Building automation systems are one of the marvels born of the integrated circuit age, and now a mainstream apparatus in the toolkit of today’s building management professional. Going back a number of years, many of us in the engineering and facilities world could be forgiven for invoking the colloquialism, “Whoever would have thunk?”
The capabilities, roles, and risks associated with BAS are constantly evolving. By melding building information, big data, sensors, automated controls, the Internet, the cloud, and systems within your facility, BAS can reduce your operating costs and energy consumption, control critical parameters in your controlled environments, monitor and troubleshoot building equipment problems, and even control access/egress, systems shutdowns, and lighting levels adjustment based on BAS measurement of natural light. However, the convenience of networked systems also carries increasing risk in today’s cyber-attack world.
First, the basics: What is BAS?
To lay the groundwork, let’s define BAS. A building automation system is a computer-enabled, and increasingly Internet-facilitated, system that simultaneously collects building systems’ data, and monitors building critical components, while controlling and managing a building’s mechanical, electrical, and other systems. Building automation systems can be scaled to a building’s needs and your company’s budget.
When considering a building automation system, think beyond a singular building. Multiple buildings can be linked through one BAS, which can be extremely useful in maintenance, capital planning, and streamlining projects and staff utilization. BAS not only offers the ability to identify repetitive performance issues across multiple buildings, but also can highlight high-performance buildings and systems, allowing the efficient identification and development of best building practices.
Building automation systems are flexible, and can be designed to meet facility specific goals including energy consumption and occupant comfort. Also, BAS can be programmed to diagnose and alarm equipment, systems, and controls — often well before problems would be identified by staff. It can be an important tool in capital improvements planning — for example, through data analysis of equipment alarm patterns, BAS can help identify and prioritize maintenance and replacement schedules. Through ongoing monitoring and the fruits of big data, BAS can identify declines in the performance of building systems and provide key data for retro-commissioning efforts to optimize building system performance and maximize alignment to original performance metrics.
For our purposes, the terms building automation systems (BAS) and building management systems (BMS) are interchangeable.
“Fail to plan, plan to fail”
Yes, you’ve heard my mantra before. When considering the design and installation of BAS, it’s critical to start at the end point: know exactly where you want to go, and what you want the system to do. Always begin with the end in your vision.
Think about hiring an independent expert to guide you and your team, but be wary of retaining an “expert” employed by a vendor.
Set clear goals, and be sure they reflect the objectives of the company, the stakeholders, how your organization will realistically utilize BAS, and a budget based in the reality of your organization. Only a comprehensive and clear set of goals — bought into by key stakeholders — will allow the team to move forward in developing a plan outlining desired key features, functionality, integration and security elements.
Organize a project team based on a principle of inclusiveness — in order to develop a realistic, reasonable, and comprehensive assessment of needs while ensuring your planning doesn’t get derailed, be sure to invite the key C-suite representative, IT, security, finance, corporate communications, legal, sustainability, and as many end users as possible to join the core facilities and engineering team.
Like any master planning process, and similar to the approach taken to master plan facilities, it’s critical for the group to clearly and unequivocally develop project guidelines outlining the team structure, the process to be utilized in setting priorities, making decisions, settling disputes, communicating within the group, and communicating results.
Baseline questions once the foundation is set
It’s easy to be a bit overwhelmed by the options and capabilities offered in building automation systems – an engineer’s version of the kid in the candy shop. So, spend some time thinking about a few key questions:
• Will the system serve a stand-alone building, or a group of buildings?
• Which building systems should be part of the BAS, and how should they be prioritized?
• What about potential future expansion? How easily can sensors be added to the system?
• How user friendly is the system, and can upgrades and additions be accomplished by in-house staff?
• Can future technologies and capabilities be tied into whatever system is developed?
• What would be the optimal configuration of the BAS from an operations viewpoint?
• Would developing a propriety system, or buying a “plug and play” system make the most sense?
• What is the order-of-magnitude budget for the initial system and future upgrades?
• What level of training is required?
• What building intelligence does the facilities group need, and how will data reports be configured?
• What should be budgeted for supporting equipment, such as computers?
• Carefully consider the platform options — from there, all future information (and headaches, if not chosen widely and well) will flow. Will the BAS reside in the cloud? Who will host your platform — and what’s their reputation? Their business stability?
BIM and BMS — a marriage made in heaven?
Buildings and renovations are almost standardly designed today using Building Information Modeling, or BIM. One benefit of BIM is the generation and memorialization of rich data, well beyond the previously limited data contained in plans generated by more traditional methods. Beyond layout and material specifications, BIM provides clear views into utility, structural and M/E/P runs, and can be a receptacle of specifications, cost data, materials, and equipment warranties, just to mention a few options.
Integrating this information into a BAS system, and linking the data, opens up exciting possibilities on a number of fronts, including efficiency, standardization of furniture/fixtures/equipment, institutional knowledge, staff deployment, and facilities planning.
For facilities professionals to efficiently maximize the potential of linking BIM and BAS, the development of sound uniform standards is key. Streamlining protocols, enabling interoperability of products, and removing the obstacles to selecting equipment operating on the same platforms and utilizing the same protocols will provide other benefits as well. Lower prices should result from increased competition, as facilities professionals are not “locked in” to the vendor they originally selected when implementing BAS. Uniform standards should also enhance security, a growing concern in a world that has daily announcements of system breaches.
Data, data everywhere, and not a use in sight
Data is only as good as its effective utilization. In the process of developing a BAS plan, be realistic about what your organization needs for data, how you will use it, and what your staff can realistically absorb, analyze, and act upon.
How the data is presented can be as important as the data gathered. During the system development project, carefully develop or select the dashboards, templates, data access, and reporting tools that will be both useful and utilized. Sometimes how data is presented can be as powerful as the data itself.
Growing concerns about cybersecurity
At the advent of BAS capabilities, the focus was mainly on what a building automation system could do for your organization, not what it could potentially do to your organization. Many facilities professionals didn’t feel overly concerned that hostile actors would be motivated to hack into their lighting controls or heating system.
But while your building’s lighting controls may not be of particular interest to bad apples out there, the fact that your BAS may be linked to other data-rich components of your company’s IT infrastructure could be alluring. It’s been estimated that less than 20 percent of BAS are rated as substantial and resistant to intrusion. Your BAS can serve as an easy entry point into your corporate network. And, once the hacker has gained entry, in a linked and connected system it’s generally a relatively easy pivot for the hackers to access highly sensitive data.
An emerging threat in the cybersecurity wars is the monetization of data, or the functionality of your system. Hackers are growing bolder every year, and are arming themselves with either denial of service or ransomware.
All a hacker needs is a single point of access. To borrow from a British, and later American, TV show: building automation systems are often the “weakest link” in a company’s IT infrastructure. Compounding the often lax security provisions, BAS by its very nature is a web of components, sensors, systems, integrators, vendors, facility managers, and other building occupants which can, often inadvertently, provide a single point of entry for exploitation.
Enter the insurance industry. Consider purchasing a cyber-damage policy, and be aware that with mounting losses the insurance industry is playing a leading role in establishing and promoting best practices among their policy holders. Fortunately, protections against intrusion are not generally expensive fixes, and the BAS industry is aggressively developing improved quality and security features.
With the good comes a little bad
BAS, while not exactly a brave new world, is a continually expanding frontier — a bit like space exploration. The challenges facing facilities professionals today will continue to evolve, driven by both internal needs and external forces. Designing for the future, insisting on flexibility, and staying vigilant will go a long way towards success.
Kate Everett, PE, LEED AP, is a principal and director of mechanical engineering services at SMRT Architects and Engineers. She has more than 25 years’ experience engineering complex, sustainable mechanical systems for science, technology, healthcare, education, and government clients. firstname.lastname@example.org; www.smrtinc.com