It is largely understood that analytics software for buildings provides unmatched power to support the processes—such as energy management, commissioning, and data-driven maintenance—needed to operate a modern portfolio of commercial buildings.

For us analytics nerds, it finally feels like we’re not alone in preaching about this power. There’s a growing level of industry acceptance and countless high-profile case studies, such as the recently-published results of the US Department of Energy’s four-year Smart Energy Analytics Campaign, where analytics software drove a median 9% energy savings on 6,500 buildings across the US. However, as you go down that path it becomes increasingly obvious that while analytics alone is sufficient to gain optimization insights, the real challenge is in implementing the findings of that exercise. This blog outlines the ways we can make analytics insights actionable and improve on those results by improving our software.

 

Opportunities vs outcome: Getting beyond identifying inefficiencies using analytics

To begin, let’s first agree that analytics is a human-in-the-loop tool. The software helps explore data and find “needles in the haystack”, but it requires regular use by a well-resourced team to fully convert data to information to insights to action to verified results. The first way analytics software can improve is to better-support this workflow and allow multiple stakeholders and vendors to interact and collaborate on getting things done.

To understand the second opportunity to improve analytics software, let’s also agree that the insights uncovered by analytics often fall in one of two categories: physical issues and software issues. For the physical issues, like stuck dampers or leaking valves, human-in-the-loop workflows are very much needed. There’s no other way to fix them. But for software-based control issues, closing the loop with humans involved is quite cumbersome.

These software issues are almost always issues with what we call the Three S’s: sequences, setpoints, and schedules. Once the analytics identify an opportunity to optimize one of the S’s, the next step is to try to get the local software reprogrammed. But take it from us: it’s far too difficult to actually make that happen. And even if you’re successful in getting a local control system reprogrammed, that same cumbersome process needs to be repeated for every other system in the portfolio. And these limitations will only compound in the future, where we’ll see rising requirements and expectations for our control sequences, such as:

  • Requirements for more fully automated buildings due to retiring building operator expertise
  • Requirements for more sophisticated supervisory control sequences that can coordinate all of the connected systems in the building
  • Expectations that control sequences tailor system operation to create a specific experience for the occupant

 

Need for unified, cloud-based automation and controls

Realizing this current and impending software shortfall has led us on a learning journey. We’ve interviewed experts, hosted panels, and co-authored a report on the opportunity for a new class of software applications that could be the perfect compliment to analytics software—one that would solve the software side of the equation once and for all. The need for O&M teams to drive efficiency beyond energy—such as occupant drive app-based controls, space scheduling based commands, etc—makes a strong case for a cloud-based portfolio automation software. This is a game-changer with respect to the role of software in building automation & operations.

A cloud-based portfolio automation software adds value for O&M teams primarily in following ways:

  • Allowing O&M stakeholders to own the optimization of their buildings
  • Consolidating management software across the portfolio
  • Harnessing the power of the cloud in the control sequence, not just the analytics

Let’s walk through each of these in turn.
 

Allowing O&M stakeholders to own the optimization of their buildings

O&M teams need software that gives them full control over not just their data, but also their control sequences, setpoints, and schedules. Originally control software wasn’t meant to be used by anyone but the vendor that installed it, meaning the vendor is often the bottleneck for improvements. In most buildings, this creates a lack of ownership for the optimization. Software can democratize the optimization and make it far easier to set and enforce standards for the Three S’s, manage overrides, interact with occupants and adjust systems according to their needs, and push over-the-air upgrades to control systems across the portfolio.

 

Consolidating management software across the portfolio

Most buildings have separate software applications for the management of each system in the building (HVAC, Lighting, Access Control, etc.). Likewise, most portfolios have this same redundancy and complexity in each building. A new breed of software is needed to connect all of these silos together and reduce the number of redundant management applications.

This will make it easier to coordinate systems with each other across silos. As one simple example, the HVAC and lighting systems could be coordinated to operate on the same schedule. If the schedules change across the portfolio, like has happened in many portfolios during the COVID-19 pandemic, the changes could be pushed out centrally and automatically.

As a more complicated example, consider the recent creation of ASHRAE Guideline 36, High-Performance Sequences of Operation for HVAC Systems. Ideally, when standards like these emerge, obsolete control sequences could be replaced automatically, just like a smartphone or Tesla receives over-the-air upgrades.

 

Harnessing the power of the cloud in the control sequence, not just the analytics

Analytics applications leverage advances in cloud computing to crunch all the data created in the local control systems to create insights. The next step in this evolution is to leverage the cloud for the control sequences as well. A portfolio automation software will use cloud-based machine learning algorithms to create predictive and proactive control sequences, replacing the reactive control sequences of the past. They will be able to leverage data from any system in the building or the cloud, instead of just the data available in the local controller, to improve the effectiveness of the control sequence. For example, whereas the state of the art local control system needs occupancy sensors to tailor ventilation to actual occupancy, a cloud-based portfolio automation software will make use of the best available occupancy data, whether from an occupant app, wifi access points, people counting device, or access control system.

All of these capabilities might seem futuristic to the average O&M team or control system specifier. So what capabilities should a portfolio automation software have today?
First, it needs to be paired with a secure and intelligent edge software/driver. The driver needs fallback sequences and if and when the cloud connection is lost. It needs to monitor the network for local connection problems to end devices and mitigate losses in those connections.
Next, the software needs to be capable of implementing supervisory control for all building systems: state of the art sequences, continuously updated, with self-service management and modifications of schedule and setpoint standards.

And finally, the software needs to have a roadmap heading towards:

  • Machine-learning based proactive, predictive, and grid-interactive enhancements to the sequences.
  • Open integration & workflow automation capabilities that can enable occupant engagement, booking automation, condition-based or predictive maintenance

 

This blog was originally published in CABA and is co-authored by our co-founder Rajavel Subramanian and the founder of Nexus Labs, James Dice. Nexus is a weekly blog, podcast, online school, and consultancy striving to create smarter, more efficient buildings. Through Nexus, James shares remarkable stories with the aim of educating and moving the smart building industry forward.