Canadian Consulting Engineer

By Nordahl Flakstad   

Edmonton’s Nerve Centre

Buildings Building Controls Building Mechanical & Electrical (HVAC) Systems

Sunshine streams into the northeast corner of Edmonton’s pyramid-profiled city hall where staff quietly monitor computer screens. Despite a hot summer day outside, the temperature remains comfortable in the room. That is as it should be,...

Sunshine streams into the northeast corner of Edmonton’s pyramid-profiled city hall where staff quietly monitor computer screens. Despite a hot summer day outside, the temperature remains comfortable in the room. That is as it should be, since this happens to be the nerve-centre of Edmonton’s Building Automation and Energy Management Network (BAEMN).

From this hub the HVAC systems and associated parameters (e.g. temperature, humidity, pressures) at 145 city-owned facilities are controlled. In a city of 800,000 people that sprawls across 700 square kilometres, BAEMN’s central monitoring covers approximately 15 per cent of around 1,000 municipally-run properties. (Alarm/access and lighting in city buildings are monitored through separate systems.)

Locating BAEMN’s control centre in the city hall makes practical and symbolic sense. When it opened in 1992, the building included what were then state-of-the-art, automated building controls. But they were stand-alone systems, with monitoring and adjustments occurring on-site. The evolution of the Web, as it began to crawl into different facets of our lives, opened new options for the remote control of sites.

Bryant May, who oversees BAEMN and is a mechanical supervisor with Edmonton’s Facility Maintenance Services, explains that the development of BACnet protocols further facilitated the remote control of buildings.

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University campuses – often with buildings in close proximity – were pioneers in incorporating such remote-control networks. However, May considers Edmonton a leader in applying this approach to a large urban municipality. BAEMN’s control extends to a variety of facilities, including recreation centres, libraries, fire halls, police stations, offices and transit barns. Its wide range adds complexity but also promises potentially greater overall savings than in a relatively compact university setting.

May observes, “As far as I know, we’re one of the first cities to create a ‘campus’ within an entire city.”

Restricting providers

About 15 years ago the city found itself challenged by having to manage the increasingly varied systems supplied by around 10 building controls providers.

“They all had their own flavour in terms of programming and other aspects, and it became difficult for us as technical people to learn every single system,” says May.

To simplify matters, the city required all companies responding to requests for proposals on new buildings to work with one of three designated suppliers of HVAC controls. The approach gave flexibility and competitive bidding, but also simplified things. That became even more critical as the city under May’s leadership began to upgrade stand-alone sites to make them Ethernet accessible.

Advantages of central monitoring

The BAEMN monitoring team, consisting of eight engineering technologists and people with building automation backgrounds, is on 24-7 standby to respond to irregularities at the 145 sites (twice the number of 10 years ago). All the locations are accessible via a single Web page, allowing the operators to troubleshoot the buildings’ systems and subsystems, individual pieces of equipment, and even specific components. Thousands of check and adjustment points are being constantly updated.

Alarms are given priority based on a three-point urgency scale: critical (winter-time heating-system failures, high temperature, sump or server room failures); maintenance (problems with lower priority); and notification (units operating sub-optimally).

Alerted to problems, BAEMN staff can either adjust controls remotely or, if mechanical repairs are needed, prepare a work order to dispatch trades people to sites. Previously that would have entailed a two-step process. First it involved sending control technicians – each with a laptop – to verify issues and make database or hardware adjustments. Then, if the problems were mechanical, the technician would call in trades people. In far-flung Edmonton each call could easily entail two hours of travel plus on-site time.

“Time-wise,” says May, “it [central control] really streamlines our trades operations.”

Furthermore, now only a single, licensed copy of each program is needed, housed on BAEMN’s server and made accessible through mobile devices or desktops. May stresses that buying single licences (and updates) rather than copies of each program for individual laptops – at up to $1,500 a pop – “is a huge, huge saving to us.”

Besides signalling breakdowns, BAEMN provides predictive-failure warnings. In this way the system prevents unscheduled shutdowns of civic facilities, such as recreation centres.

BAEMN also recently launched an ambitious project to digitize operations and maintenance manuals, making them accessible from the field.

Expanded monitoring and policies

A recently installed computer platform – from CopperTree Analytics – sits on top of BAEMN. The platform allows the storage of large amounts of data that can produce trend logs and allow comparisons between the energy use and system optimization at different sites. It also supplies data and analysis on the broader energy consumption at BAEMN facilities, which will help the city’s Office of Energy Management to develop policies.

The full benefit of this enhanced knowledge will depend on resources and personnel being made available to prioritize and fix shortcomings.

And that, says May, “will lead to buildings running according to their best energy criteria, happier customers and citizens, and [our] getting the best bang for the buck.”cce

Nordahl Flakstad is a freelance writer based in Edmonton.

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