February 2008

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The Virtual Building Operations Center
Improving operation through technology

How to Implement (VBOC) without a FMS change-out.

George B. Huettel, PE, President
Cyrus Technologies, Inc. 

Building Owners, Developers, Facility Staff and Property Managers who are responsible for the construction and operations of multiple building portfolios can gain tremendous benefit from being able to manage, view and report operational data from a single web portal. The costs of constructing and maintaining facilities including energy, utilities, electrical and HVAC systems, including the costs of tenant retention, is ever increasing. Leveraging technology to control these costs is more critical now than ever before. The good news is that many companies are marketing solutions that can greatly assist with these issues using the latest web and IT technologies.

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Typically, a standard Facility Management System (FMS) provides tools to monitor, manage and control the costs of operation of a single property, whether it is a commercial office, institution, school, university or even a residential high rise. These systems, which were introduced in the late 1980’s early 1990’s as microprocessor based solutions, are pretty much standard requirements for most new construction and renovation projects today. And, to most building owners and developers, these systems represent state of the art technology, in part because they allow the facility manager to use the tools available to operate the building as efficiently as possible.

The problems arise when you are a portfolio manager, or building owner, responsible for the efficiency and bottom line performance of multiple facilities simultaneously. Until now, the very nature of the single location FMS technology and the inherent procurement and implementation process has made it difficult, if not impossible, to aggregate data from dissimilar systems; however, the potential for improved operational decision making is enormous. And after all, how does one generate bottom line performance without the ability to collect and measure performance metrics and make the best decisions possible.

You see, each manufacturer’s FMS software uses different tools to collect data and create trend graphs and reports. Most of these systems provide a means to export data to popular software such as Excel; however, the process required to generate the aggregated reports to do quick, effective analysis is simply more than the typical facility engineer has time to spend. Therefore, the only way to accomplish aggregation of data using the typical FMS is to sole source that vendor. And in today’s competitive environment, that is problematic from a first cost construction perspective.

So why even bother with all of this? Aggregating your buildings together into one common monitoring and control data environment is not just a great idea, it’s a necessity in today’s competitive environment. How does one determine which facility in their portfolio is their worst energy offender, you know, the one operating at the highest energy cost per square foot? How do they determine which facility is providing the best tenant comfort? How do we unlock the clues to tell us why two buildings in the same geographical region are so dissimilar in operating costs? How does one implement a global energy control strategy or a common scheduling strategy across the dissimilar FMS technologies? These questions, and many more, can be asked and answered by aggregating data from the various facilities already collected by a typical FMS.

Now there is some really good news. Did you know that you can migrate towards this aggregation by implementing a Virtual Building Operations Center (VBOC) without a wholesale FMS change-out, without sole-sourcing your FMS technology and without the significant up front costs of servers and software?

It’s true. The increasing convergence of traditional Facility Management Systems technology with established Information Technology coupled with a few simple changes in your operational procedures can create the foundation to take small steps towards an aggregated VBOC. Therefore, you can tailor the migration of your portfolio to meet your most immediate needs first and capture the low hanging fruit. Additionally, the technology available allows one to tap into operational budgets to fund the VBOC concept instead of significantly burdening capital appropriation budgets.

Let’s assume that collecting data from your portfolio of buildings, all with different FMS technologies, to create an aggregated reporting environment is your first priority. There are several sources for what is known as an “On-Demand” solution. The concept of On-Demand means that the software side of the solution is “Hosted” from a remote server facility, so ownership does not need to invest in the hardware and software platform needed to benefit from these systems. There are no long term costs associated with server maintenance or software upgrades, and access to your data and reports is 24x7 from literally anywhere in the world.

To get started, there are relatively inexpensive one-time cost hardware requirements that must be installed in the facility to provide access to the FMS data. Once these are completed, the basic foundation is in place to move forward with the On-Demand platform. And, this is the essence of the Virtual Building Operations Center, or VBOC. On-line, on-demand virtual worlds of data and reporting analysis becomes reality, helping those responsible make the required decisions to save money, improve efficiency, retain tenants (through lower costs and improved comfort) and greatly impact the bottom line of any operation.

You may wish to create a simple, centralized platform for monitoring the health of your facilities electrical and mechanical systems. The same Inexpensive enterprise VBOC solution platform that was implemented to provide access to information for reporting and decisions making, is also able to generate and manage critical alarms from various equipment. The performance of these electrical and mechanical systems often degrades over time, ever so slightly, and their inefficiencies go unnoticed for months, even years. Using the VBOC to set alarm levels for various performance parameters permits the manager to identify and capture the potential wasted energy at a much earlier point in time. Remember, keeping a keen eye on the multitude of systems that comprises a single facility, let alone an entire portfolio is a daunting task. The VBOC can perform those tasks automatically, creating new concepts for the sustainability of buildings.

Or, you may want the VBOC solution to actually take control. With the higher level of data reporting and decision making coupled with the improved alarm management of critical data, building profiles can be created that establish the highest efficiency of operation for a given set of environmental parameters. For example, the utility rate structure that varies at night versus during the day, or even seasonally, can be compared to the operational dynamics of the building at different climatic conditions. These difference scenarios can be predicted to a high degree of reliability, can be profiled, and then scheduled to be downloaded into the facility’s operational parameters. Again, imagine the time, effort and cost associated with performing these functions manually across a portfolio of buildings. It’s just not done with today’s traditional FMS technology.

In the past, there were valid reasons why an enterprise approach to BAS was not the best idea. Accessing the building automation system from the enterprise was difficult, costly and offered limited functionality. Security of data on the enterprise and the security of critical mechanical systems generated concern without an acceptable resolution. Today, the same standards of “best practices” that are being employed by financial and medical institutions to integrate with the enterprise in their respective environments are now available for the Virtual Building Operations Center. Several software and hardware vendors are offering proven solutions.

Some of the most popular building automation systems being installed today already have these enterprise level integration capabilities included, allowing implementation into an enterprise data warehouse a relatively simple endeavor with the right direction and talent. While other older control systems are not as simple, they are far from being too difficult to consider and certainly do not require the owner to change the existing automation system. Many of these older systems can be accessed through gateway devices or servers that offer standard IT interoperability on the Wide Area Network (WAN) side and intricate driver support on the Local Area Network (LAN) control side. By employing the standard interfaces on the WAN side of multiple facilities like the newer OBIX technology and solid integration of the local control side within each respective facility, one can establish the fundamental platform for enterprise integration of your portfolio. Once established, your VBOC can grow at a pace dictated by your needs and budget.

For example, perhaps you are focused on developing a common energy management dashboard for each of your buildings without immediately changing your current methods of facility management. You can start with an outbound-only approach at first. Set all of your facilities to report sensor measurements, alarms, events, etc. to a centralized data warehouse which uses good online analytical services. With this approach, you can start collecting and analyzing data without the need to address control logic or command centric network security. Even though you are only collecting data, you will have put all the necessary pieces in place to move to the next step when you are ready.

What is that next step? Basically, it is the implementation of management and control for your multiple facilities from the VBOC. Now that you have analyzed your costs and identified the worst offenders, you are now able to reduce costs by applying the true value of the enterprise platform to those dissimilar BAS without changing BAS hardware. This is accomplished by creating a common method of operating the basic system functions for the facilities in the portfolio and establishing a durable competitive environment for expansions and vendor services. Separation of the basic operational activities like scheduling, alarm management, occupant override and equipment monitoring from the core control sequences draws a clear line of responsibility between the enterprise and the BAS. This clear definition of responsibility allows the portfolio or property manager to “internalize” the enterprise functions and become less dependent upon vendors, manufacturers or equipment suppliers for building operations. The benefits of this structure can be far reaching and include not only savings in first costs during construction but in longer term life cycle costs of service, maintenance and upgrades.

The next step can also include “pushing” some services normally reserved for the facility engineer out to the tenant. The user interface (UI) associated with a VBOC uses web tools that are more commonly found in true enterprise systems, like reservation systems for airlines and auto rentals. Since these UIs are much less complicated than the typical BAS, building tenants can find themselves comfortably requesting (or even making) system scheduling changes, inquiring about the comfort levels in their space or even initiating a work order request for building maintenance. Now the value of the VBOC extends into the tenant space and life cycle costs continue to improve by realizing manpower savings in the facility management departments.

What about the cost justification side of the VBOC? Let’s first assume that the facility manager or building owner has installed a properly operating FMS using what we’ll call currently accepted technology. That is, the system has all the required features to provide acceptable standards of operation for electrical and mechanical systems along a reasonably good method for user interaction, the “user interface”. At this point, the manager or owner has most likely extracted 50% to 60% of the available energy waste of a typical facility. So we’re on to capture the remaining costs and waste of operating a facility in today’s competitive environment.

And that means that you need to look deeper for the hidden costs of building operations which includes those intangibles we spoke of including manpower, energy and tenant retention. The costs of manpower to provide even some of the potential available with the VBOC can be upwards to $50,000 to $100,000 per year. These are people that possess the skills of truly comprehending the proper efficient operations of systems in the building. It is unlikely that one can afford to dedicate these skills to a single facility; therefore, one must apply their expertise across the portfolio to be assured a reasonable ROI. The VBOC is the only way to accomplish that, and increase the effectiveness of manpower utilization at the same time. So manpower savings is apparent, and can probably be estimated at one individual for every 5 buildings, or more.

Regarding reduction of energy costs, it is reasonable to assume that the last 15% to 20% of energy waste in a facility cannot be captured without the enhanced data collection, reporting and decision making available with the VBOC. Let’s take a look at a 100,000 square foot building with an annual energy budget of $2.00 per square foot. Implementation of a VBOC to monitor, report and control as many as 500 data points could be as little as $15,000 over three years. The potential costs savings at 15% is $30,000 annually. It is this level of cost benefit that makes the VBOC a reality for the building owner.

Finally, the ability to retain tenants for the long term in a facility represents a considerable cost savings. The costs of attracting new tenants include the sales costs associated with marketing and closing the prospective tenant. Added costs include the physical improvement to the tenant spaces. An extension of just one year can make a considerable impact to the operational bottom line. How does the VBOC help? Tenants are getting more and more sophisticated. They prefer to have control over their own tenant spaces, which includes setting temperature levels and making their own HVAC and Lighting schedules. The VBOC not only permits these activities to be performed by the tenant without potential disruption of the base operating programs establish by the FMS, they also track the activity and provide a simple, cost effective means of billing the tenant for the added services they enjoy.

The concept of the Virtual Building Operations Center has arrived and is complete with benefits that include cost savings, energy savings, manpower savings, sustainability and enhanced tenant services. The convergence of the BAS space with the IT space has made this giant leap forward possible. The best part of the story is that virtually anyone can implement a VBOC with minimal up front costs and maximum leverage of their current investments.

About Cyrus Technologies, Inc.
Cyrus Technologies, Inc. is an independent systems integrator offering building owners and managers integrated networked solutions to make buildings safer, smarter and more efficient to operate. Our extensive experience includes multi-building, web-based wide area network application deployment including migration of proprietary FMS platforms to open protocols. Cyrus Technologies, Inc. can provide owners access to newer technologies and more cost-effective solutions.


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