Canadian Consulting Engineer

Feature

Comment: Building Operators need support

The same week in July that I interviewed Bill McCartney for the article on building HVAC and controls (p. 32), temperatures in Toronto roared to a sweltering 38°C. Our company has moved into a renovated 1970s-era flat box building, and the...


The same week in July that I interviewed Bill McCartney for the article on building HVAC and controls (p. 32), temperatures in Toronto roared to a sweltering 38°C. Our company has moved into a renovated 1970s-era flat box building, and the operator was having a hard time keeping us comfortable. Some of us kept thermometers at our desks out of curiosity, and one day we saw the temperature swing from around 15°C in the morning to 27°C in the afternoon.

While things have levelled out now, the situation is far from unusual. It made me appreciate how complex building environments are, and how difficult it is to create just the right conditions.

The increasing automation of building systems doesn’t seem to have made things better. As a building commissioner, McCartney often finds that building operators have switched off their building’s automation system and have resorted to manually operating the HVAC systems in a desperate effort to fend off complaints from irate occupants.

McCartney’s findings are borne out in a report by Toronto’s Auditor General. Issued in March, the report followed four recreational facilities in the city that had undergone energy retrofits. The arenas were not seeing the energy savings they had been promised. At the Ted Reeve Arena, for example, projected savings of $33,600 per year had turned out to be $6,400 per year.

Building automation systems were one of the biggest problems identified. Like McCartney, the auditor found that operators were switching these off and reverting to manual control. Staff turnover in the arenas was running at 30% a year and incoming people weren’t receiving any training in the systems. Yet even the old hands “could not solve many problems as they arose.”

Indoor conditions inside the arenas were sometimes so poor, they had to cancel events, losing revenues. There were equipment issues such as sensors that were no longer calibrated, and new components installed but not connected to the automation systems. The operators were constantly calling for service calls from the controls manufacturers — all adding to the costs.

The auditor called for building staff to have more training. He also recommended that the city recreation department should look at having a centralized system for monitoring all its building automation systems.

Possibly that is an answer, but it takes an even more high tech approach. An alternative that some energy consultants advocate is to lean towards simple-to-operate systems, ones that can be controlled locally in different areas of a building.

Twenty years ago the talk was all about a brave new world of “intelligent buildings” and how they would cocoon us in their perfect indoor environments. We don’t seem to have achieved that vision yet. And we won’t get there until the systems become simpler to run, or until building operators come with Ph.Ds in computer programming, or until building owners are prepared to pay for operators to have the ongoing training they need in technologies that are constantly being updated and transformed