Building owners and managers find plenty to like in today’s commercial controls.
Every summer, Ivey Mechanical would receive three or more calls each week from one of its clients. The hundreds of employees in the five-story building, which serves as a company’s headquarters, routinely complained about the uncomfortably warm temperatures they worked in. This past summer, however, Ivey Mechanical didn’t hear a single complaint, even when temperatures soared.
What changed? Ivey Mechanical had reviewed the 15-year-old building, identified several engineering oversights, and removed equipment that wasn’t functioning correctly or at all. In went new air-handling equipment, configured to offset design shortcomings, and new, more sophisticated controls.
“After 15 years of being uncomfortable every summer, they made the capital available to upgrade their controls—and they’ve been really happy with the results,” says Wade Flannery, service controls engineer for Ivey Mechanical Company, LLC, which is headquartered in Kosciusko, MS., and has 11 locations throughout the Southeast. “The client has recognized a significant improvement in tenant comfort and had a major decrease in utility bills—and now, they also have the ability to monitor the building.”
Most commercial buildings are good candidates for upgraded controls, notes Frank Quintanar, service manager for J&J Air Conditioning in San Jose, CA. “We see it as a good market because a lot of pneumatic controls are still out there, plus the older systems needing upgrading,” he says. “We interview our customers as far as their intentions for the building, and then look at the best options available.” Some customers, for example, want HVAC controls that can be connected to a building management system that also encompasses lighting sensors and an alarm system. Long-term owners—or those aiming for green building certification—may favor installing a new controls system throughout the entire building. Shorter-term investors might prefer a piecemeal approach to lessen the inconvenience to tenants, installing standalone control modules that could later be networked.
Spell out Specifics
For the most part, say Quintanar and Flannery, owners and managers of commercial buildings have a general idea of what controls can do—at least enough to initiate a conversation about system capabilities. What those customers need from HVAC contractors is additional education on specific types of controls available and which ones offer the best fit for a particular property. “That puts the onus on us to constantly educate and train our technicians, because every controls system has its own niche or connection capabilities,” says Quintanar, noting that J&J Air Conditioning frequently hosts in-house presentations by vendors and always requests supporting data to share with customers. “In many cases, controls are expensive so you also have to educate technicians about the rebates available—another tool they can provide to customers.”
These benefits resonate most with commercial customers when they consider installing or upgrading controls
Tenant comfort. Many of Ivey Mechanical’s customers are property management companies that aren’t responsible for paying a building’s electric bill. To make their tenants comfortable and therefore happy, they focus on keeping the indoor environment from becoming too hot or too cold.
For preventive maintenance customers that establish an Internet connection to their controls system, Ivey Mechanical can review the HVAC system’s operation remotely and, from afar, adjust a set point or diagnose the problem when a temperature complaint is received. Flannery reports, “We can resolve a good portion of problems remotely, without charging the customer. At the least, we can save the property owner a couple hours’ worth of on-site labor because we can direct our service tech to the right area, based on the symptoms.”
Some systems have an email alert component—they automatically send an email when a temperature sensor reaches a pre-set alarm point. “Common trigger points are supplier temperature, return air temperature, and hot water temperature if it’s a boiler system,” says Quintanar. “When we get the alarm, we’ll try to make the repair online to reduce the downtime and tenant discomfort.”
Energy efficiency. Public facilities with lean budgets, such as libraries and schools, naturally look to commercial controls to monitor and help keep operating costs in check. But commercial buildings are in the business of generating profits for owners, making them equally interested in reducing utility costs.
J&J Air Conditioning, for example, services one office building that originally had multiple zones controlled by one thermostat. Leases for the multiple-tenant building called for HVAC usage between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. When the monthly energy bill began rising, the property management team suspected a tenant was engaging the HVAC system after hours—but had no way of determining which tenant was responsible. J&J Air Conditioning installed a wireless control system that added temperature sensors to and tracks usage in all the offices. The system also triggers an alarm if a thermostat within an office is adjusted outside a pre-set range.
“The new controls system was definitely a benefit to the owners, who knew exactly what suite engaged in after-hours usage and could then be billed for it,” says Quintanar. Installation of the wireless system also resulted in better system performance and improved tenant comfort throughout the building. “With more averaging sensors to give the system a better idea of temperatures, outside of just the thermostat locations, there was a noticeable reduction in the number of nuisance service calls about temperature,” he adds.
Quality control. Commercial controls are a boon for facilities that must maintain and operate within strict parameters. Hospitals, for example, must record the temperature and humidity within operating rooms as part of their accreditation process. For each of its hospital clients, Ivey Mechanical builds a customized platform for the ongoing monitoring and documentation of conditions in operating rooms; each hospital can then extract its data in graphical form to fulfill submission requirements.
“System monitoring can also give a manufacturing facility precise control of equipment and stop nearly all breakdowns,” says Wade Flannery. “That allows the manufacturer to either win or maintain contracts over competitors.” As an example, he points to a large factory that uses a chilled water process in the manufacturing of automotive parts. Until recently, a breakdown in the chilling system would shut down the production line and entail sending someone to the factory’s basement to adjust an assortment of knobs and levers. “That created a lot of downtime,” notes Flannery, “and it also created quality concerns from the supplier.”
Ivey Mechanical’s solution was to design two separate but identical chilled water systems, with one serving as the back-up while the other is in operation. The redundant systems were installed a year apart, then connected. If a problem with the chilled water occurs on the production line, the controls automatically activate a seamless transition to the standby system. The new controls also monitor and display the water temperature so employees can easily spot and address potential problems.
“We put in variable frequency drives so they’re able to run the pumps at an efficient speed, based on demand, and instead of multiple chillers we’re now down to one chiller,” Flannery explains. “Each system is using less energy than the old configuration, so there’s energy savings and an increase in reliability—and nobody has to go down the basement anymore.” And now, thanks to the new controls, the supplier has more confidence in the manufacturing facility’s ability to consistently provide parts that meet strict product specifications.