Big Data

Data analytics and engineering: How to optimize your federal building

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According to the General Services Administration's Federal Real Property Report, in 2013 U.S. federal government agencies managed more than 350,000 buildings that span 3.35 billion square feet and cost nearly $25 billion annually to operate. Energy is the largest controllable operating cost in those buildings and has been reported by the Federal Energy Management Program to be over $7 billion annually, making the federal government the largest energy consumer in the country.

Recognizing the need to reduce costs, increase resiliency and lead by example, recent presidents, Congress and agency leadership have enacted an array of executive orders, legislation, strategies and guidelines to reduce energy consumption in federal facilities. As evidenced by the January 2014 Office of Management and Budget report on the topic, agencies have made great progress in recent years. However, there is still much work to be done to meet the annual goals, and only 50 percent of agencies have met their energy efficiency goals to date. As a result, federal agencies are under continued pressure to reduce energy and operational costs.

One way agencies can reduce their energy footprint and save on operational costs is by implementing intelligent building management systems (BMS) that monitor a facility’s operational performance and energy use to identify root causes and correct deficiencies in buildings. While some agencies have spent considerable sums on systems that control buildings and help them operate efficiently, there is still great opportunity for improvement. These systems offer a largely untapped source of analytical, historical and real-time data that can yield more meaningful information to drive improved building energy performance.

Much of the knowledge and intelligence these systems generate goes untapped when agencies don’t have the right tools in place to make use of the extensive data at hand. And research shows facility managers are underutilizing their BMS’ capabilities -- a Navigant Research study found that 80 percent of facility managers, including those who manage federal facilities, use just 20 percent of the potential functionality in their BMS. By harnessing data properly, federal facility owners and operators can better realize the full return on their BMS as they save energy, reduce operating and maintenance costs and improve building comfort.

Underutilization of BMS capabilities

The underutilization of the BMS can partially be attributed to the overwhelming volume of data that modern BMS generate from thousands of points that are monitored every few seconds or minutes, depending on the criticality of the equipment.

Effectively deciphering all that data requires a substantial time investment -- not only in training facility managers to oversee the data analysis process, but also in combing through the data and interpreting it. Meanwhile, federal facility managers are facing stagnant budgets and therefore have fewer resources with which to collect and analyze the data.

Newer BMS solutions come with data visualization capabilities that aggregate building data and performance metrics, such as demand and carbon footprint. Facility managers can examine these dashboards to pinpoint where inefficiencies are occurring, but do not necessarily have all of the data required or the background and context to understand why the inefficiencies exist or how to solve the problem.

To overcome this issue, federal facility managers are increasingly turning to data analytics software that translates the data collected by the BMS into actionable information. BMS dashboards can pull information on energy and equipment use; good data analysis software can then use this raw data to not only highlight use trends and patterns, but also identify faults, analyze the cause of these faults and prioritize possible solutions based on impact to various metrics such as cost, comfort and maintenance. Armed with appropriate data analytics software, building managers are able to not only easily understand where an inefficiency is occurring, but pinpoint the cause and formulate a solution.

For federal facility managers interested in incorporating data analytics into their BMS, there are three common approaches: an on-site solution, software as a service and managed software as a service.

On-site solutions: Customized, but costly

An on-site solution gives building managers the greatest flexibility, as it can be highly customized to meet the building’s exact needs. However, because each on-site solution is custom built, they can be costly -- automation rules must be built from scratch for the building’s equipment, environments and situations.

As a result, on-site solutions demand a heavier financial and IT investment and require highly specialized developers to build and maintain the system. Additionally, because of the customized nature of on-site solutions, they rarely include remote access or web browser interfaces -- because a web browser interface would require frequent updating to protect it from cyber security threats, further driving up costs.

Software as a service: Cost-effective and efficient

There are alternatives to costly on-site BMS analytics. One such example is software as a service (SaaS), a cloud-based data analytics solution.

By moving data and analytics to the cloud, federal facility managers have increased flexibility – they are now able to access data from anywhere at any time. Additionally, federal IT managers are under tremendous pressure to undertake cloud computing initiatives for their IT environments just as facility managers are in regards to energy efficiency.

The potential savings of a cloud-based system significantly adds to the value generated by building monitoring, control and automation solutions for energy management. Leveraging cloud-based applications is a safe, smart move that can drive greater resiliency as well as increased efficiency, flexibility, accessibility and cost savings. In fact, energy management solutions can be run on FedRAMP-certified public or government clouds, which offer the highest degree of security and privacy through multi-level data security at the application, infrastructure and data center layers.

There is a pre-qualified catalog of rules and algorithms that can be deployed against data pushed to the cloud from the BMS so that diagnostics can be adjusted to meet different buildings’ needs and operations. Since these customizations do not need to be built from scratch, as they do with an on-site solution, this saves time and money. Additionally, some SaaS solutions can learn from customer feedback and make adjustments to run more effectively. This constant feedback cycle delivers the most useful data analytics reports possible. These improvements are typically included in the cost of a SaaS subscription, so they represent no additional cost to the building. A custom solution would require additional resources, either financial or personnel, to add the new rules.

Managed software as a service: Analytics plus expert support

The most comprehensive approach is managed software as a service (MSaaS), which combines the benefits of a SaaS data analytics solution with insights from remote engineering experts. These remote engineers can provide a number of services and benefits, from consultancy to maintenance. From the get-go, engineers can work with building managers to establish budgets, goals and priorities to help maximize building performance and compliment the BMS.

Engineers can also lend their expertise to interpreting the BMS data analysis and recommend the best solutions to faults or inefficiencies. With their expertise, engineers can deliver well-informed recommendations on upgrading or maintaining equipment based on return on investment and the building’s priorities.

From a cost perspective, having an MSaaS solution eliminates an organization’s need for highly skilled workers to monitor the BMS looking for trends and inefficiencies to improve performance. This allows the facility’s on-site employees to focus their attention on fixing the issues, not finding them. MSaaS solutions can help manage the complex multi-vendor building environment by integrating data from all of the equipment throughout the building, pinpointing the root causes of issues and proactively identifying areas that need attention to avoid costly downtime. The MSaaS solution can then track the financial impact of the maintenance to provide critical information on return on investment, helping support completed maintenance projects and justifying proposed projects.

Selecting a data analytics solution

Federal facility managers should account for critical factors in making their decision, such as the cost of each solution -- both upfront and ongoing maintenance -- as well as the goals and priorities of their building and their building system’s complexity.

Regardless of the solution, complementing a modern BMS with robust data analytics capabilities greatly increases the building’s performance. Building managers gain insights into not only where inefficiencies are occurring, but the causes of these inefficiencies and how to fix them. They are also armed with the financial justification to gain approval for proposed maintenance projects.

As BMS technologies advance and continue to collect ever greater amounts of data, data analysis capabilities will be critical in helping federal facility managers understand the data and prioritize both immediate and longer-term maintenance needs. Data analytics -- or more accurately, building analytics -- can empower federal facility managers as they are tasked with improving building performance despite shrinking budgets.

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