The heat is on! Boosting energy efficiency in heating and HVAC

Matt Wallace, Account Manager, Specification (BMS/EMS) at Schneider Electric

Britain can do better when it comes to heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC). Despite great strides in diversifying the country’s energy sources and stabilising the grid, endpoint consumption continues to be a bugbear. Recent analysis from Carbon Brief shows that, while the UK is doing well in reducing overall consumption, the country is let down by a lack of progress in heating efficiency.

As the seasons change, businesses will waste millions in energy costs and generate tonnes of harmful emissions. The cause is wasteful HVAC practices within their built environments, such as heating and cooling underutilised building spaces or poor control strategies that do not make effective use of latest technologies. Unless we can find better ways to be more efficient, the UK stands little chance of meeting its climate targets.

The challenge is not as great as it first appears. Businesses can cut capital costs and, at the same time, reduce operational cost and risk by taking a smarter, more integrated approach to HVAC and building management.

However, to achieve this there must be more than an industry-wide rethink of building control philosophies in relation to HVAC. There must also be a greater appreciation of the building management system (BMS) as a valuable tool to connect data from traditionally disparate building systems to create tangible benefits to the end user, owner and operator. The overall operational efficiency of buildings beyond capital schemes is often an afterthought. Only once the right connected infrastructure is in place can we carry our ageing buildings into the 21st century.

New blood and new ideas

One of the major problems holding us back is siloed, conservative thinking around HVAC design. Before it can be installed, a building’s HVAC system must be created according to specifications by a consultant or engineer. While they generally do an excellent job of mechanical design, system fundamentals and best practises, there is a genuine lack of thought and understanding around building controls. This, in turn, hinders the ability to actually implement systems that allow theoretical designs to be practically achieved.

There is little joined-up thinking between stakeholders, designers and construction teams while communication between engineers, the building management team and construction teams is limited. This results in a design that neither integrates well with the BMS, takes advantage of existing infrastructure or utilises the capabilities of smarter products available as standard.

Yet this only hints towards a wider attitude across the industry that fails to see the true value of building management controls. It is possible to improve HVAC efficiency with greater early design collaboration and implementing connected technologies that enable smart building analytics.

To achieve this will require a significant change in perspective. Many stakeholders are unaccustomed to change and wary of new technologies that, at first glance, seem to make their work more complicated. Luckily, there is already light at the end of the tunnel. Today’s young generation of engineers and buildings professionals are digital natives by nature. They are more likely to see the benefits of the Internet of Things (IoT) and understand how to use its insights to drive improvements.

When systems are connected and data constantly generated it is possible to highlight the links between energy, comfort and productivity, as well as between HVAC performance and profitability. It is up to building managers to make analytics part of the equation, and for HVAC engineers to work with them to build systems that utilise Internet of Things capabilities in turn creating insightful information to be qualified by analytics.

A new philosophy

To cut down on HVAC waste, building managers must leverage best of breed solutions. Smart sensors, valves and actuators – when embedded into the building structure and connected to its BMS – enable continuous monitoring of the HVAC system. They also aid commissioning and maintenance by providing mobile apps to test, commission and create auditable tracking while also providing quality information to the analytics packages.

A centralised analytics function tracks both system and device health through BMS alarms and reports, and can use remote connection technology to keep managers and engineers informed. They can be kept up to date with a prioritised report of required actions based on comfort, maintenance and energy dependant on perspective.

Using systems that allow cloud-based automated diagnostics, managers can pinpoint exactly which systems have irregularities before prioritising them based on energy cost, severity and comfort impact. Artificial intelligence capabilities can aid the process by identifying problem conditions and offering remedies to resolve them. This enables facility managers to ensure the operability of their equipment whilst identifying cost-saving measures and mechanical system inefficiencies.

Building managers and engineers can then use the information captured to troubleshoot problems and identify service and savings opportunities. When an engineer is called in to solve a problem with building operation, they usually struggle to make sense of data that is disorganised and spread over numerous systems. Armed with analytics-driven insights, however, they can quickly offer recommendations for upgrades, repairs and maintenance based on the building owner or business priorities.

From data to decisions

Data analytics drives positive interventions by building teams of all types looking to improve performance and sustainability. For example, it is common that buildings do not achieve their energy targets as per theoretical design. Indeed, there is rarely enough detailed information available from a building to understand why and where improvements can be made.

By having a connected IoT infrastructure both mechanically and electrically – combined with insightful analytics – it is possible to drive efficiencies by giving a better understanding of the systems and building to facilities teams. It will also allow design consultants to understand the operational status of working systems, revealing why a building may be consuming more energy than the design calculations suggested. This allows teams to base their findings on factual data rather than gut feeling.

An embedded analytics function is also beneficial from a return on investment (ROI) viewpoint. In most construction projects, whether new-build or retrofit, each stage of construction pays for the next. That is, the money estimated to have been saved during one phase goes on to fund the next stage of the process. With a solution that actively monitors performance and can accurately predict costs and savings, engineers can use its insight to make better decisions and inform the rest of the project. Through this method, the most efficient buildings are built.

When minds and technology meet, great things happen. More open controls philosophies and solutions, such as Schneider Electric’s EcoStruxure Building platform, deliver improved building performance and efficiency, equipment longevity, increased occupant engagement and productivity, increased resale and rental value, reduced operating costs and a stronger ROI. Connected thinking and analytics give us the insight we need to create the sustainable HVAC systems of the future.