By André Marino
Between emissions regulations, tenant demands, and a precarious market, commercial real estate owners face enormous pressure to optimize building performance and reduce operating costs. The U.S. Department of Energy’s (DoE) HVAC requirements and the EU’s Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBR) lay out strict deadlines for compliance with net-zero goals. Commercial property teams also feel the heat from tenants, two-thirds of whom have requested improvements in comfort-related issues, such as temperature or after-hours HVAC operation. Skyrocketing office vacancy rates in some markets exacerbate the challenge of keeping costs down.
Luckily, the demands of regulators and tenants often dovetail with owners’ need for lower operating costs, a convergence that represents great opportunity.
Connected Devices, Control Systems Form Digital Backbone Of Efficient Buildings
In many cases, building owners operate older facilities with aging infrastructures. Stakeholders must retrofit these buildings to comply with regulations and keep tenants comfortable, healthy, and happy. In the past, a conversation about achieving sustainability and people centricity was one of tradeoffs. Today, however, building owners have at their disposal an array of technology that can address regulatory, tenant and long-term-operating-cost concerns in one fell swoop.
Many building owners understand how crucial these improvements are. By 2025, 80% or more owners plan to implement technologies to enhance sustainability and environmental control, predictive facility management and digital connectivity and infrastructure. Connected smart room sensors deliver the data and control needed to improve efficiency, health, and comfort.
By integrating connected IoT devices with mechanical and electrical systems, such as HVAC, operators can gain control over different building areas through one central system. Moreover, a centralized operating system for the entire building also lets tenants customize everything from air to lighting levels, while allowing the operations team to easily monitor and control power, HVAC and automation systems.
Automated and optimized HVAC systems will be central to building operators’ retrofits. Sensors that monitor room or zone occupancy allow modern HVAC systems to go from a setting with constant air volume to a demand-controlled ventilation (DCV) approach. It’s easy to see how demand-controlled climate control will keep tenants happy. The data from IoT-enabled equipment also provides visibility into how, where and when energy is consumed by an HVAC system, allowing for more precise usage.
More precise demand-driven air flow from HVAC systems will help buildings use energy more efficiently. More efficient energy use helps buildings meet the expectations of regulations like the DoE’s HVAC standards and EPBR, which raise energy-efficiency requirements or mandate building owners implement automation and controls.
Intelligent technologies allow building owners to adapt faster to changing environments
The combination of IoT and mechanical and electrical systems doesn’t stop at demand-controlled ventilation, either. AI-enabled platforms change the paradigm by fine-tuning HVAC systems to the nth degree. Building owners can pass HVAC data, along with energy-load profiles, lighting, temperature and other parameters, through algorithms that can optimize space usage based on occupancy trends, satisfying certification and regulatory requirements simultaneously.
Traditionally, companies have experienced their largest hurdles with AI when faced with the difficulty and complications of new hardware installation. This can be challenging from a skilled labor perspective, not to mention the cost of additional equipment. With the latest IoT solutions, and edge technology advancing with web services, however, most existing buildings can become AI enabled with limited incremental investments through edge technology.
Fundamentally, every facility manager wants to know “why AI” and how it can be effectively used to better manage their buildings.
AI solves for recurring FM challenges thanks to its ability to deliver at the highest performance levels without need for highly skilled-tech dependency and continuously adapt to changing nature of buildings. AI plays a huge role in the path to net-zero buildings, and can help facility managers streamline:
- High performance — expectations are becoming aggressive from shareholders, tenants and employees; it’s not only good enough to be energy-aware, or just analyze with analytics, but the need for continuous tuning of the system to extract most efficiency is growing.
- Skilled-tech shortage — many small sites can’t afford to have on-site tech, and for large sites, there can be an overwhelming set of challenges which need high degree of automation to be effective.
- Evolving systems — the clock-cycle of change has increased rapidly; building-usage is changing in a more dynamic way and systems need AI to keep up with these changes.
AI gives facilities managers the power of proactivity. Most DCV approaches use sensors to measure CO2 levels, a proxy for room occupancy. When carbon dioxide levels reach a threshold, the HVAC system turns on, but it takes time for the air to circulate, rendering occupants potentially uncomfortable in the process. By counting the total number of people in the room and pairing that data with other sensors, AI can deliver proactive HVAC operation that improves air quality, optimizes comfort, and introduces energy savings because systems run according to actual room usage.
AI can also highlight areas that are difficult or even near impossible to notice because of its speed and utility as a technology. AI in facilities draws significance from accurately responding to the patterns of the occupants and external factors, like weather forecasts for example. AI can automate the heating and cooling of spaces when needed, and with IoT technology, can adapt to external factors like weather to ensure energy use is optimized and balanced with occupant comfort.
The Future Of Buildings Is Efficient, Sustainable And Human Centric
In the decade to come AI, IoT and their integration with building systems like HVAC will prove pivotal for building efficiency, comfort and operating costs. Sensor-enabled HVAC enables proactive, automated, and customized building environments based on actual occupancy and usage trends. Systems optimized for use help owners comply with regulations and certifications that require more efficient energy usage. More efficient buildings, in turn, help owners realize reduced operating costs, even in tight markets. For example, Energy Star estimates that a 10% reduction in energy use translates to a 1.5 percent increase in net operating income.
When employees of retrofit buildings enter the facility, everything works seamlessly without anyone having to flip a switch. Lights turn on, sunshades retract, and HVAC systems adjust the temperature while avoiding wasted energy, all because the building contains IoT sensors and utilizes devices designed to deliver the best experience possible.
The convergence of digital technologies with mechanical systems will unlock a new era of advanced environmental controls that enhance the tenant experience and align building owner costs with occupant needs and regulatory requirements. As technology and humans continue to come together, building owners can leverage IoT and other intelligent technologies to create a future where the occupant experience is unique, comfortable, and sustainable.
Marino is the Senior Vice President of Digital Buildings Line of Business at Schneider Electric, the global leader in the digital transformation of energy management and automation. He is an electrical and telco engineer with over 20 years of experience in software and industrial automation. He has been with Schneider Electric since 2010 and has held a wide variety of global senior management positions in the Industry and Automation Business Unit.