Building automation systems are like one half of a building’s brain. They’re the part that tells equipment around the building what to do, the same way that your brain tells your fingers what to do. (The other half of the brain, the part that handles incoming sensory information, is analogous to an energy management system.)
Most people who are unfamiliar with the commercial real estate world think of buildings as static objects. That makes sense: They don’t see the living, breathing routines that make up the daily life of a commercial property. In an average day, lights go on and off, heating and cooling systems adjust the temperature, vents decide how much air to let it, and countless other processes happen that have to be controlled.
A building automation system operates the controls of a building from a central hub, though many modern systems can be remotely controlled through a digital platform or app. The software at the heart of this type of system operates using a logic algorithm to manage controls according to direct inputs and preset conditions, giving rise to the term “smart building.”
A building automation system, or BAS as it is commonly abbreviated, networks and controls almost every major element of a space. A short list of systems automated in the typical smart building might include the following:
- Lighting and other electrical systems
- Plumbing systems
- HVAC systems and rooftop units
- Fire alarms and other emergency systems
- Elevators and other mechanical systems
- Surveillance cameras and other security systems
- Vents and exhaust fans
- VAV Boxes
What does a Building Automation System do?
When it is being used correctly, a smart building is greener, more user-friendly, and less expensive to operate than a regular building.
Some of the ways that this works are obvious. A BAS can be configured to reduce heating or cooling use after tenants go home for the day, for example.
Other uses are a little bit more sophisticated. Some modern building automation systems use machine learning to predict when a room or unit will be out of use and adjust HVAC use accordingly. In large buildings, a BAS can be configured to stagger its daily powering-on program in order to reduce peak load, and as a consequence, energy bills.
Large retail spaces often employ light sensors to detect the level of sunlight entering from rooftop windows, allowing their BAS to adjust their interior lighting use accordingly. Offices may connect simple motion sensors to their BAS to detect when a room is not in use and turn off the lights to conserve energy.
Experts in building automation are finding new areas for resource savings all the time by making use of increasingly sophisticated logic algorithms, better metering and sensors, and novel building design techniques.
What isn’t a Building Automation System?
It’s pretty common for a BAS to be used in conjunction with some form of smart metering or energy management software, but they are not the same. By itself, a BAS provides building management staff with the tools to control a building, but no information about what is going on in that building.
Perhaps the easiest way to understand the difference is to think of your building as a car. An energy management system is the dashboard of your car: it allows you to see all the controls and understand how all components are operating. With this high-level view, you accurately direct your car.
That’s when the building automation system comes in. BAS acts as the steering wheel: you can direct the car by telling it what to do. You can set it on “cruise” mode to drive on autopilot, but you’ll still need to run frequent, necessary checks to make sure everything is working properly.
Your building operates the same way. An energy management software provides an overview of your building operations, with the option to explore a potential problem before it happens. A good EMS is more than a dashboard. It provides you with in depth analytics, real-time alerts and reports, in-software collaboration tools, and advanced customization options. You then use this information to set your building automation system to run most efficiently.
To really get the most out of a BAS, it is important to invest in a diverse array of smart meters and sensors to detect resource use and other relevant data points in real time. The more access a BAS has to data, the better it can fine tune resource allocation in the building throughout the day.
What are the benefits of a Building Automation System?
A modern BAS equipped with appropriate meters and sensors conveys benefits in three main categories: comfort, financial, and environmental.
In terms of tenant comfort, the most obvious benefit from a BAS is temperature regulation. By automating HVAC systems, a BAS can help to avoid frigid and sweltering mornings in the winter and summer, respectively, by powering up temperature control systems before anyone arrives and turning them down after everyone leaves.
Building Automation Systems are also sometimes used to regulate the amount of fresh air that is allowed into a building or to maximize the ratio of natural-to-electric light.
While it’s difficult to measure directly, the impact from increased tenant comfort is an important appeal for modern building automation systems. Building engineers know that a correctly configured BAS can mean the difference between a quiet morning and a morning punctuated by calls about the temperature from your most difficult tenant.
The amount of fresh air is also important. Remember that drowsy feeling everyone gets during afternoon meetings? Chances are, the room is full of carbon dioxide.
A correctly used BAS will generally pay for itself over time in lower utility bills alone. According to one estimate, simply monitoring occupancy and allowing the BAS to adjust HVAC use accordingly results in savings between 10 and 30 percent. Reductions in peak load and other energy use benefits serve to further decrease utility costs.
A building automation system can also help to optimize the use of heavy pieces of equipment, increasing their lifespans and providing more indirect savings.
It is also important to factor in property value increases. Properly managed smart buildings are more comfortable and more environmentally friendly, making them more desirable for certain tenants. This may result in a bump in property value that exceeds the increase from reduced operating costs.
While environmental advantages don’t generally accrue to the building owner directly, as noted above, they can serve to make a property more desirable. Many owners also have a personal interest in maintaining a portfolio of energy efficient buildings.
Buildings operating a BAS tend to have significantly smaller carbon footprints. A building that also includes smart metering for use with its BAS can also use that data to validate its energy usage for regulatory agencies. This opens to door to certifications like ENERGY STAR, Tenant Star, or LEED. Major tenants may also take an interest in these factors for use in their corporate sustainability reporting.