Whether it's diagnosing a facility's systems problem from home, making a quick adjustment to a patient room's thermostat right from one's desk, or taking advantage of advanced trending and reporting functions, remote Web-based monitoring is rapidly proving its worth. “Where building automation systems (BAS) are upgraded or initially installed, managers are finding this remote capacity to be a real asset to their operations,” claims Steve E. Kuehn, media and community relations manager, Siemens Building Technologies, Buffalo Grove, Illinois.

Although it is taking facility/energy managers time to get up to speed in fully utilizing the capabilities now being built into these systems, the possibilities are many. For example, with Web-enabled plug-in, a system can be programmed to tie into local weather reports to keep humidity sensors accurately calibrated, or the local weather forecast can be integrated into control algorithms for managing ice storage system operation, says Steve Tom, director of technology information, Automated Logic, Kennesaw, Georgia.

The system can also be programmed to interface with hand-held devices, such as cell phones and PDAs, or used to pull in real-time utility pricing data to relax energy-saving set points in noncritical areas—a particularly nice feature in places like California, where users can qualify for utility rebates by shedding load.

By integrating BAS with other low-voltage systems, not only is the space and expense required for electrical wiring reduced, but “the security system can be integrated to react to an infant abduction alarm, or during a fire alarm the lighting control system can bring all the lights up to assist in evacuation. The options are endless,” says Darin May, PE, mechanical engineering director, Dunham Engineering, Minneapolis.

The convenience of making minor facility systems adjustments anytime, anywhere, is a major advantage for BAS. “Especially for community hospitals, where not all the staff lives in town, it's easy to make a modification or diagnose a problem from home and call in the appropriate staff without driving in oneself late at night or on the weekends,” notes Jim Bradbury, PE, senior mechanical engineer, Heery International, Iowa City.

Even when the energy manager is in the building, remote monitoring capabilities can still be a big time saver. With the capability to make building system adjustments right from one's desktop, staff no longer have to “walk to the trouble spot and incur the disdain and abuse of the user,” says James W. Moler, manager of engineering systems, Turner Healthcare, Brentwood, Tennessee.

“I no longer have to walk up to a room, see if it's hot, walk down to the basement and then go to the chiller room on the other side of the basement,” reports Michael O. Puharic, energy management and HVAC team leader for the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) Passavant Hospital and Passavant Cranberry facility. Although UPMC Passavant had been using BAS since 1992, its hospitals only converted over to a Web-based system four years ago. Puharic particularly likes the software's control programs, also called “live graphic function blocks,” which enable him to dynamically and graphically see the changes taking place as he is working on his systems.

Still getting there

At the same time, Puharic has had to deal with a few bugs since his system upgrade. Because his database is so big, with the requirement that hospitals save a large amount of trending data, he has had trouble transferring all that information to enable the new system to directly access and adjust devices as conveniently as he was able to in the past. Although the capability is there, Puharic is waiting until his campus goes wireless next year, which he says will indirectly eliminate the problem.

Also, Puharic would love to use the system's advanced features such as incoming power monitoring features, demand shedding and running reports. But, understaffed and overworked, he simply doesn't have the time to do more than dabble with these functions for now.

Emphasizing this point, Moler offers an apt analogy: “BAS software has tremendous capabilities to dramatically improve the operation of building systems. However, those capabilities are not being utilized. The state-of-the-art is similar to the design industry's use of CAD as an electronic pencil for about 30 years, and just now stepping onto the threshold of developing its potential through the use of building information modeling (BIM) strategies that integrate the skills and experience of a complete project team.”

Another issue limiting more widespread adoption of Web-based monitoring is the fact that many IT managers are wary of a potential breach in security as a result of connecting these systems to their networks. “Too often it is a challenge to explain that we are not seeking a VPN (virtual private network) connection or remote access to their network, but rather a static IP address for the server that stores and manages the Web pages that make up the user interface,” notes Ross Nelson, account executive, Harris Controls, an authorized Automatic Logic installer in St. Paul, Minnesota.

“It is a very secure system,” adds Steve Tom, “but it's taking a while for the IT staff to get together with the facility management staff on this.”

Steve Kuehn also points out that real-time monitoring requires quite a robust network, quite possibly an issue for an existing campus center with an older infrastructure.

Moreover, the system's first cost can be a stumbling block, notes Jim Bradbury: “If the facility manager is astute enough, he will argue that, in the long run, it will be very cost-effective, but it can be challenging to get the hospital to foot the bill in purchasing and maintaining the software.” Bradbury adds that with regard to system maintenance, smaller, rural hospitals often run into the problem of not having service personnel located near their facility.

Moler summarizes that “the business case is hard to tie to patient outcomes, satisfaction and the larger picture of healthcare cost.”

As the technology becomes more sophisticated, though, it will be easier and more commonplace for the BAS manufacturer and specifying engineer of-record to access the hospital's system remotely, diagnose problems, upload new control algorithms and the like, and negate the issue of physical distance in building maintenance and trouble-shooting.

Ideal for hospitals?

One of Siemens’ clients, Pella Regional Health Center in Pella, Iowa, with three campuses and five clinics, is now undergoing a 105,000-square-foot expansion that will increase its operations space by 50%, but keep the same staff levels, with the aid of an upgraded system-wide enterprise network using Web-based monitoring. In general, Jim Corbett, Pella's plant operations manager/safety and security officer, believes that to remain competitive, remote monitoring will be even more of a critical feature for hospitals. “We will know about any hiccups in the system before it gets too hot or too cold, so patients and staff will never even be aware of it,” he posits. “I think healthcare providers that are going to be successful are going to have to be on top of things on that level with this kind of behind the scenes maintenance.”

Another plus offered by Pella's robust BAS is its ability to keep records, such as the temperature and humidity in the operating rooms, in an automated fashion. “We no longer have to pay staff to go write down this data every day, and they can be freed up to address patient needs,” Corbett notes. This comes in handy when it's time for a Joint Commission audit, with staff pulling up the necessary trending data and records quickly and simply.

Current status

Even though the software developers are somewhat ahead of the healthcare industry's ability to implement all the exciting and helpful features now being incorporated into Web-based BAS, even more integration and capabilities are anticipated as today's hospital operators work to get up to speed. “I think we will see the existing tools being used to a much greater extent with dramatic improvements in IAQ monitoring,” Steve Tom predicts. “I also see a lot of potential in remote diagnostics.”

Indeed, the path to progress is wide open, as technology offers more and more ways to improve the healthcare environment and quality of care. HD

Barbara Horwitz-Bennett is a frequent contributor to publications and organizations dealing with building and construction.

She can be reached at bbennett@bezeqint.net. To comment on this article, visit http://www.healthcaredesignmagazine.com.