Reducing hospital energy costs via building automation

December 4, 2017

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Photo © Tony Frederick Photography

By Kevin Callahan
Given their extensive use of energy-hungry medical equipment and around-the-clock service to the community, hospitals consume huge amounts of power. These buildings rank as Canada’s most intensive energy-consumers, second only to food and beverage stores. (See “Energy Benchmarking for Hospitals[2],” published by Natural Resources Canada.) To free up money for patient services and other mission-critical needs, more hospitals are aggressively exploring ways to reduce their energy costs. Many of them rely on building automation systems (BAS) to trim heating, cooling, lighting, and other power loads.

A BAS can help save about 15 per cent annually in energy consumption costs, estimates the Sandcastle Energy Systems Alliance, a Greater Toronto Area (GTA)-based network of HVAC and refrigeration professionals. This translates into electricity cost savings of $2.15 to $4.30/m2 ($0.20 to $0.40/sf). (Visit the Sandcastle Energy Systems Alliance website[3] to read “How Building Automation Saves Energy and Money.”)

In one recent cold-climate example, the MHP Medical Center (Shelbyville, Ind.)—shown above—relies on its BAS to save approximately $445,000 in annual energy costs while providing a comfortable indoor environment for patients and staff.

Additional benefits
In addition to reducing energy costs year after year, a BAS also can help lower maintenance and equipment replacement costs. A properly configured system sounds an alarm when equipment begins operating outside specifications. This enables facility professionals to take corrective action when it is needed, instead of following a fixed maintenance schedule that often results in over-maintaining equipment, thereby wasting money. Repairing equipment before it fails can also help avoid costly and troublesome disruptions, such as when a hospital’s walk-in freezer stops operating, resulting in thousands of dollars of spoiled food.

Building automation can also help streamline a hospital’s daily services. For example, the system can be used to remotely posture rooms depending on specific medical needs. This could include positive pressure to keep airborne contaminants out of a surgical suite or negative pressure to keep viruses isolated in a laboratory. Some BAS include integrated wall units with colour light-emitting diodes (LEDs) that show doctors and nurses at a glance whether a room is properly postured.

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Hospitals are among Canada’s most intensive energy-users given their 24/7 functioning and use of specialized equipment. Shown at left, the MHP Medical Center (Shelbyville, Ind.) has a building automation system (BAS) that helps the hospital owner save approximately $445,000 in annual energy costs.
Photo courtesy CMTA Consulting Engineers

BAS also provide a powerful way to commission and periodically recommission buildings to ensure optimal system performance over time and as facility needs evolve.

From measurement to management
As with other commercial and public buildings, hospitals often unknowingly waste energy. Absent a deep understanding of where and when energy is being consumed, facility managers are left working in the dark when it comes to deciding when to turn building systems down or off.

Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) captures well the essential philosophy of BAS: “If you can measure it, you can control it. If you can control it, you can manage it.” (See NRCan’s “Energy Benchmarking: The Basics[5].”)

One trend making such measuring and management possible is the advent of low-cost metering of utilities, which enables heavy energy-consumers such as hospitals to monitor specific loads, from lighting to equipment and plug loads. Widely deployed meters enable facility managers to get very granular in their energy monitoring, and to identify the best opportunities for trimming electricity and gas consumption.

Another important measurement trend is the growth in analytic frameworks that provide fault detection and diagnostics, continuous commissioning, and/or visualization of data—all of which require data collection via the BAS. Though these analytic frameworks are fairly new to the building industry, they are widely accepted across healthcare and education facilities.

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Some BAS wall units can be programmed to allow medical personnel to see at a glance if hospital spaces are properly postured for patient care.
Photos courtesy Alerton

Challenges with BAS in hospitals
When it comes to installing and using BAS, hospitals present building professionals with a number of challenges, including:

Presence of obsolete automation systems
Due to capital expenditure and budget constraints, many hospitals have older, outdated BAS. Frequently, they have multiple automation systems running in their facilities, so they lack a single platform for monitoring, controlling, and operating their facility. The problem with an obsolete BAS is not only lost opportunities for optimizing energy use, but also the increased difficulty of obtaining facility operating data and creating reports to maintain conformance with standards from healthcare-sector nonprofit Accreditation Canada.

Limitations imposed by interior walls
Hospitals have always presented challenges with integrating BAS. Historically, these systems were wired, which required careful planning to work around the multiple systems inside a hospital’s walls, from electrical wiring to piping for water and medical gas systems supplying oxygen and nitrous oxide. With the advent of wireless BAS, the space constraints inside walls are not an issue, but systems in the walls and high-energy medical equipment can interfere with the wireless signal. This challenge is not insurmountable, but must be taken into account.

Reluctance to use cloud computing
BAS manufacturers are beginning to migrate their systems to the cloud, taking advantage of the massive computing power and data storage available. While this holds huge promise for expanding the benefits of building automation (see “BAS and the Cloud,” at the end of the article), some hospital operators are reticent to make the switch.

A primary reason for this hesitancy is the fear of compromising patient privacy. However, this concern is easily addressed as a BAS stores no personal information on patients and, unless it is mistakenly cross-linked to other hospital databases, does not risk exposing patient data. The data are ideal for placement in the cloud because they are only building-related information (e.g. temperature, relative humidity [RH], and equipment status).

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Hospital facility managers rely on BAS to optimize energy use in systems ranging from HVAC to lighting, plug loads, and vertical circulation.

What to consider when specifying a BAS
Somewhat like choosing a new smartphone, it can be overwhelming to specify a BAS given the wide range of available features. To help narrow the choices and ensure an easy-to-use system with maximum benefits, three key capabilities to consider for hospitals include:

Human-centred software
As the portal to the BAS, it is crucial the software makes sense to facility operators. Cumbersome software results in either untapped potential in the system or costly and time-consuming operator training. By comparison, programs developed using a human-centred design process make it simple for users to figure out how to work with the program.

In a human-centred design, the software developers watch how actual users interact with the system. They measure users’ performance and note areas where they struggle with the software. The developers then reconfigure the program and again test it with actual people. Results can include restructuring menu trees to make them simpler to navigate, revising graphic images to make them easier to interpret and placement of icons where people naturally look for them.

The easiest-to-use BAS software is built with graphical interfaces. Compared to text-based systems, these visuals enable users to readily see the building or campus as a whole and to zoom-in on individual floors, rooms, or specific equipment to check the status. Such interfaces also make it easy to program alarms and to change set points for temperature, humidity, pressures, and carbon dioxide (CO2) levels. (For additional information on this topic, see this author’s previous article for Construction Canada (April 2015), “Human-centred Design: Simplifying Features in Building Automation[8].”)

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BAS with graphical interfaces enable facility professionals to rapidly learn the system, and readily control a host of building systems.

Control module can integrate numerous building systems
Although many hospital facility operators rely on their BAS only to monitor and control HVAC equipment, a properly appointed building automation system can integrate numerous other building systems, including:

Integration is made possible via widely adopted operating protocols, especially the industry standard BACnet protocol developed by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE).

Numerous building equipment manufacturers and BAS developers have adopted BACnet, which means one system can monitor and control equipment supplied by many parties. In other words, rather than controlling HVAC equipment and lighting from different systems, a BACnet-enabled BAS allows for scheduling of both from a single platform, greatly simplifying work for facility operators.

Simple-to-use wall units
The great majority of hospital personnel are unaware a powerful BAS is operating behind the scenes to improve their building’s efficiency. Nevertheless, when a room feels too hot or too cold, facility managers can count on building occupants looking for a wall unit to adjust the settings. Rather than being a simple thermostat, today’s wall sensors can monitor and display a host of environmental conditions, such as interior and exterior temperatures, RH, and CO2 levels.

To avoid unnecessary calls to the facilities staff asking, “How do I adjust this thing?” it is important the wall units be instinctual. To this end, units are now available with the design sophistication of a smartphone. Easy-to-interpret icons allow building users to quickly and easily figure out how to change settings, and colour LEDs enable them to quickly know the HVAC system’s status (i.e. heating, cooling, or standby). As mentioned, some units can even be programmed to show when a room is properly postured, offering doctors and nurses assurance the space is ready for patient care.

Conclusion
As BAS manufacturers move their systems to the cloud, analytical power will skyrocket. Combined with the growth of artificial intelligence (AI), building automation will become smarter, learning how a facility is operated and managed. More data from the BAS and other systems enables the analytical AI to understand more about the facility than just what is going on with the air-conditioning. In hospitals, the BAS might be able to interact with the patient environment, such as adjusting the room temperature set point, dimming the lights, operating the window blinds, and managing the audio/visual entertainment system.

A BAS can also be used in unexpected ways—some systems help patients or visitors with wayfinding, as hospitals can be notoriously difficult to navigate. This can take the form of a mobile app helping users find their way.

The possibilities continue to expand as BAS manufacturers, systems integrators, and facility operators ask themselves “what if?” when considering how a BAS can further benefit hospital owners, staff, and patients.

BAS AND THE CLOUD
The ‘cloud’ is tech-speak for the giant data farms renting their computer servers to clients around the world. In other words, rather than relying on the computing power and memory of its own computers—whether desktop computers or onsite servers—an organization accesses remote computers via the Internet to accomplish business needs.
As building automation systems (BAS) become more sophisticated, manufacturers are migrating their systems to the cloud to take advantage of the massive computing power and data storage available there.A key benefit for facility operators of cloud-based BAS is the ability to rapidly scale up (or down) their computing resources, without a large capital outlay. For example, if a hospital is adding new buildings to its campus, BAS data storage needs will likely increase when those facilities open. On the other hand, if a hospital operator closes one building to move to another, its data demands might taper or even decline somewhat as buildings are closed for refurbishment or demolition. With a subscription from a cloud service provider, organizations pay for just the right amount of computing power—neither too much nor too little—and can adjust very quickly.Another important BAS-enabled function for which more building owners are looking to the cloud is automated, continuous building commissioning. It takes a substantial amount of computing power and data storage to run the performance algorithms needed for continuous commissioning. Operating in the cloud, a hospital’s BAS can frequently evaluate if various building systems (e.g. HVAC and lighting) are still performing at optimal conditions as they did when they were installed and commissioned. For example, should a chiller begin to operate out of spec, the facility managers can see the performance reduction immediately and take corrective action.

The cloud also provides the power for more sophisticated fault detection, diagnostics, and analytics. In essence, it expands the potential for facility operators to use their BAS to optimize building systems, saving time and money on building operations maintenance.

Kevin Callahan is a product owner and evangelist for Alerton, a Honeywell business. He has 40 years of experience in the building control technologies field, including control systems design and commissioning, user training, and product development. Contact him via e-mail at kevin.callahan@alerton.com[10].

Endnotes:
  1. [Image]: https://www.constructioncanada.net/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/Major-Hospital-exterior-24-CREDIT-Tony-Frederick-Photography.jpg
  2. Energy Benchmarking for Hospitals: http://www.nrcan.gc.ca/energy/efficiency/buildings/energy-benchmarking/15909
  3. website: http://www.sandcastle.ca
  4. [Image]: https://www.constructioncanada.net/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/CMTA-Major-Hospital-Operating-Room-HI-RES-19.jpg
  5. Energy Benchmarking: The Basics: http://www.nrcan.gc.ca/energy/efficiency/buildings/energy-benchmarking/building/18260
  6. [Image]: https://www.constructioncanada.net/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/Alerton_DSC2257_EDIT.jpg
  7. [Image]: https://www.constructioncanada.net/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/Alerton-controls-in-MHP-Medical-Center-1.jpg
  8. Human-centred Design: Simplifying Features in Building Automation: http://www.constructioncanada.net/human-centred-design-simplifying-features-in-building-automation
  9. [Image]: https://www.constructioncanada.net/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/Alerton-Ascent-Compass-software.jpg
  10. kevin.callahan@alerton.com: mailto:kevin.callahan@alerton.com

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