knowledge is power—energy information is prominently displayed in higher education dormitories to encourage students to be conscious of current energy use and take voluntary steps to reduce loads.

Vendors are providing an array of energy management systems that can be used in the facility management (FM) profession, and customization is one trend that has become very popular at the enterprise level. For example, property management firm CB Richard Ellis creates enterprise level Web pages showing energy use and/or efficiency and savings achieved over historical periods. Meanwhile, fms in owner occupied buildings can create these types of pages by department or other spatial breakdown.

At some point in the not too distant future, the electrical smart grid will come into being. Smart meters are already a reality and provide low cost utility information using standard protocols for communicating.

The energy utility industry will ultimately interface and integrate with the various EIS and building automation systems in each facility to make efficient and cost-effective use of power. Some industrial facilities in the U.S. are affected by power shortages or high utility costs and thus have become involved in real time pricing and demand response programs designed to use present consumption data to manage energy efficiently and cost-effectively.

So what features would fms look for given the opportunity to manage energy costs through the use of the types of tools discussed above?

Open Protocol
Fms should be sure any system vendor they work with endorses non-proprietary communications. This may be expressed as “native BACnet,” but what an fm would ideally search for is a chip based solution that permits both BACnet and LON as well as upward network links using standard Ethernet language. XML Web services (extensible markup language) may be the key to seamless open communications between vendors and a facility’s information technology infrastructure.

Wireless Technology
Wireless Internet is ubiquitous, and building controls manufacturers have begun to embrace this as the next low cost solution. Zigbee and other mesh wireless networks, for example, are common and robust in the hospitality industry. These systems make excellent retrofit applications as they avoid the problems and costs associated with wiring both the sensor and controllers in a hotel room; never mind the even greater problems associated with the network itself.

Off the shelf, peel and stick lighting occupancy sensors are readily available from several manufacturers, and features are being added for HVAC controls by these types of suppliers. Wireless can be self configured, self regulated, and self healing, and it can be smart enough to know when to apply those parameters.

Web Access
All the controllers must communicate over standard Ethernet networks and must interoperate with other manufacturers and other types of controls. The ability to obtain simple data such as weather information automatically using the Web is helpful in analyzing usage patterns and anomalies.

Most manufacturers have either developed full featured graphical interface programs or adopted “open” programs that can be accessed on the Web. Now, anywhere a Web connection is available, the facility system can be accessed from a standard browser by an operator with proper password and IP address.

Accessibility
Fms should be sure the energy management system they use is able to take advantage of the full range of other communication devices (e.g., PDAs, tablets, and cell phones) which continue to increase in their capabilities.

CMMS
The advantages of interfacing an energy management, HVAC automation, and other applications to a CMMS should not be overlooked. Many fms already employ these types of systems, which can automatically generate breakdown work orders complete with suggested repair parts lists as well as regular preventive work orders based on actual (not calendar) run times. And there are systems capable of sending out an e-mail or even calling fms and other appropriate people in an emergency.

Demand Response
Ideally, an EIS should be able to interface in the future with the Utility Smart Grid Initiative and demand response systems. This requires capability to receive data from the utility either by Ethernet or perhaps wirelessly (which many utilities are now using for billing purposes).

Enterprise Level Capable
The ideal system should be able to handle a facility’s operations at the enterprise level allowing interaction with all facilities in real time. This important feature is needed for a variety of reasons. In the government sector, according to the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA 2007) energy consumption in federal buildings must be reduced by 3% per year through 2015.

The EIS needs to track progress on the basis of Btu/square foot in accordance with the Energy Use Index using an fm’s created baselines. The system should also be capable of determining the best mix of utility sources to get the job done based on both rates and other factors.

Benchmarking
Software capable of tracking system improvements across the enterprise, building by building, against an fm’s established benchmarks and comparing the fleet is a powerful visual tool. Fms can control what is measured, and a constant visual real time update is very useful.

Shifting Into A Higher Gear

It would be a disservice to attempt to compile a comprehensive list of all the EIS capabilities available on the market. An fm’s tasks will almost certainly expand to include the wide range of applications and ideas discussed herein (and probably a few overlooked or omitted).

The inevitable completion of the integration of data networks with applications that serve facilities and measure and control utility usage will come to pass. In some forward thinking enterprises it may already be so. Are we there yet? Not necessarily, but we are heading there.

Consider an article by Dr. Barney Capehart of the University of Florida wherein he postulates, “Why can’t a building think like a car?” He suggests cars have more sensors, more display functions, and better interoperability than modern buildings. Capehart wonders why a car that costs $35,000 and might have a 10 year lifespan would have better operating systems than a $350,000 building designed to last 50 years. Every car comes complete with a dashboard, and at the moment of delivery, shouldn’t facilities?

Janos ([email protected]) is a life member of the Association of Energy Engineers (AEE). Having served as international president in 2006, he is currently director of special projects and Certified Energy Manager board chairman. He was elected to the AEE’s Energy Manager Hall of Fame in 2007 and is currently an international instructor for AEE (www.aeecenter.org). He provides energy consulting services as principal of Spectrum Energy Concepts, Inc. (www.spectrumenergy.net) in Westlake, OH.

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