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The full potential of ‘smart’ remains elusive

Industry insiders say that while there has been significant market penetration of smart building technology in the GCC region, the ride ahead is a bumpy one, owing to a plethora of complexities

| | Jul 18, 2017 | 12:03 pm
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Smart building technologies were designed to efficiently channelise and regulate the use of power. However, industry experts suggest that despite the advanced level of sophistication in the technologies being used to develop a building management system (BMS) and remote management system (RMS), an understanding of their value is still hazy to the end-user.

From a layperson’s perspective, investment in smart building technologies may seem to be a burden; however, the reality is that the technology drives up the return on investment (ROI) of the building over time.

Driving up energy efficiency

Industry experts point out that smart building technologies are designed to take full control of a building’s

Manoj Soni

HVAC, lighting and security systems while bringing a significant reduction in the energy bill. “Local metering and utility bills do not usually break down the right data or provide the real- time information required to make informed and quick energy saving decisions,” says Manoj Soni, Vice President, Ecobuildings Buildings Unit (Gulf Countries), of Schneider Electric. “With the push towards sustainability and reduction of carbon footprint getting stronger by the day, there has been an increased demand for an integrated smart system to help buildings become greener, safer and more connected. By using a BMS, the building owners and occupants benefit from reduced operational costs, better indoor environmental quality (IEQ), lesser energy consumption, increased occupant productivity and mitigated risks.”

Vijay Kumar

Going beyond energy efficiency

While a BMS may help achieve energy efficiency to a certain extent by controlling the technical systems of a building, experts believe that the focus needs to go beyond technical systems. Vijay Kumar, President (International Region) of Cylon Controls, says: “Everyone talks about energy efficiency, and the ROI is based on energy reduction alone, but what is ignored is the productivity of people that also contribute towards the ROI. The intangible benefits of a smart building, like the performance of students in schools, recovery of patients in hospitals, the output of employees in office buildings, is what drives towards smart buildings that lead to smart and happy cities, thus aligning with the vision of H.H. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum to make Dubai a smart city that is based on the happiness of its people.”

Kumar bases his argument on several HVAC performance studies conducted by reputed institutions, whose reports are available on public domain. He says: “These studies were conducted in academic classrooms, to understand the deeper picture that goes beyond the ROI, and we observed an increase in the productivity of students when the temperature is set between 22 and 24.5 degrees C. Any temperature set above or below the mentioned temperature will result in a drop in productivity.” He further adds that even when there was an increase in ventilation, which reduced indoor CO2 from 1,175 to 840 PPM, it enhanced the performance of the students.

Dr PR Jagannathan

Voicing similar views, Dr PR Jagannathan, Manager, Sustainability at Trakhees, believes BMS suppliers must go beyond than just selling the product to the clients, but rather they should integrate BMSs with direct digital controls (DDC) because expert studies have shown that a DDC fully optimises the BMS by lowering utility costs, maintaining measured comfort and increasing productivity of building occupants, etc. He says: “If an approach is taken to push BMS, irrespective of the needs of the client, it would be a disaster. The system would be a failure if the team fails to capitalise on the advanced computing techniques of DDC towards energy optimisation, such as scheduling, trending, peak load shelving, etc. BMS can only assist in energy savings and optimisations, if conceived properly. It cannot be an energy saving strategy by itself.”

Arvind Swarnkar

Integrating with it

In today’s wireless age, it is imperative for systems to be integrated with wireless technology. Arvind Swarnkar, Managing Director of Sauter Middle East, says: “The intent of building technology is to save energy and enhance user experience. However, these facilities are still used at the site level only. There is a need to connect these systems to a cloud and [for them to be] controlled through handheld devices remotely so that the goal of the system can be achieved.”

Pandora’s box of complexities

Installing a BMS in a building may look sophisticated and classy, but one of the prime concerns is wrong installation and commissioning. Jagannathan, says, “Installed systems remain showpieces and do not really stand to their claims due to the fact that they are not adequately designed, installed, tested or commissioned.”

He cautions against the practice of aggressively pushing out the technology into the market, because “BMSs are being handled as a product and not as a system”. He says, “The technology is beneficial only if applied after a thorough introspection of the needs of the client.” Suggesting a best practice to resolve the conflict of wrong installation or commissioning, Soni says wrong installation or commissioning must be addressed by closely working with the contractor and the commissioning team.

But is a one-time commissioning activity enough for a BMS? Kumar believes otherwise. He suggests that rather than just an annual service contract, which companies use to conduct periodical checks and fix issues mainly, it is important to adapt the practice of ‘continuous commissioning’, because it is a much more elaborate process that involves reprogramming or fine-tuning the control logic of some or all MEP equipment to overcome entropy.”

While experts suggest that the best practice to gain full optimisation of the BMS is proper training for facility managers and end-users to understand and operate the system, Jagannathan says scant little is being done in this regard. “Very little training is given to the facility management team or property maintenance team, and often the engineering consultants themselves are not knowledgeable enough, and they leave it to the mercy of specialists,” he says.

Agreeing that the level of awareness needs to increase, Kumar says: “Most end-users have over-expectancy when it comes to BMS, which is contrary to reality, and this is a perfect recipe for the perception of BMS failure. Owing to this, the industry dreads BMS to the extent that it prefers only 3-4 brands and the barrier for entry to new brands has become artificially high.”

Adding to the need for greater awareness, Swarnkar says: “Residential and commercial properties need enforcement of the use of a BMS. This can be achieved if the owner gives system performance contracting to ensure saving of electricity bills, instead of simple facility management.”

Swarnkar points out that another challenge is that BMS is usually classified under the mechanical category and an RMS is classified under electrical. Therefore, he adds: “While the operators purchase their RMS from electrical suppliers, they do not understand that an RMS is nothing but an extension of BMS, technically and utility-wise, and most manufacturers supply both products.” An RMS augments the BMS via the cloud for full optimisation, he says.

From a facilities management perspective, Sandrine Le Biavant, Director of Consultancy at Farnek, says:

Sandrine Le Biavant

“Presently, only 30% of FM personnel in the region has an understanding of effectively utilising the BMS. The key challenge for a facility manager is multiple brands and models of BMS, which would necessitate the facility manager to gain knowledge and experience in multiple systems at the same time. This would put additional responsibility on the FM company to further invest in training their personnel.”

Suggesting a strategy to subvert the problem, she says, “This issue can be resolved by using an RMS, because it would essentially help in simplifying the complexity involved in getting trained in multiple systems for multiple properties, by centralising all the different systems to a central expandable system.”

Agreeing that an RMS will boost the optimisation of a BMS, Kumar says, “RMS is a natural progression of the BMS industry, and its objective is to take the burden off the end-user, whether it is continuous commissioning or trained operator availability. Essentially, the RMS would take advantage of decreasing data transmission rates, thanks to an influx of the cloud, thus reducing overall operation and maintenance costs using the model called Software as a Service (Saas).”

Securing the systems

Fred Gordy

Like every technology, the threat perception for a BMS is significant, according to cyber security experts. Fred Gordy, Director of Cyber Security at Intelligent Buildings (USA), says: “Each application is unique, and the magnitude of the disaster depends on the type of application. For instance, in a hospital, the disaster would be different, in financial buildings it would be different, in corporate real estate and the military buildings, the disaster would be different.”

Explaining a hospital application example, Gordy says: “The core of the problem is because of the interconnectedness of the system, and a BMS is integrated with lighting, power generation and generators, and if someone wants to attack a hospital, disable the power of a hospital, they can, and you have surgeries and other critical scenarios going on in a hospital, which could result in fatalities. We also have blood banks in a hospital, and if the temperature of the blood storage units is either turned up or tampered, the blood has to be disposed of. That’s a massive loss of blood and money.”

In a commercial building, Gordy warns that one needs to look into the human factor of the building, because if the electricity and emergency lights are disconnected, owing to the cyber attack, there is a lot of panic, and the effects can be dangerous.

Citing an incident of cyber attacks on BMS, Gordy says, “A few months ago, the ransomware, Cerber3, did affect the BMS in some buildings, but thankfully we were able to respond and curtail it.”

Gordy suggests that the best practice for countering the attack is to involve IT experts to protect the installation and increase the surveillance, precautions, audits and regulations of who controls and accesses the system, by installing an IT-centric username and password. He says, “It is also important to have a recovery strategy in place, on how to respond post attack.”

Summing up

Voices from the industry suggest that there has been significant acceptance of the technology in the region. However, to clear the bottleneck, efforts need to be made to increase the awareness and bridge the gaps between the smart building technology segment and the end-user.


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