Commercial buildings have long been able to provide information on what makes them tick, but it was often ignored. Now software companies are applying analytics to building data to improve efficiency and head off potential maintenance problems. It’s another example of the value data analytics can play in the growing universe of connected devices.
An entire industry has sprouted up around building data for good reason. The Department of Energy estimates that commercial buildings represent about 20 percent of energy consumption in the United States. And anyone who has seen the lights on in a skyscraper at midnight or entered a freezing-cold hotel room knows, many buildings are prodigious wasters of energy. Just by analyzing the right datasets, many of those problems can be identified.
Broadly speaking, building software companies either use information generated by building management systems—the controls to keep the lights on and the temperature comfortable—or utility meters. With that, the software can automatically build a profile of an individual building and generate recommendations on how to improve its operation.
In the past, energy usage information was inaccessible or the analytics weren’t powerful enough to be useful. Now there are several applications that collect information from the wide variety of proprietary systems, which can include heating and cooling systems, lighting controls, and meters. When coupled with analytics, that type of information can yield insight into how well a building is performing.
“The point of the software is to get data into a usable format and to give building owners insight automatically,” says Hannah Kramer, the director of engineering at PECI, a not-for-profit company in Portland, Ore., that runs building energy-efficiency programs for utilities. “It’s inferring what’s going on based on a few data streams and making recommendations.”
For example, an application can collect utility meter data every fifteen minutes and, by making comparisons to similar building types, tell a facility manager the electrical load is higher than it should be. More sophisticated analytics can act as sort of an in-house expert to spot faults and diagnose problems. Using these types of predictive analytics can help optimize all of a building’s operations, including heating and cooling, physical security, even the fire alarm system.
One cloud-based analytics system is Johnson Controls’ Panoptix, which collects individual building data and provides energy reports and diagnostics. Using the software, one university was able to detect that students were overriding thermostats so that buildings were heated all night, rather than according to the set schedule. In another case, a facilities manager learned that a building’s air handlers were using 15 to 20 percent more energy than similar equipment, giving clues that something was wrong. Without the software to analyze trends over time, it would have been hard for a person to detect the minor leaks that creep in over the course of months, says Mark Hendrickson, the director of Panoptix Operations at Johnson Controls.
“If we can measure it, we can track it. If we can track it, we can determine performance. If we can determine performance, we can make adjustments,” he says. Another advantage of a tracking performance over time is that building managers can measure how effective specific changes are once they are put in place, Hendrickson says. Because the software can spot help spot budding problems, building owners can also avoid equipment breakdowns and adjust their maintenance schedules.
Virtual Energy Efficiency Audits
Building software companies claim that just tracking and analyzing building data can cut energy use by 15 percent. Initial pilots have been promising, but there are limits to the specificity that these applications are capable of, Kramer says. A building dashboard might say that energy use has gone up last month, for example, but it might not be able to pinpoint the specific chiller causing the problem. And even if software makes well-targeted recommendations, someone actually has to do the work. “Their effectiveness totally depends on how you use them,” she says. “If you have an engaged energy manager, you could potentially save 15 percent because it helps track down the root cause of a problem.”
Analytics also let people take a snapshot of how a building operates compared to others, which can be useful when deciding which ones are ripe for energy retrofits. Startup First Fuel combines meter data with weather information and its analytics to help utilities identify the worst energy wasters. Just by analyzing meter data, First Fuel found there are billions of dollars worth of potential energy savings in U.S. commercial buildings which can be done by changing how they are operated, such scheduling HVAC systems and eliminating times when buildings have heating and cooling on simultaneously.
Many states and cities now have regulations that require buildings to have an energy audit or report energy use. Given the sheer volume of buildings in say, New York City, there needs to be an automated way to assess building performance, according to startup Retroficiency. The company’s software generates a profile based only 15 minute or hourly data from utility meters. Once buildings are chosen for efficiency upgrades, such as lighting, Retroficiency has another application to create a model of the building’s energy use and choose which measures are most cost-effective, says Mike Kaplan, vice president of marketing for the company.
For building owners, using a cloud-based platform has a few advantages. For one, building systems create data in a wide variety of formats, which can be normalized through an online software service without a lengthy installation process. Also, the amount of data can quickly become considerable. Microsoft, for example, implemented a system to collect data from 35,000 pieces of equipment across more than one hundred buildings and seven building management systems at its corporate headquarters. That produces 500 million data points a day, says John Doyle, the director of product marketing for Windows Embedded. Microsoft has developed a platform for third-party companies to connect building sensors to cloud-based analytic systems.
Yet smaller amounts of data can yield insights as well. Startup WegoWise only collects monthly utility bill information on multifamily residential buildings and provides data visualizations to help consumers and owners spot problem areas in electricity, gas, and water use. The monthly data reports are enough, because the software compares one building to its database of similar structures, the company says.
Building systems and meters are part of the Internet of things, which opens up many new applications for data analytics. The vision for many of these building software companies is to create smart buildings where every piece of equipment, down to elevators and air-quality monitors in office cubicles, are tied into a corporate network and automatically controlled. There’s no doubt that buildings are getting smarter, but PECI’s Kramer says that these building software systems right now should be used for what they’re good at: helping people make better and faster decisions. “Some vendors claim that these systems are no touch. That’s the part that has yet to be proven,” says Kramer. “There’s still a human aspect.”
Martin LaMonica is a technology journalist in the Boston area. Follow him on Twitter @mlamonica.