Whether it's for better comfort management, increased operational efficiencies, or remote monitoring and diagnostics, the reasons for hospitals to opt for an advanced, wireless building automation system (BAS) seem to be increasing. “Facilities are realizing that a robust, stable, and scalable wireless infrastructure is a utility, not an optional service,” says Von Lambert, head of the Omaha-based HDR Architecture's Technology Consulting Group.

“A BAS is essential,” agrees Mark Clark, LEED AP, southwest region manager, Automated Logic, Los Angeles, “in that it provides the operator with dynamic comfort grade for each controlled zone of the facility, as well as for each floor and each building” (figure 1).

Sophisticated environmental controls, such as zoned ventilation and set occupancy schedules, were incorporated into a new BAS system at Chicago's Advocate Good Samaritan South, designed by OWP/P

Beyond comfort management, however-as crucial as it is-are the new contributions of building automation systems to efficient operation and energy use. “Energy reporting in these systems looks at all energy use, demand, and even water consumption in a browser-accessed, graphical format that provides all of the record keeping and understanding necessary to document and properly operate the facility,” says Clark (figure 2).

This BAS screen capture shows building performance data for one of multiple facilities nationwide

It goes still further: a BAS's ability to access local weather and utility pricing data enables it to integrate such data, says Lambert, enabling operations to proactively manage energy use. This can lead to, among other things, reduced unplanned chiller starts that impact demand charges.

Yet another significant change brought about by modern building automation systems has been in the area of demand control-the practice of shedding nonessential loads during peak demand times to save on energy costs. “Historically, healthcare facilities have considered much, if not all, of their load as critical and inappropriate for demand control action,” notes Clark. “However, the latest in demand control is called Automated Demand Response [ADR], where, through a Web services connection with a utility, the BAS automatically receives a signal to curtail designated load. While traditional demand control strategies have ignored occupant comfort, the ADR function allows the facilities to not only decide which loads to adjust when, but to determine the degree of response in any controlled zone with incremental set point adjustment as needed.”

Lambert goes on to list a number of other functional advantages of modern building automation systems, including:

  • third-party data collection for process validation;

  • auto-logging for documentation to satisfy regulatory agency requirements;

  • automatic e-mail generation of reports for management use;

  • BAS initiation of pager or telephone messages to responsible parties for postalarm intervention, including escalation (sequential notification of management levels until acknowledgment) and an audit trail; and

  • software-configured programs for self-learning adaptive control, day and/or time resets, duty cycling (geared to the period of time when the device operates most cost-effectively), and weekend or holiday exceptions.

New role: Remote diagnostics

“Most newer systems come with the ability to perform diagnostics and repair from any worldwide remote location,” says Rosalyn Ryan, ACHE, LEED AP, national healthcare business development director, OWP/P, Chicago. “This makes the information more accessible to anyone, anywhere in the world.”

Now that manufacturers, consultants, and owners can program, configure, and troubleshoot remotely, “rural hospitals have greater justification for installing advanced systems, because the resources for programming and evaluation of systems information do not have to be local or travel to the site,” says Terry Hoffmann, BAS marketing, Johnson Controls, Milwaukee. Instead, the consulting engineer or remote technician can access identical views and function as the on-site engineer, thereby allowing them to work together on troubleshooting and diagnostics.

According to Clark, the advantages of remote access go beyond improving basic building management functions. “Today's remote access capability goes well beyond this to achieve other results that are important to that site, such as sequences of operation modification, downloading new controller programs, and graphics updates.”

Training and utilization

Advanced features are one thing-actually using them in optimal fashion is quite another. Says Ryan, “Utilizing all of the system functions becomes a company-wide effort involving every department and every individual who interfaces with the hospital. It is, in fact, a very complicated process.” In short, proper training and support are essential.

“We find that the best training scenario is when professional building managers and operators have a chance to get together in a learning environment conducive to sharing ideas and best practices,” says Hoffmann. “It's not learning how to use the automation system as much as it's learning how to apply the features that are offered to achieve the best results from the equipment that exists in the building, based on its age, use, and location.”

Hoffmann also believes that the freedom to interface with and operate the facility from a personal laptop, pocket PC, or even 3G phone enables operations personnel to more fully utilize the BAS. “I see our facility manager running the building systems in the elevator, the cafeteria, and the hallways, in addition to his office. Being tethered to a stationary device is a thing of the past.”

According to Lambert, credit goes to BAS suppliers who are constantly working on more user-friendly interfaces, programming languages and assist modules to aid operator functionality and understanding. But he emphasizes the importance of facilities investing the proper time and energy for optimal results. “Facility management must allow for training and time allotted for experimentation to enable BAS users to be more competent with systems. Increased utilization of advanced system functions only comes with time and operator confidence, and this will ultimately result in lower energy and operational costs.”

Return on investment

Speaking of which, there is the issue of first cost, which actually has been decreasing as more efficient systems are being designed, says Ryan. Hoffmann adds, “First cost is always a problem if the organization is not familiar with the extent of the benefits that systems have to offer. Wireless options that have been refined in the last year or two have helped to reduce first costs, especially in existing buildings where pulling wires is costly or prohibitive due to the type of construction or the presence of hazardous materials-costs that might be avoided with a wireless installation.”

Similarly, electrical submetering opportunities have exponentially increased, as wireless systems can now connect to these end points, whereas before, bearing the cost of running cable to all of the input devices and finding space for that wiring weren't practical.

Concludes Ryan, “The convenience and access to more information allows for shorter reaction times that end up saving even more money in operations by reducing the cost of malfunctions over the life of the building.”

Addressing security

Although building owners and IT managers have been quick to bring up security concerns regarding wireless building automation systems, these concerns have begun to modify. “Probably the biggest area of improvement in building automation systems has been in the security area,” claims Ryan. “There are many more firewall and protection protocols for the newer versions versus what was available when the technology first appeared.”

At the same time, Ryan admits, “There are still some very definite security issues that need to be addressed. Most of this concern is being addressed by development of redundant systems and concurrent operations that can be processed via broadband.”

Further explaining the issue of redundancy, Colin Moar, northwest region commissioning director for Heery International, Portland, notes, “Building automation systems that use mesh technology are much more reliable than other means, due to the availability of multiple redundant self-healing data paths, which will likely become the industry standard for wireless applications.” In addition, Moar points out that BAS data is encrypted and can only be understood by the BAS, presenting a very difficult challenge for would-be hackers.

“Some of the most important progress in this area has come from communicating the security features that exist with the facility's IT department,” Hoffmann notes. “We have found that writing separate documents that address the concerns of the IT people directly solves a great deal of the problems-because most of them never existed.”

Looking forward

Based upon today's competitive environment and the emphasis on patient comfort, building automation systems in hospitals are poised to grow and thrive. As Clark points out, “Patient comfort is what it's all about. Whether it is to provide the proper healing environment or to make them comfortable during their time there, effective control and monitoring of patient comfort is a high priority” (figure 3).

Second- and third-generation mobile wireless devices can provide vital information, including environmental data

As for the need to run an efficient, cost-effective institution, Ryan says, “We are in an economy that will demand performance efficiencies in order to survive. All smart hospitals recognize the constantly changing landscape of the business of healthcare and are trying to improve their performance and save costs without sacrificing service. Wireless building automation systems, information technology, performance improvement, and diagnostics go hand in hand to streamline operations and provide a higher level of patient care. Anything that moves us toward that goal warrants further exploration and development.” 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.

Sidebar

The Case for Commissioning

While a hospital may have just installed the most state-of-the-art wireless BAS and is gearing up to enjoy all of the efficiencies and conveniences it has to offer, operations can be compromised if the system is not properly commissioned. “I have found that projects that don't incorporate commissioning up-front typically are not working at peak efficiency within the first year or two. It is all too often a cost that gets left out of projects because the owner believes he will save money, when the reverse is true,” says Colin Moar, northwest region commissioning director, Heery International, Portland.

Terry Hoffmann, BAS marketing, Johnson Controls, Milwaukee, agrees: “It is true that commissioning is sometimes neglected for noncritical areas of the hospital due to the need to have the building operational on a specific promised date.” When this happens, inefficiencies are bound to crop up, says Hoffmann-for example, “a pump that is misaligned with a motor is likely to fail sooner than one that has been aligned correctly. It is also less efficient.”

Most of the newer building automation systems do include a commissioning process with their setup. Moreover, the LEED-certification process has helped bring commissioning more into the healthcare design mainstream.

But startup commissioning is not the whole story. According to Rosalyn Ryan, ACHE, LEED AP, national healthcare business development director, OWP/P, Chicago, “The processes involved with implementation and organizational change will have to be checked and rechecked on a consistent basis. As more uses are incorporated into the functions, independent testing should always be part of the process.”

Von Lambert, technology consulting group head, HDR Architecture, Omaha, adds, “Recommissioning is just as important as startup commissioning. It may be completed on a schedule or when the operators feel that certain parts of the system are working but not perfectly.”

All in all, says Hoffman, “Commissioned systems will save money in terms of energy use and equipment longevity.”

Healthcare Design 2009 April;9(4):34-38