Charles Darnell is the assistant director for utilities (business & energy) at Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas. He can be reached at ,firstname.lastname@example.org. This article is a follow-up piece to his presentation at the first Emergent Building Technologies Conference, held last February and cosponsored by APPA.
The decade of the 1990s has been described by many as one the most extraordinary periods of technological advance our society has ever experienced. During this time, improvements in building automation systems (BAS) have included more durable electronics, reliable networking capabilities, and best of all, declining prices relative to higher quality and increased computing power. Perhaps the most salient outcome from this period is that these powerful systems can now be placed in the capable hands of professional facilities managers as opposed to computing systems specialists.
Although BAS advances now provide institutions with building automation power nearly unprecedented a decade ago, harnessing that power to fully exploit an investment in this state-of-the-art technology can be challenging. Beyond obligatory training, institutions may be faced with organizational changes, the addition of new higher paid personnel, and the touchy issue of proprietary procurement to accomplish that objective.
At Texas A&M University, we have instituted dramatic changes in the management of the campus BAS in the last five years. While we are not prepared to say that we have reached a pinnacle in maximizing our BAS investment, we believe that we have established solid strategic direction that will serve us and our successors well into the future.
This article is presented to complement a presentation given at the first annual Emergent Building Technologies Conference in Las Vegas this past February. This exciting new conference format put the practical uses of contemporary building technology into sharp focus through case studies and informative learning labs. This article will discuss how organizational issues and system standardization can be important factors that determine an institution's ability to fully exploit contemporary building automation technology. This article will also present more management strategy than technical acumen as a basis for maximizing the BAS investment. While systematic planning is used for developing other institutional assets, it may be neglected when dealing with a new and rapidly evolving, little understood technology.
An Organizational Assessment
In lieu of a discrete evaluation and decision making process, responsibility for BAS management at many institutions has likely just evolved with the technology over time. However, an internal organizational assessment could be critical in determining who in an organization should be responsible for managing the system. The assessment should identify a tangible link between personnel that will be responsible for system operations and accountability for organizational objectives that are impacted by the system. Likewise, it is crucial that an appropriate level of authority be vested in these personnel, so that the expectations of the organization can be met. Finally, it is not sufficient to determine that existing personnel may lack necessary skills and therefore require training. The organization must determine which personnel have an appropriate skills aptitude for managing and operating these systems over the long run.
By 1980, responsibility for the building automation system at Texas A&M had shifted from an earlier energy management function to the building maintenance staff of the physical plant department. After hiring a full-time energy manager in 1991, and more in line with doing the right thing for the wrong reasons, responsibility for the BAS was transferred to that new position. After all, it only made sense that the energy manager be responsible for what was then called the "energy management system."
While it is not easy to decline undue credit for this forward thinking plan, it does prove that sometimes foresight, like hindsight, can be 20/20. Today, we credit much of our success with BAS implementation to this organizational change.
Contemporary building automation systems provide more capability than ever before in meeting indoor air quality standards, while providing occupant comfort and achieving energy efficiency. While these objectives should not be treated as competing priorities, assigning system responsibility to personnel having the highest incentive to correct comfort complaints, can readily lead to sacrificing two of these priorities for the other. The challenge of good facilities management is to achieve occupant safety and comfort as efficiently as possible.
At Texas A&M University's Physical Plant, this task is assigned to the utilities energy office. Because campus energy efficiency is an assigned responsibility of that office, there is a strong link between accountability for an organizational objective and responsibility for one of the primary tools used to achieve that objective.
Since the utilities division is part of the physical plant department at A&M, the decision to extend its more traditional authority beyond the building meter and into the facility HVAC control system, may have been easier than for other institutions. However, for large base-loaded campuses with numerous complex buildings, occupant comfort demands and weather effects may have less to do with energy efficiency than does basic building HVAC operations management. This troubling issue creates the dilemma of who in the organization is best suited to manage the BAS.
Another substantial difficulty to maximizing building automation technology is acquiring the necessary personnel skills to effectively manage the operation of the system while actively planning for future needs. While it may be possible for smaller institutions to successfully contract for these services, mid-sized and larger schools should develop their own internal BAS skills.
Unfortunately, unlike more mature professions, a job description or even an appropriate title for these human beings may be as allusive as these individuals are to locate. Casting a broad recruiting net, offering liberal compensation, and aggressively training appropriate internal personnel may be the only means for improving your chances of employing and retaining these prized personnel.
Has Keeping Pace with Technological Change Become the Objective in Your Organization?
As a manager who either monitors or presides over procurement in an organization, do you secretly harbor doubts about the nearly endless computing system upgrades, expansions, and overhaul requests that cross your desk weekly? Like others, you may be torn between the fear of displaying some form of fatal ignorance should you dare to ask a discerning question, or that you'll cause irreparable harm should you summarily deny one of these improvement initiatives. While each of these fears are largely unfounded, it is not unusual for the technology itself to become the objective, as opposed to the technology more suitably serving a specific organizational objective.
As with other responsibilities in an organization, it is easier to monitor whether a more broad and measurable strategic objective is being achieved, than it is to understand every micro-issue involved in achieving that objective. Likewise, an investment as substantial as a campus building automation system should be identified as an initiative that serves some larger organizational purpose.
For instance, are indoor air quality and comfort complaints declining? Has the energy utilization index gone down by some percent over some defined period of time? Have there been measurable avoided energy cost savings over some specified time frame? Do billed customers have access to electronic data histories as well as real-time energy consumption and cost?
At Texas A&M, growth and utilization of the campus BAS is specifically defined in our Strategic Energy Management Plan. Because this plan has been accepted by our administrators, system initiatives move forward more easily as a result of fewer approval requirements.
Resistance to creating strategic objectives in an organization usually include management's fear of forfeiting control, an inability to change or delete a strategy once its begun, and that stated goals will not be attained. However, showing trust in a skilled BAS team by decentralizing decision-making is an effective way to begin capitalizing on your BAS investment.
With respect to reconciling missed goals, it is just good management practice to periodically evaluate progress toward stated objectives. In this way, goals can be adjusted, updated, extended, or deleted. Evaluating progress toward achieving strategic objectives should be constructive as opposed to punitive. Understanding why a goal was not attained is an honest way for an organization to learn how to be more effective, and consequently, improve its chances for maximizing any investment, not just its BAS investment.
To Standardize, or Not to Standardize…and Other Systems Integration Questions
An issue often surfaces with respect to the BAS installation: is it better to standardize on one system, or compete several systems through an open bidding process? Because Texas A&M has standardized on a proprietary HVAC building automation system since 1988, we are often asked either of the following two questions-How did you do that? or Why would you do that?
These two extreme positions come from differing schools of thought. There are those who want to standardize because of perceived synergies and cost benefits derived from greater simplicity. And then there are those who perceive greater cost benefits arising from competition, where synergy between multiple systems would be provided through BACNET or some other gateway. There is also a concern that standardization might position your organization in a captive situation, making it potentially difficult to react to declining vendor quality or questionable price increases.
While the concerns of those who advocate competition are not without merit, we believe that for the next five to ten years, standardizing on BAS and plant automation systems will provide the greatest overall cost benefits. The cost of additional servers, workstations, software, training, and inventory, not to mention the confusion of managing multiple systems, each with their own proprietary code, would likely offset any incremental savings derived from competitive procurement.
To the extent that your institution will allow sole source procurement, we recommend that you utilize an RFP process that heavily weighs local service history in its evaluation and selection criteria. When discussing BAS installations with peer institutions, by far, the most common distinction continually mentioned is how profoundly important high quality local vendor support actually is. Because this attribute varies nationally between vendors, you should not automatically assume that a good relationship in one location is indicative of service that could be expected in your local area from that same vendor.
To best manage cost considerations in a long term sole source arrangement, look for a vendor whose profit motive appears to be based on long-term sales volume and post-sales services, not just a quick profit on project related sales. To manage the relationship once a vendor decision is finalized, you may choose to compare quotes and hourly wages against standardized estimating data and other cost of service benchmarks.
However, as a precautionary note, it may be very difficult, if not impossible, to determine with certainty that you are receiving the absolute best pricing. Just as when buying a new automobile, how can you ever know for sure that you have secured the best possible deal? Also, while conventional government bidding procedures may satisfy rote procurement needs, the process does not alone guarantee lowest possible price. Again, if initial price becomes your only motive, you may avert some scrutiny with respect to documentation of your procurement decisions, but receive little from your substantial BAS investment in return.
An exception to the BAS standardization philosophy might occur for an institution that has already made a significant investment in creating, maintaining, and fully utilizing multiple systems. To the extent that such an institution is fortunate enough to receive excellent vendor support services for each system, continuing this strategy may be appropriate. For these campus installations, BACNET or other gateway may provide a common platform for addressing more basic campus service issues.
However, critical system troubleshooting and more exotic HVAC control algorithms such as temperature reset schedules, outside air control, economizer operations, as well as most continuous commissioning procedures, will require an in-depth knowledge of each system's proprietary programming language. From our discussions with peer institutions, we feel that the risks associated with assuming that you can accommodate the complexities of multiple system management as well as to secure high-quality services for multiple system installations, are prohibitively large.
Texas A&M procurement decisions have evolved over time to standardize on specific families of plant and building automation technology. We have standardized on separate vendors for building HVAC automation, building fire and security equipment, building electrical power monitoring devices, plant electrical distribution relaying, power plant process control automation, and power plant electrical generation control.
While integration between these system families is highly desirable, it need only be accomplished at a superficial level that emphasizes selective data sharing, as opposed to the need for inter-system process control. Accordingly, we have begun to integrate data from a few of these systems into our BAS front-end as well as to establish selective data downloading to an SQL-based management information system currently being developed. Our long-range plan is to organize shared data among these systems to improve the quality and reliability of utility services we provide to the campus.
In summary, we favor standardization within specific plant and building automation system families. In our opinion, current and near future integration technologies-while capable of providing valuable, but basic interoperability-do not allow for detailed professional manipulation through a single platform.
It may be further unlikely that a BAS industry, which markets its products through a differentiation strategy, will ever offer a true industry-wide, fully standardized open protocol. The challenge is to identify which BAS and plant automation families are best to standardize on, then determine what information might be integrated between each system.
Finally, while neither a competition or a standardization strategy is perfect, the decision to move in either direction looms as both large and timely. Unfortunately, neither strategy is easily reversed, and waiting for less rapidly evolving technology before making a commitment, might leave your organization in the new dark ages.
This article has presented a strategic management point of view for maximizing an investment in plant and building automation system technology. Central to this issue was an emphasis on defining specific strategic objectives that are augmented by technology-based initiatives. While acquiring expensive assets and providing training may be a satisfying in-basket task for the facilities manager, these activities alone may result in an organization losing sight of how value is to be created from these new technologies.
Locating and developing necessary internal skills, organizational structure, and decision-making autonomy were discussed as essential to exploiting the BAS investment. While the technological landscape has moved beyond most science fiction of the 1960s, the model for building operations management at some institutions may have changed little since that time. The merits of BAS and other plant automation standardization were discussed in detail. While no proprietary system marketed today is specifically recommended in this article, several key criteria for selecting a BAS vendor and for managing a long-term relationship were offered.
In closing, to maximize your BAS investment, you should be dedicated to the belief that it is going to be exceedingly hard work, moderately expensive, and that true success will come from paying attention to details that may not always be obvious. Conversely, success is rarely if ever achieved by accident.