HVAC Trends: Rejuvenating HVAC

By Brian Kraemer

Published in the January 2006 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

Keeping employees comfortable at work is one of the primary responsibilities of the facility manager. From making sure that everyone feels safe to keeping the property clean, facility managers are assigned the task of taking care of potential issues before problems surface. In order to fulfill this duty, facility managers need to research new products and procedures before incorporating them into a building; all the while trying to reduce costs and increase bottom line profitability whenever possible.

Starting with the HVAC system, facility managers have the ability to address the needs of the company, building, and employees before anyone knows a problem must be handled. While not necessarily considered a critical business system—like a server or telephone switchboard—a poor HVAC system will cause nearly as many personnel problems as having power shut down or losing e-mail capabilities for a day.

The best option, then, is to become proactive. Rather than being reactionary—waiting for a problem to occur and then responding—an aggressive campaign to renovate, restore, and rejuvenate HVAC systems will help keep a building operating at its maximum capability.

Keeping On Top Of The Technology

The HVAC system offers facility managers the opportunity to mesh several different technologies, resulting in the creation of create something of a hybrid system. The facility management department can team with the information technology department and realize a building monitoring program that will allow everyone to keep a closer eye on the building through real time updates. This gives facility staffers better knowledge of what is happening in the bowels of a building at any given time. [For more information on integration, see “The Benefits of Integration” by Mike DeNamur.]

“This convergence has implications in all systems and applications,” says Terry Hoffman, director, system technology marketing at Milwaukee, WI-based Johnson Controls. “Historically, wireless technology has fit into this bucket because the IT department usually takes responsibility for evaluating all wireless applications to be installed. Enterprise applications are also a hot topic, and with more CIOs understanding the importance of building systems information as a key item required for effective management of the business, this area will grow quickly.”

To achieve this marriage of systems and technologies, facility managers have to be the pioneers. While, as Hoffman says, CIOs are beginning to understand the importance of building operations, the onus of communicating the need to automate falls on the shoulders of the facility manager.

Making the need for this integration a priority can be accomplished by putting together a well thought out proposal. Rather than just approaching a C-level executive and asking for money, facility managers need to make the bottom line benefits felt and known. Explaining how the occupants, machinery, and overall well being of the building will be affected can make all the difference. Specifically, the reduced maintenance costs paired with fewer hours of manpower should begin to make the idea of automation more appealing.

“The keys to a successful automated HVAC system include having a design that is doable, a contractor who is reliable and provides timely technical support, and dedicated facility staffers who are trained to understand the control system,” says Terry Townsend, P.E., ASHRAE president-elect.

This means that if properly installed and operated, an automated system will be much more cost effective than a more traditional system.

“Additionally, the HVAC systems of the near future will be totally Internet accessible, easily controlled, and interactive for facility managers via handheld components from anywhere in the world,” Townsend continues. This type of system will allow facility staff to stay a step ahead of potential problems. Real time updates will keep facility managers in touch with their system, its problems, and future maintenance.

A Practical Application

With a change of philosophy comes a change in the basic premises. By embracing automation, facility management teams may want to look into new air distribution conventions.

Underfloor air distribution (UFAD) can provide occupants with a more comfortable work environment in terms of temperature, while also reducing the difficulty of installing new technologies and even addressing churn rates. When paired with a new automation system, UFAD can help keep the building comfortable and efficient.

Additionally, these new air handling and monitoring technologies can feed directly into mold reduction efforts and meet ASHRAE and Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) criteria. By designing an automated system with specific environmental issues in mind, a facility manager can take into account the cradle to cradle design philosophy and earn valuable LEED credits.

Photo: York

Air is usually handled in a building in a top down manner. That means air circulates through the HVAC system into ducts. Those ducts are usually hung from the ceiling and hidden by a drop ceiling of some type. The air is then pushed down from the ceiling through a duct and into the habitable zone of the office. UFAD systems, on the other hand, deliver fresh air in a bottom up fashion.

These systems should make a great deal of sense to a facility manager. As air heats up it rises, meaning that the temperature of an office will be cooler near the floor than it will be by the ceiling. Less energy will be required in this type of a system, because cooler air can initially be pumped into the office. As it mixes with the ambient air, it will heat up and rise, which will keep the temperature in the office consistent without being too hot or cold.

Perhaps just as importantly, however, is the effect that UFADs have on churn in the office. Because the HVAC and data systems run basically side by side under the floor, the time and cost to move an employee can be significantly reduced.

“UFAD systems are particularly beneficial in facilities with high churn rates, because UFADs can be quickly and easily reconfigured to meet changing facility use patterns,” says Mike Duguid, communications manager for York, PA-based York.

Installing this type of system is not always an option in every facility. Depending on the size and scope of a retrofit, it can be challenging. UFADs are more easily realized in a new construction or a major overhaul of a building.

The underfloor air distribution is installed between the structural concrete slab and the underside of a raised floor system. This space can then serve many purposes. In addition to installing the HVAC system running the floor, computer wiring and voice and data cabling can be configured to run side by side.

UFAD can provide better ventilation, heating, and cooling to the occupants of the office, and customization is still possible.

The underfloor system can be installed in zones, so groups of employees are able to have direct management of the temperature of their zone. This kind of control can reduce employee complaints about temperature and enable facility departments to address other urgent matters.

Even if the move is from a cubicle to a private office, facility staffers can open the floor, get the necessary cables or information, and reroute it to the new location. After that, the move is nearly finished.

By capitalizing on space that is already available, facility managers can use what is under the raised flooring to increase HVAC efficiency and reduce churn times. This, when coupled with an automated building system, may reduce energy costs and directly impact the bottom line of the company.

Sustaining HVAC

Integration of building automation into an existing or newly constructed building is beneficial not only because it creates a modern building, but also because it addresses some of the most pressing concerns of the industry: sustainability and environmentalism.

“The most pressing topic is energy,” says Linda McDaid, market manager for Minneapolis, MN-based Honeywell Building Systems. “Owners and facility managers are asking, ‘how can my systems help me reduce energy and save money?’ The answer is by monitoring energy consumption to help make quick, effective decisions when something seems out of balance or appears to be using more energy than it should.”

Monitoring the system in such a way can be easily accomplished once the initial switch has been made from a traditional system to an automated one.

“HVAC systems are typically monitored at a front end computer—usually in the facility manager’s office,” McDaid continues.

This system can then be patched into a cell phone, PDA, or other mobile device of a facility manager’s choice. This allows for continuous monitoring of energy use, which, in turn, can help identify energy spikes and lulls.

If, for example, a facility manager programs the system so that once energy usage exceeds a certain level a message is sent to his or her PDA, a record of peak usage can be determined. If peak energy use occurs in the morning when employees are first arriving at work, the facility staff can troubleshoot the problem to reduce the amount of energy being consumed by pursuing other avenues. However, a system that has not been modernized will most likely be unable to recognize and chart the problem, and high energy bills could continue to be a mystery to the company.

“Integrated building automation and HVAC systems will give facility managers far better control and information with which to make better operational decisions,” says Duguid.

“ASHRAE is developing guidance on the proper way to evaluate the performance of efficient, healthy, and comfortable buildings, both new and existing,” adds Townsend.

In the near future facility managers can look to ASHRAE to publish new standards discussing how to become more energy efficient. The Advance Energy Design Guide Series will provide a resource that facility managers can turn to for guidance on how to manage sustainable buildings. The series will detail how to achieve 30%, 50%, and 70% toward a net-zero energy use facility.

If a facility manager is willing to be open to new ideas, his or her building will stay in good condition. By taking advantage of new technology problems can be addressed before they become major issues.

Information for this article was compiled through interviews with Duguid, Townsend, Hoffman, and McDaid. For more information on underfloor air distribution, visit www.cbe.berkeley.edu.