Brainiac buildings

Smart buildings go eco-friendly for the benefit of owners and even the planet

When energy use suddenly rose in a hotel in China, management found out right away.

The building itself spilled the beans. It turned out that a new cook was turning on the steam tables several hours early. The building was a so-called "smart building," meaning the situation was rectified much sooner than it would have been had management had to wait for a utility bill to arrive, saving money and the environment.

The idea of a smart building, capable of telling operations personnel what's happening to it and what it needs and impacting both budgets and the environment, is super space-agey. But it's happening right here in Alberta in the Calgary Catholic School District, which is using IBM Maximo Asset Management software to manage its 2,800 assets, including 103 schools, and now, to improve its carbon footprint.

"Our challenge was that we really didn't have a system in place," says Al Berting, manager of operations for the school district. "Everything was done manually. We wanted to get a system so we weren't relying on people's memories and so that everyone had access to it."

Aging infrastructure, a constant need to expand and a frustratingly slow method of handling maintenance were making it difficult to effectively maintain the district's assets.

Additionally, the district wanted to be able to communicate with contractors, streamline processes by integrating information from various business units and get a clearer picture of what assets were costing.

Thanks to the system, the school district is now able to easily perform preventive maintenance on its assets and it's seeing the results. "We're seeing more efficiently run facilities and getting a better picture of what our equipment is doing," Berting says.

Before using the asset management system, the district scrambled to keep up with service requests on its 600 portable classrooms, each equipped with its own heating and ventilation system. Preventive maintenance has reduced the number of failure calls significantly, reducing downtime and hassle for the schools, which have to relocate students when the heating systems break down.

Now the district is working to use the asset management software with a new building automation system from Johnson Controls Inc. to track its energy use.

"We've enhanced [Maximo] so it can actually gather energy information about the asset," explains Florence Hudson, energy and environment executive for IBM. "It can work with something like the Johnson [building automation system], and we can gather real energy-performance data so that you can actually look at the energy data of an asset, see when it was last maintained, and do better proactive maintenance to reduce your energy use."

The school district has a Johnson building automation system in place and is now working to link it with the asset management system. Over time, it will add sensor technology to its mechanical and electrical systems. The sensors will allow the building to, in effect, speak, providing real-time data that can be used to generate preventive maintenance work orders based on run times rather than the calendar. It will tell the district how much energy is being used, where it's being used and when.

"That allows them to take action and predictably manage how they consume the associated services that their school relies upon," says Chris Mallon, IBM's Tivoli brand leader. "They can gain insight into how they consume resources, which empowers them to make decisions in order to utilize those assets more effectively in the provision of the service to the students and, ultimately, to the taxpayers."

But why measure energy and water use? Why not just install eco-friendly technologies in new schools and replace older systems with new technologies as they wear out? Isn't it enough to put your lights on timers?

Not any more, says Hudson. While energy-efficient mechanical, plumbing and lighting systems are great, people might still be paying, polluting and using more than necessary if, for example, a custodian is leaving the lights on all night or a cook really likes to pre-heat.

"You have to be able to identify what's happening and then change it," she says. "These smarter buildings constantly bring in real-time data and help us make better decisions."

In time, the school district may be able to look at the data from all its schools and establish best practices. "Then they can look at their target energy use and the actual energy usage, and their target energy costs and the actual costs. They can even look at target carbon emissions and actual carbon emissions," Hudson explains. "They can bring it to another level of intelligence and understanding so that they can manage their properties to meet all their goals."

The system can even track the types of energy being used, allowing owners to work on increasing their use of renewable energies if they desire.

Smart buildings can reduce energy consumption and carbon dioxide emissions by 50 to 70 per cent and reduce water consumption by 30 to 50 per cent, according to Hudson. Saving money on these resources is a major motivator for users, and the school district is no different. But there are other reasons for improving sustainability.

"The end goal is to be able to get the information to the schools so that they can use it as an educational tool," Berting says. The district plans to make energy use information available to students so they can develop an understanding of the direct relationship between their actions - turning out the lights when leaving the classroom, for example - and the environment.

The cost of the system varies depending on the needs of the customer but starts at around $50,000 for a small project. Return on investment is typically achieved between 6 and 12 months.

"You're capturing your operational expense and employing it in a capital expenditure," Mallon says. "Also, if it costs a dollar to do something today, we can reorient your processes and make that dollar become 50 cents."

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