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Central intelligence

Used properly, smart building technology can transform the efficiency of central plant systems, says Barry Jones, Operations Director at 4D Monitoring

There has been a sea change of thinking at executive level, as organisations look to move away from traditional models of facilities management towards a smarter, leaner, data-led approach. The move to digitalise the estate has been made across the board, by corporate property owners, managing agents, and public sector institutions such as the NHS.

Facilities managers are key to the successful roll-out and utilisation of new technology. With the right data, facilities managers can drive change across the properties they are responsible for. The benefits are extensive. Facilities managers can take credit for more efficient buildings, a reduction in utility costs, a better environment for tenants, and improved service charges. It means closer collaboration with maintenance providers, and gives facilities managers the ability to make timely, informed decisions about technical issues.

It’s essential that facilities managers participate in the digitalisation journey and are equipped to use new technology in a meaningful way. But what, exactly, should they be measuring? What data is the ‘right’ data? And how can facilities managers leverage it in a convenient, meaningful way?

It is now widely understood that data, used properly, can unlock the potential of any building. As a result, those responsible for running estates are increasingly searching for advanced technology that will support the delivery of smarter, more sustainable properties. Proptech is the collective term used to describe the wave of technological innovations set to disrupt real estate markets – and the sector is on the rise.

On the ground, FMs are under increased pressure to deliver energy savings, improve occupant wellbeing and reduce running costs. However, a historical lack of visibility into building operation means it has been difficult to make quick, informed decisions that will have a positive impact on these issues. Complex, legacy building management systems (BMS), coupled with a lack of technical understanding of central systems (such as HVAC systems) are often responsible.

This means facilities managers have to rely heavily on BMS consultants and planned preventative maintenance (PPM) checks to highlight operational issues – or wait for something to fail and react accordingly. Indeed, lack of visibility is a significant barrier to the creation of smart, sustainable buildings.

Furthermore, there are new challenges to face: the growing choice of technological solutions now available on the market, an influx of unstructured data, and the potential for app fatigue.

The first step to overcoming these challenges is to accept there is a problem in the first place. With support from a BMS consultant and regular maintenance checks, it is easy to assume a building is operating as efficiently as possible. However, without real operational data, it is difficult to know if this is actually the case. More often than not, the reality is quite the opposite.

For example, the 4D Monitoring energy management platform is responsible for tracking the performance of HVAC systems in over 250 commercial sites nationwide. In 69 per cent of those sites, the system has identified issues with the central plant, including runtime errors and unnecessary 24/7 operation. That is a significant number of properties not operating at maximum efficiency, despite rigorous maintenance regimes and regular BMS checks.

By assuming there is a problem, facilities managers begin on the front foot. It means they are in a position to proactively identify solutions that will deliver efficiencies. The right application of smart building technology will give facilities managers the data they need to achieve this – and if it transpires that their properties are already operating efficiently, they will have the means to demonstrate it.

By assuming buildings are operating inefficiently, even if everything looks fine on the surface, and embracing technology that provides accurate performance data, facilities managers can proactively acquire the visibility needed to create smarter, more sustainable buildings. But what technology should they be looking for? What should be measured? And what should they do with the information once they have it?

Facilities managers can focus their attention on many different areas, but using technology to analyse the performance of the central plant is a cost-effective way to improve operational efficiency and reduce energy spend. A traditional BMS is designed to enable FMs to control central plant operation. However, human intervention, coupled with changing tenant requirements, means critical systems can begin to run outside of the required timeframes, without site management teams necessarily being aware of it.

A straightforward solution is to use retrofit, remote monitoring technology that utilises sensors to provide live HVAC performance data. Sensors can track temperatures, pressures, flow rates, power output, lighting levels and more from within the central plant. This data is sent to a cloud-based platform, where it can be accessed remotely at any time. Facilities managers can leverage the data to identify whether equipment is operating out of line with building occupancy hours.

As well as measuring the performance of critical assets within the plant, sensors – integrated into one central system – can provide further touchpoints that solve other issues. For example, air-handling unit filters are normally replaced every four to six months as standard maintenance practice. By placing an airflow sensor either side of the filter, it is possible to measure dust build-up. With the right set points in place, the platform should be able to send a message to the contractor to change the filter when it is actually required.

In other words, the building is actively telling stakeholders when something needs to be done, which offers an opportunity to create new and better models for building maintenance.

Similarly, sensors can be used to track bathroom traffic across multi-let commercial offices, hospitals or other large sites. Cleaning resources can then be allocated to washrooms with a heavier footfall.

Where secondary air-conditioning systems are present within the tenant demise – as is common in commercial properties – ambient room temperatures can be tracked to establish whether these systems are operating out of line with an individual tenant’s occupancy hours. Equipped with these insights, facilities managers can collaborate closely with tenants to ensure air conditioning is shut down correctly.

Crucially, any monitoring platform must go further than simply providing live performance data. It must actively inform facilities managers and other stakeholders when there is a problem, and point the way to tangible solutions. It must also be intuitive and easy to use. In this way, it will become more than an instrument to measure asset performance, footfall, lighting or air quality; it will provide actionable insights that non-technical personnel can leverage to create smart, sustainable buildings, as well as the reporting tools necessary to prove success.

In summary, facilities managers are the gatekeepers to the success of any remote monitoring tool. Equipped with actionable, intuitive data insights, they can acquire true visibility of the operation of their building and deliver significant change on the ground. By taking ownership of the right technology, FMs can demonstrate how the actions they take directly and positively impact energy consumption, utility spend, service charge, tenant wellbeing and more.

About Sarah OBeirne

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