The HVAC Factor: Remote Monitoring Services

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Tom Sumner

By Tom Sumner
Originally published in the October 2009 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

Remote monitoring service providers help facility managers (fms) to troubleshoot their building systems and controls for improved operations and energy efficiency. In many cases, remote monitoring is most often used to react to equipment failures and alarms rather than to get ahead of potential issues. However, relying on monitoring only for alarm response is like using an HVAC system merely to heat a building; it is helpful, but it does not use the system to its fullest potential.

Fms who choose to implement remote monitoring with a service provider can maximize success by focusing on creating a foundation for the system before an emergency occurs. This can include proactively using remote diagnostics to minimize emergency calls, identify system inefficiencies, and resolve issues quickly when they do arise. This type of strategic foresight results in reduced operational and energy costs while also allowing technicians to focus on key activities like predictive maintenance.HVAC services technology

To incorporate remote monitoring, a facility needs to have a building automation system (BAS) in place. Such monitoring can work with varying levels of BAS complexity—from a simple digital controller with dial-up connectivity to a sophisticated controller with IP-based connectivity.

Basically, if there is some sort of automation and some type of communication, remote monitoring can be executed. However, the most value comes when the service provider monitoring a facility’s equipment can also make changes to the system based on data received.

Adding remote monitoring as part of a comprehensive facility management (FM) program can deliver several critical benefits. Allowing an off-site service provider to dial in and troubleshoot a building system controller can save time and reduce service call costs. It is estimated that nearly 40% to 50% of all emergency calls can be eliminated through remote monitoring. For example, how many times has a technician been dispatched to check set points on a thermostat, only to determine everything was operating normally?

Remote monitoring can also decrease building system downtime. In some cases, without such monitoring, several hours may pass before a service technician can respond to an issue, perform the necessary diagnostics, and troubleshoot the problem. Remote monitoring can quickly provide an FM team with information about system issues, and, more often than not, a remote monitoring system will alert facility personnel to potential issues before they become emergency situations.

Fms can also glean the energy savings achieved from HVAC equipment that is run efficiently. A properly established remote monitoring system can pinpoint operational anomalies, help reduce energy costs by cutting down on equipment runtime, and optimize equipment operation when it is in use.

One of the biggest challenges to remote monitoring lies in moving organizations past the mindset that it is simply a reactive response system. Controllers in a facility are not like thermostats or time clocks; they contain far more information than many fms may realize. Many controllers already provide trending and programming capabilities such as load shedding and duty cycling. Remote diagnostics can delve into that wealth of controller data to help technicians address potential issues before real problems arise. This shift in approach from emergency mode to preventive maintenance pays dividends in time and cost savings.

A common misperception about remote monitoring is that controllers run less efficiently or in a non-standardized fashion. In reality, many service providers work closely with fms to inform them of what the standards for smooth operation should be and to set boundaries to ensure these remain in place. These standards help controllers run efficiently and ensure equipment operates as desired so the system acts according to uniform operations.

When evaluating remote monitoring service providers, fms should ascertain if a vendor can offer strategic advice for proactive monitoring as opposed to simply passing along reactive alarm information to in-house technicians. As a part of that strategy, fms should also ask if the service provider can extract critical data, such as compressor temperature or filter status, from controllers and equipment—whether standardized or proprietary—to help the FM staff take a more proactive approach to equipment maintenance.

Remote monitoring can be beneficial to a variety of facility types. For example, delivering excellent patient care is a priority for healthcare organizations. When HVAC systems in a sensitive surgical area shut down, the FM team needs to address the problem immediately. Remote monitoring can deliver the quick response and resolution needed in this environment.

Fms working for municipalities without the expertise, time, or staff to glean controller data can also benefit from centralized remote monitoring. From a broad predictive maintenance perspective, this enables these groups to take a proactive approach to optimizing building systems across their facilities.

A national retailer with more than 350 locations wanted to gain greater control of building systems using remote monitoring. Year after year, the retailer had endured rising energy costs, largely due to employees performing system overrides, altering HVAC schedules, and changing set points. After implementing kWh profiling to determine where energy consumption was highest, the company’s fm worked with the service provider to align system profiles and establish appropriate alarms across locations. As a result, the company saw a 15% decrease in energy costs over a two year period while keeping staff and customers comfortable.

Remote monitoring of HVAC systems can be an effective option for many fms. Having a third party keep an eye on the condition of equipment may offer just the right level of assistance needed in some organizations.

Sumner has managed Honeywell’s Global Service Response Center for seven years and has been working with the center in performing HVAC remote diagnostics for multiple controller types and tying it to building controls service dispatching since 1983.

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