Smart Building Technologies Building Automation Techniques Deployed in Alaska
Mechanical systems of the West Anchorage High School addition are tied into the school’s building automation system. On the left, the outside air louver is outlined in red stripes, and the air handler is dark grey with green ducts, it distributes air (including heating and cooling) throughout the building. Floor drains are designated in pink, and return air grilles are designated in blue.
Rendering courtesy of RSA Engineering, Inc. and Kumin and Associates, Inc.
Before the emergence of digital controls and smart building technologies, most buildings controlled the HVAC system—heating, ventilation, and air conditioning within the building—through a pneumatic or air-based control system. Most existing buildings still use pneumatic controls, limiting the opportunities to monitor the other systems of the building and often burning more energy in the process.
Smart building technologies, typically controlled by a building automation system, link the mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems of the building and give the operator a window into the inner workings of nearly all the systems that influence a building’s operations. Through smart building technologies, operators are equipped to ensure safety, provide comfort, and especially important to Alaskans—monitor efficiency.
Paper to Operator
Some companies know what they want in an automated control system to operate their buildings. Sometimes that is not always the case. Some people just want their buildings to keep them comfortable without having to think too much about it. Mark Frischkorn, principal mechanical engineer at RSA Engineering, Inc., is part of an engineering firm that has taken the role of designing many smart systems for schools and businesses in Alaska. Recently RSA Engineering designed the mechanical systems of the West Anchorage High School addition under the architects Kumin and Associates. The project is currently under construction by Cornerstone General Contractors.
Frischkorn says the contractors will install the system, complete the project, and hand it over to the building owner. The contractor responsible for the automation control system provides the owner an Operations and Maintenance manual detailing the systems installed for that particular project.
“The contractor is then supposed to train [the building operator] on the systems and say, ‘Here is what you have to know, here’s how it’s supposed to work,’” Frischkorn says.
Due to the complexity of the systems involved, most building control suppliers offer supplemental training and even classes at the factory for building operators that really want to know their systems and operate them to optimal efficiency. They also offer service contracts for the people that want their systems to work without having to worry about the details.
Most construction contracts have a one-year warranty, and if something doesn’t work, the contractor would have to come back and fix it, Frischkorn says. This also helps with the learning process for the building operator as they learn how their building reacts to the seasons.
“Here lately commissioning is the latest and greatest thing now. They usually hire an engineer to commission the building, which essentially means to turn everything on and walk it through all of the things it’s supposed to be doing and make sure it does in fact do all of those things,” Frischkorn says.
RSA offers commissioning as a service, and in 2013 Frischkorn commissioned the UAF Margaret Murie Building.
“The whole commissioning process can be rather sophisticated. It took me a week to check every point in that building to make sure it was doing what it was supposed to be doing. I didn’t get it all; I got all the major ones, because that is a very big, very sophisticated building,” Frischkorn says.
Even though the mechanical and control contractors on that project were very conscientious, there were still a fair amount of adjustments to be made to get everything working just right. The commissioning agent provides a second set of eyes and the time to study the systems that helps ensure everything gets adequately tested before being turned over to the owner.
Before the process of installing and utilizing smart building technologies, because of its innate complexity, a building owner must first realize the benefits of designing with or converting to a building automation system. Some buildings benefit more from high levels of technology than others, Frischkorn says.
Buildings must be viewed on a case-by-case basis before making the first steps toward reducing energy use and being smart, says Jack Hébert, founder and CEO of the The Cold Climate Housing Research Center (CCHRC).
“Every building in itself has a personality,” says Hébert. “The personality is reflected by the way it was built, who built it, when it was built, the kinds of systems that were put in it at that particular time, the behavior of the people that use the building, and the education of the operators of the building. When addressing energy efficiency and being smarter, every building has a story of its own.”
CCHRC in Fairbanks is a nonprofit, industry-based corporation that demonstrates smart building technologies, among other building efficiencies, through statewide research. Hébert says it utilizes product development and testing for research and works with homeowners and building managers to incorporate smart building technologies and other efficiencies in buildings throughout the state.
CCHRC’s facility in Fairbanks utilizes a Siemens Apogee system to monitor and control building functions and provide data for researchers. As an applied research facility, CCHRC demonstrates its research in its use.
“If you can’t feel it, touch it, and see how it performs, if you’re just doing a study, it’s just one more study on a shelf,” Hébert says. “What really has an impact is being able to show folks what’s been done. Let them kick the tires.”
The research facility is equipped with more than 1,200 sensors to study techniques and technologies for use in cold climates.
“In our world, what we call ‘smart technologies’ are technologies that are effective without being overly complex, so they can be affordable and regular folks can operate them. Building technologies on commercial buildings can get quite complex, but sometimes they have to be that way in order to achieve efficiency. In any case, the technologies should complement the systems in the building in a way that reduces the amount of energy that’s used,” Hébert says.
Hébert points to the use of outdoor sensors in radiant floor heating as a smart technology. Outdoor sensors read the temperature of ambient air outside the building and adjust the temperature of fluids in the heating system to maximize efficiency in the transfer of heat to the building. If the outside temperature drops, the temperature of water going through the radiant floor system rises to more effectively transfer heat, but runs at the lowest temperature needed to satisfy the heating needs of the user. Radiant floor heating is operated by computer-controlled valves that interface with the main system to optimize efficiency. At the CCHRC facility the Siemens Apogee system adjusts boiler operation times and temperatures based on outside temperature.
The aspect of lighting plays a major role in smart building technologies in commercial buildings, Hébert says. Smart technologies sense the amount of ambient light received through windows. The building adjusts the lumens—the amount of visible light—to balance the level of lighting necessary for the building’s occupants without wasting energy. Along with those controls are occupant sensors that tell the system if a person is in the room and whether the room should be lit. The amount of lumens a light should produce depends on the amount of natural light in the room.
The HVAC system is most often connected to the electronic smart building controls. Hébert says indoor air quality is a major issue in commercial buildings. Occupancy sensors read the number of people in the room by the amount of carbon dioxide produced from breathing and adjusts to ventilate fresh air for that number of occupants. If there are no occupants in the room, the advanced system only ventilates to keep a minimum air change going through the building to promote efficiency.
Because Alaska is relatively cold throughout most of the year, buildings in the state are more equipped to handle heating rather than air conditioning needs. One way of keeping air quality high while keeping the building heated is the use of heat recovery ventilation, Hébert says. The heat leaving the building that would have been lost to the atmosphere preheats the cold, exterior air coming into the building, creating an interchange between the stale, warm air and incoming fresh air. If the exterior temperature is too cold for heat recovery, the system adds heat to the airstream to ensure the occupants are comfortable.
“One of the biggest expenses of operating a commercial building in cold environments is the number of air changes that occur, so you are constantly changing the air inside a building, and unless you have smart controls or use heat recovery of stale air, it can be a tremendous energy cost just ventilating a commercial building,” Hébert says.
Hébert says the controls of a particular system should complement the appliance, whether it is lighting, heating, or ventilation. The system shouldn’t be too complex for the appliance or the user. The Siemens Apogee system in the research facility allows the operator to adjust indoor temperatures and provide data on fuel usage and energy generation.
The smart building system at the CCHRC facility is equipped with controllers that transmit and receive information through the field level network.
Further detail of the mechanical systems of the West Anchorage High School addition and it’s connection into the school’s building automation system.
Rendering courtesy of RSA Engineering, Inc. and Kumin and Associates, Inc.
Automated Building Controls
Anchorage-based AMC Engineers specializes in the design of mechanical, electrical, and telecommunications for commercial and institutional facilities utilizing smart building technologies. The firm’s clients include federal, state, municipal, and private businesses throughout Alaska.
“Our systems ‘breathe life’ into a facility. We measure outside air temperature, relative humidity, and the systems always bring fresh air inside. All of those dynamics are constantly managed by the building automation system,” says Dave Shumway, principal mechanical engineer at AMC Engineers.
For the most part a smart building controls itself, and the occupant relies on automated systems to set a comfortable environment, Shumway says. As the occupant enters a room, the lights flip on automatically. After the occupant leaves the lights are set to a time delay that turns off the lights to save energy. The use of LED lights further aids in energy efficiency.
“In Alaska, we’re really concerned about energy. It gets really cold here, so we try to limit the amount of outside air entering a building,” Shumway says. “You’re required to bring in a certain amount of outside air just to meet indoor air quality standards, so we design our buildings to provide that amount of air into the building.”
AMC Engineers is working on several large scale projects including the new University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) Engineering Facility currently under construction. The $118.1 million project is a six floor, 119,000-square-foot building. Shumway says the UAF Engineering Building features an “engineering on display” concept.
“Students and visitors will be able to view the actual inner workings of the building automation and control system on large LED display monitors located throughout the facility. Displays will include HVAC and electrical system operation, energy consumption monitoring, photovoltaic panel power generation rate, building structural component stress, and strain and building ‘stack effect,’” Shumway says.
A key advantage of using smart building technology is that large, complex buildings can be continuously monitored for scheduled maintenance and immediate system fault identification in the event of a system component failure.
“The building automation system monitors many aspects of the building,” Shumway says. “So if there is a problem, the building automation system can send a message to the maintenance staff so they can correct the problem before it becomes worse.”
At UAF, individual campus building automation and control systems are designed to “speak” to one another, each programmed with control strategies that have been standardized to fit the specific needs of the university. Operators at the university have established relationships with consulting engineers to assist in achieving the university’s smart building goals, unlike some businesses that simply look to the design engineer for a smart building systems approach.
“UAF has a strict set of design guidelines for our mechanical and electrical systems. So much so that we’re actually driving the design of the consultants; the reason being we know what works in our extreme climate, and we want it standardized for our maintenance technicians to occasionally fix and repair the buildings when issues arise. We utilize the horsepower of our consultants to look at system sizing, system capacity, ensuring that our systems are utilizing our energy wisely because it is so expensive to heat and cool a building in Fairbanks,” says Cameron Wohlford, senior project manager at UAF.
Not only does UAF drive the design side of its building controls, it also drives the technology side through its relationship with Siemens. Wohlford says the university is always looking for the latest and greatest when it comes to energy reduction, user comfort, and other priorities.
“It comes down to all three parties [operator, engineer, and technician] leading the design together. I think it turns out well,” Wohlford says.
UAF connects the lighting, HVAC, security, fire alarms, and various systems of all its new buildings through the Siemens automated building system. Wohlford says the advantage of interconnected systems is a wholesale look at building assets and the ability to monitor operations from a global standpoint.
“It turns out to be a huge advantage for the university as new buildings come online and as we see how the emerging technologies can be used,” Wohlford says. “We can then reverse engineer it back into old buildings to help with things like energy reduction and safety.”
Russ Slaten is an Associate Editor at Alaska Business Monthly.
This article first appeared in the July 2015 print edition of Alaska Business Monthly.