Working towards the next era of Smart Building Solutions

All the students are back and Imperial is in full flow so we must be hosting our weekly energy seminars. Recently we hosted Dr Bianca Howard from the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. It was a great talk and we have her slides [PDF] available to download. She had also agreed to write us a blog covering the same topic, how we can work towards the next era of smart building solutions.

When I think of smart buildings, my mind automatically goes towards appliances, like programmable washing machines, the promise of a refrigerator that can provide your grocery list, and thermostats that learn your habits. These appliances aim to add convenience to your life and reduce household energy costs. While solutions are being developed for the domestic building stock, aiding to meet broader energy reduction and greenhouse gas emissions goals, innovations in the non-domestic sector are not arising as quickly.

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There are several differences between domestic and non-domestic buildings that require distinct treatment. Building systems in commercial buildings are more complex often servicing many spaces from a centralized energy source. They are also operated and maintained by several sets of disparate teams with competing goals, making it difficult to enact changes. Lastly building engineers in non-domestic buildings are more often focused on ensuring the building is working properly, reducing the importance of sustainability goals.

Bringing new technologies to the non-domestic building sector that work around these nuances to provide long lasting energy savings is the motivation for the EPSRC funded project entitled “Future Proofing Facilities Management” (FUTURE FM). The FUTURE FM project has several foci but in this seminar I’ll be focusing on two: improving building operations and improving building maintenance.

Improving building operations

Improving building operations can be simplified to the same principles that are often touted at home.

“Turn off the lights when you leave the flat”
This is a simple enough concept that has been automated in non-domestic buildings through the use of passive infrared (PIR) sensors that detect when a person is in a room and turn on the lights. We can extend this concept to building heating ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems, if we can accurately detect and predict when a room, open plan office, or floor is occupied. Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) systems have the potential to measure occupancy, erasing the need for additional sensors to achieve these savings. For the FUTURE FM project, we are assessing the ability of different ICT datasets, such as mobile wi-fi connectivity, computer monitor activity, and access control cards, to reflect building occupancy through an experimental set up in a 300 person office building.

“Turn the thermostat down”
In a non-domestic building, there are several set-points throughout an HVAC system that govern how space temperatures are maintained. One can think of them as several independent thermostats working to maintain separate goals. An innovation, common in industrial process control, is the use of supervisory control algorithms to ensure that each thermostat is working together to reduce energy consumption. We are currently working on model predictive control schemes that provide this supervisory control but also leverage opportunistic data on the building’s real time usage to ensure comfort.

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Improving building maintenance

Lastly, algorithms for improving Building Maintenance are focused on converting the data collected by building energy management systems (BEMS) and other data streams into actionable information allowing building mangers to quickly address problems.  By pairing the time series data received during an equipment fault, we can quantify the pattern of failure and identify their occurrence in the future. These ideas will be tested on a supermarket HVAC system where historical data from the BEMS and faults have been recorded for the past 18 months.

Overall the studies being carried out for the FUTURE FM project are working to develop analyses, algorithms, and optimisations that can be the backbone of the future smart building solutions, allowing building managers and operators to maintain energy savings over a buildings life cycle.

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