Delivering significant energy savings and truly intelligent buildings is all down to controls, says Andrew Chandler, MD at Resource Data Management
Modern controls can considerably transform the energy efficiency of buildings, industrial processes and the food chain.
Whether it be stand-alone controls to optimise the efficiency of a small packaged system, inverters to balance a system’s operating conditions and precisely match load to output, or a distributed control system to monitor a network of buildings in a global estate.
Given the high value of many assets it is vital to design security and reliability from the start, which means getting the relationships between the various levels in a control system right.
In a distributed refrigeration system, for example, electronic controls must be able to operate stand-alone if a network fails. Unforeseen events, such as a lightning strike or physical damage, can take out a network or a main front panel.
When this happens, it is critical that the system continues to operate at the local plant level – to provide continuity of cooling and protect expensive stock.
Another key requirement is that the different controls in a network communicate seamlessly. The fundamental aim may be to deliver optimum performance and reliability, however the way different systems go about this still varies greatly.
The many different types of control systems used across refrigeration, HVAC and Building Management Systems (BMS) are based on different approaches, software and networks.
In the early 1990s, specifiers and end users dreamed of a common network and communications protocol. Unfortunately, many developed their own protocols, resulting in a multiplicity of bespoke solutions.
The computer industry faced a similar challenge a few years before, resolving it by agreeing an open communications standard, so network devices and equipment from different manufacturers could all co-exist and work together on a single network.
This great wave of development has been harnessed by forward-thinking controls specialists, to create high speed, low-cost, reliable IP-based control networks. They use open communication protocols, enabling them to talk seamlessly to all controls on the market.
As a result, today’s modern refrigeration, HVAC and BMS controls harnessing this IP-based approach are able to take advantage of the computer internet explosion to develop controls that are truly ‘open’ and can all reside on the same network, dovetailing and communicating seamlessly.
This approach has so far been taken up by some refrigeration, BMS and HVAC manufacturers. However, others have been slow to adopt it, at best offering only an IP gateway onto their own bespoke network. I believe, ultimately, all manufacturers will be drawn in this direction, as the benefits are so compelling.
The approach has been proven by the computer industry, which handles more sophisticated data, more high security and sensitive data and much higher volumes of data than a refrigeration or BMS network.
To help the industry converge, some open controls companies have developed single point front-end or ‘black box devices’. These talk in multiple protocols to multiple manufacturers devices, and pull all the data into a standard format that can be seen, processed and sent off site.
With the cost of high speed processors falling, it is now possible to collect together all the data from refrigeration, HVAC, BMS, lighting, occupancy, security, energy meters, CCTV, car wash systems, etc. This can then be used to optimise not just one, but multiple systems to deliver the best energy usage for the whole building.
Furthermore, by subjecting the data to more sophisticated analysis and applying local processing, we can start to predict equipment failures before they occur – this is already being utilised.
It is now possible to flag up ‘imminent failure’ warnings and place maintenance calls as a result of monitoring the performance of a system operating badly or inefficiently, but still working within the design criteria and maintaining its output.
Using this data, technicians can be dispatched to service, repair or replace kit before it fails - and before it costs money in lost business or higher energy bills. The potential savings are tremendous.
As IP networks continue to standardise, and the industry converges on the use of open protocols, our ability to deliver truly intelligent buildings and predictive maintenance will become a reality. The next generation will be fully up to speed with this - think current smart phone technology
At this point, the technology effectively becomes transparent and ceases to be an issue; the end user is then freed to concentrate on what really matters, running a reliable, high efficiency, high productivity business.