Upbuilding

Local buildings are a hodgepodge of old and new maintenance systems

March, 2004

“Intelligent” is one way to describe the new Weinberg Building, which opened last summer at Iolani School, after 15 months of construction. In fact, all of the buildings on the Iolani campus have become smart lately, thanks to a new, state-of-the-art control center in the Weinberg structure. The control center itself is nothing fancy – just a PC and keyboard atop a corner desk on the building’s ground floor. At designated times, the control center activates certain functions throughout the school, including heating, air-conditioning and ventilation (HVAC). The control center is also able to display charts and data in real time, allowing Iolani’s engineers to keep track of maintenance operations on the 20-acre campus. “These systems require very little service,” says Kenneth J. Richardson, president of Island Controls Inc., one of the parties involved in the construction of the building last year.

The systems are not only low-maintenance, they’re energy-efficient, too. To cut electricity costs in the new Weinberg Building, contractors installed “light shelves” to capture sunrays on the building’s exterior and reflect onto classroom ceilings. It’ll be about nine years before Iolani School sees a significant drop in its energy bills. However, once the building starts to pay for itself, savings could be as much as 28 percent annually.

Another local company that recently upgraded its headquarters is Alakai Mechanical Corp., a contractor and supplier of air-conditioning equipment, sheet metal and ventilation systems. Last summer, Alakai installed a new control center that automatically turns on and turns off the air-conditioning at 5 a.m. and at 6 p.m., respectively. “It’s a glorified time clock,” says Kevin Sasuga, project manager at Alakai. “But it makes life easier to the point where you don’t have to remember to turn it on and off.” Prior to the upgrades, the thermostat at Alakai had to be controlled manually.

Facelifts – such as the ones at Alakai Mechanical and Iolani School – are common. And as more companies and building managers upgrade their buildings, they’re realizing that new technology must work with decades-old equipment, otherwise known as legacy systems.

“There are a lot of buildings with legacy-control systems [in the downtown Honolulu area],” notes Paul Fetherland, director for customer technology applications for Hawaiian Electric Co. Inc. The mix of old and new has opened a whole new can of worms for local engineers and vendors of building-control systems, he says.

In the past, legacy systems primarily consisted of pneumatic controls, electrical panels and direct-digital controllers. Whenever building owners made changes or conducted routine maintenance, they were forced to go back to the original manufacturer or local licensed representative that held proprietary rights to the equipment. “Owners didn’t like the fact that every time they wanted to do something to their building, whether it was adding something or making a new building, they could only go back to the vendor,” says R.J. Ritter, building automation systems manager for TRANE.

In the mid-1990s, the American Society of Heating Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Engineers resolved the problem by voting on an open, nonproprietary standard called Building Automation and Control NETwork, or (BACnet). The move elevated the industry to new heights. Manufacturers, including TRANE, Honeywell and Johnson Controls and others, found ways to integrate BACnet into their systems. One of the first vendors to introduce BACnet to a local building was TRANE. In 1994, it installed a BACnet-controlled chiller in the Wailana Coffee House building in Waikiki.

BACnet aside, there is another, nonproprietary standard that has made its way into the local market over the past few years: LONWorks. [Last year's upgrade at Alakai Mechanical involved LONWorks.] Although LONWorks is a standard of BACnet, the primary difference is that LONWorks uses a hardware device called the neuron chip. “Neuron chips set the protocol for all information sent and received,” says Sasuga, of Alakai Mechanical, whose building operates off of a LONWorks system. “Every controller, to be LONWorks compliant, has to have the chip.”

Darren Kimura, president of eCONTROLS, an Energy Industries company, is a proponent of LONWorks. “With LON, you’re creating one master language, where you can now use one computer system to operate everything from your chillers to your building automation, to even things like key-card access,” he says. Kimura and his team have spread the news about LONWorks to dozens of local companies, and the feedback has been nothing but positive.

One of those interested people is Rory Reilly, chief engineer for Topa Management Co., which operates the Amfac and Topa Towers in downtown Honolulu. Currently, the towers operate on four BACnet-based chiller systems manufactured by TRANE. The control center in the basement of both buildings is also a BACnet system.

At the time of this writing, Reilly was interested in installing a LONWorks system at the unit level that would allow him and employees to link the building’s lights, elevators and security systems (among other features) to one standard system.

The cost of a system also depends on its complexity. “It has to do with the scale of the job, or whether it’s heavily instrumented or not,” Ritter says. A 30-story building with 50 air handlers and four chiller s could easily run $500,000, while a simple job with a two-pump air chiller could be anywhere between $5,000 to $20,000.

Local industry leaders say that when it comes to BACnet or LONWorks, one system isn’t more superior. “I’m not sure that, in the end, it’s going to be either one,” Ritter says. “Everything in this industry is moving toward Internet protocol-type equipment, and that is what is going to play a part in what the next generation of controllers will be – although I think BACnet and LON will be here for a while.”

Hawaiian Electric representatives agree. “In one particular project that HECO was recently involved in, a heat pump with LONWorks controls was interfaced with a BACnet control and monitoring system,” says Mark Yamamoto, technical services engineer for HECO’s energy services department. He says a local vendor was recently awarded a contract to design, build and modify heat pumps at various customer sites that use a LONWorks-based monitor and control system. In another project, involving a large chiller plant and chilled-water distribution system, a BACnet system was used, he says.

Local industry leaders say there are several things one must keep in mind when choosing a BACnet or LONWorks systems: the vendor’s/salesperson’s commitment to customer service; education and training for all building maintenance employees; and one’s own personal preference, comfort level and familiarity with technology. “Don’t get caught up in a sales pitch,” Richardson says. “Do your homework, or you’re not going to be happy later on. If you don’t train your employees properly then [the BACnet or LONWorks system] becomes a $200,000 time clock.”

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