Building Automation, Smart Homes, and Energy Management Systems

What is a smart building, and how can you benefit from building automation?

As “smart” technology advances and device connectivity improves, people are becoming more familiar with the term “smart home”. A smart home or smart building is the practice of using connected devices to control home air conditioning and heating thermostats, lighting, garage door openers, door locks and other appliances in a home via a computer, iPad, or cell phone.

What you may not realize is this technology isn’t so new, it’s actually the little brother of the same concept long used in commercial buildings known as an Energy Management System.

An EMS (Energy Management System) is sometimes referred to as a BAS (Building Automation System), or BMS (Building Management System). The building itself is then referred to as an “intelligent building”, or “smart building”. The name smart home is simply a residential smart building.

In the HVAC industry we refer to any device that acts as the user interface control to a device, or series of devices as “controls” or “control system”. For example; your AC thermostat is a control. Here at Magic Touch Mechanical, we have been designing and installing complex control systems and building automation systems for many years for our clients with commercial buildings and larger residential homes.

Every commercial building and client has different needs and objectives when it comes to their desire to install a control system, therefore we custom design every BMS based on those specific needs. Here is one example:

One of our commercial clients in Sun Lakes (just south of Chandler, AZ) manages a retirement community complete with two golf courses, multiple restaurants, clubhouses, meeting facilities, banquet halls, and office space. The property manager previously managed a large manufacturing facility in Phoenix and was familiar with the energy savings and operational benefits of building management systems. He wanted something that could control and monitor thirty-six HVAC systems from a remote location. He also wanted a BMS with the capability of being expanded at a later date to also control lighting, and plug loads (any electronic device that plugs into a regular wall outlet).

This was actually a relatively basic request for Magic Touch Mechanical as we’ve designed significantly more complex control systems, but there was a catch – he wanted a system where all of the devices could communicate completely wirelessly back to the command module (the brains of the whole system). They did not want to go through the expense or inconvenience of the running wiring throughout a 35,000 square foot building and knew we had recently installed a wireless system just like this in a church near Mesa, AZ.

For this project we decided the most cost effective way to go that had all the wireless, and expandability options the client wanted to add later was a private-label, custom-designed Energy Management System.

We utilized a command center a.k.a. master controller with the ability to control up to one hundred different devices and sensors from one central hub. The user interface is a secure website that can be controlled from any device with an internet connection, from any location, on or offsite and there are no recurring fees to access the website.

For the first part of the HVAC portion of this project, we replaced thirty-five digital programmable thermostats with new smart thermostats. Each new smart thermostat also has a built in wireless transponder / transceiver that enables it to communicate to the next thermostat, and the next one, and so on. This capability is what’s known as wireless mesh communication, or “daisy-chain” communication, and basically makes each thermostat a wireless hot spot for the next one…all of which then communicate back to the master controller / command center.

It was important to create a wireless mesh communication for this client since we were dealing with a large building with thermostats located in many different rooms and areas of the building. Setting up the system in this manner meant we would never have a dead zone or weak signal to one individual thermostat (basically they are stronger together). Also, much like a modern set of Christmas lights, when one bulb goes out it does not affect the rest of the bulbs on the string, if one thermostat should lose a signal from the next it will find a new path with another thermostat.

It’s important to mention that if the client was to lose their internet connection, the thermostats act like a conventional thermostat, and the HVAC units heat and cool normally. When the internet connection is restored, the command center resets itself automatically.

The second part of the HVAC controls for this project was installing duct temperature sensors in the supply air duct of each of the thirty-five units. These temperature sensors were added for two reasons:

  • The main building for this project has twenty foot ceilings. The temperature sensors enable us to see at a glance how well the units are performing. Prior to this system the client may not know for hours or even days if there was a problem with one of the AC units.
  • The EMS we installed has the ability to set up custom e-mail and text alerts. We set up custom alerts that E-mail us and the client if one of the sensors detects a temperature has gotten too high or too low. This allows us to instantly turn off a unit that is experiencing a problem before it creates further damage to other components.

Results and benefits of the Energy Management System in this example

  • Significantly Lower Energy Bills – As much of this building is open to the public, there were MANY people “adjusting” the temperatures on the thermostats. So much so, that there were even cases where one unit was running in cooling, and the one next to it running in heating! Now the property manager is in complete control of the settings.
  • Remote Control from Anywhere – All of the ac units can be controlled individually, all at once, or by groups without ever stepping foot on site or having to go from thermostat to thermostat.
  • Lower Repair Costs – With the ability to set up alerts, we now know instantly if an air conditioner is malfunctioning, and can react quickly before damage to other components happens.
  • Adjust Temperatures in Unoccupied Areas – There are a number of “occupancy sensors” that can control the HVAC, lighting and more. (EX. motion sensors and carbon dioxide sensors – yes people exhaling, to name two examples), however this client chose to control the HVAC by setting up “calendar events”. Unlike a traditional programmable thermostat, the possibilities and schedules are virtually unlimited…and all from a computer screen. Obviously there is huge energy savings from not cooling or heating unoccupied rooms.
  • Eliminate “Vampire” Loads – Vampire loads are devices that use energy even when they’re off. Most people don’t realize that things like computers, televisions, and other appliances around a home or commercial building are still “sucking” energy even when they’re turned off. These vampire loads add up to a lot of money when you consider the energy waste of them all combined. This EMS has the capability of eliminating that energy waste but still having the devices in a state of readiness when needed.

In this article we used the example of a larger scale building management system for a commercial building with a lot of HVAC units, refrigeration, lots of lighting and other plug load appliances just to give you an idea of some of the things possible. That said we barely scratched the surface of what a control system like this can do.

On the other side of the coin, there are plenty of options for people who don’t need something as complex. If you are wondering of your home or business could benefit from building automation…the answer is usually yes!

These systems not only add the convenience of remotely controlling appliances and systems in your home from anywhere and all in one place thanks to the fact that they are hosted online, they add up to big energy savings. In fact, most utility companies (including both APS and SRP here in Arizona) have significant rebates available to encourage their customers to install them!

Would you like to know how much it would cost to install building automation in your commercial building or home? Contact Magic Touch Mechanical today and tell one of our friendly customer service representatives you read all about Building Management Systems and Energy Management Systems on our blog and you want to set up a consultation!