Finding Sustainability in Unexpected Places

Imagine that its 6 am in the building where you work. In the vacant hallways, the lights suddenly flicker on. The air conditioning kicks in with the sound of fans whirring to life. Laboratory fume hoods resume their daily battle with the air handlers, playing tug-o-war between the room’s air temperature and the thermostat settings. Some offices are stuffy, some are comfortable, while others are freezing. There is a mysterious looking digital display on the wall with a light blinking at “Zone 2,” whatever that means. People begin to shuffle in for another day’s work.

Behind the scenes, facilities managers and engineers work to maintain the indoor environment. The lights and thermostats are on pre-programmed timers based on expected occupancy. Gas sensors measure the levels of carbon dioxide you and your coworkers are exhaling to determine the building’s ventilation needs. Temperature set points are determined for maximum efficiency and occupant comfort. Thermal storage tanks have been preparing for the imminent hot water demand. A cascade of alarms and safety shut-offs have been established to detect when non-visible problems occur in order to prevent emergencies.

As a biologist with a bachelor’s degree in nutrition, I never imagined a year and a half ago that I would find facilities management interesting. It was almost completely off my radar. I suppose I always knew heating, cooling, lighting, ventilation, and plumbing were someone’s responsibility, but the reality is that building automation systems largely go unnoticed…unless something goes wrong.

I work at Delaware Technical Community College in Dover, DE as an adjunct instructor and part time educational lab specialist in their Energy Technologies Department, which offers three 2-year programs: Renewable Energy Solar, Energy Management, and Building Automation Systems. I joined the department a year and a half ago on a part time basis to help organize the lab. Eventually, I began teaching “Sustainability and Society,” a course required for all of the department’s incoming students. Every day, I try to make myself useful as the resident biologist who has been largely energy-ignorant until recently.

This semester, I’ve been able to sit in on a course called Fundamentals of Control Systems, part of the newest of the three applied science associate’s degree programs - Building Automation Systems. Because of my background, I couldn’t help but compare building controls to cellular metabolism. Both living cells and modern buildings are complex structures whose internal environments are governed by inputs, outputs, channels, valves, sensors, and feedback loops – whether those components are molecular or made of stainless steel.

Some Background on BAS

Building Automation Systems uses techniques in Information Technology to integrate and manage commercial building systems in a centralized way. This approach results in “smart” buildings with coordinated operations that maximize energy efficiency, reliability, and occupant comfort. Many modern commercial buildings are now being designed with BAS in mind.

Systems and devices typically controlled include…

  • Heating and cooling (HVAC) system components such as thermostats, boilers, chillers, coils, air handling units, pumps, and fans
  • Plumbing system components such as valves, pumps, and flow meters
  • Air quality control system components such as gas sensors and ventilation devices
  • Security systems such as alarms and closed circuit cameras
  • Power monitoring systems
  • Lighting presence, brightness, and timing.
  • Devices such as key pads, card readers, meters, and sensors associated with any of the above systems…and more!

Where does Information Technology come in?

Any type of communication between two or more entities requires a common language. For example, human beings communicate using spoken and written languages like English or Chinese. Similarly, many modern building system components require a common language to coordinate their behavior by receiving and transmitting messages, but instead of words, they use computer codeAlgorithms, which are special instructions written using various types of computer code, are built into each device to tell them how to function.

Additionally, rules for how these algorithms should handle certain situations are also applied in the form of a protocol which tells devices what to do and when. The industry standard protocol is called BACnet. BACnet was established as an ASHRAE standard in 1995 and stands for Building Automation and Control Networks. Since then, increasing numbers of manufacturers have embraced this standard, and now there are many BACnet compatible devices.

Devices that “speak” BACnet communicate with one another over a computer network, like a local area network (LAN) or the Internet, and allow the technicians and building managers to direct and monitor the systems virtually (using software) as well as physically.

Working in BAS: Where the Virtual meets the Physical

Job seekers of many backgrounds would be wise to consider a career in Building Automation Systems. First of all, it pays well. As of 2015, the average BAS technician annual salary is $56,000 according to Indeed.com. [Graph]. Not a bad return on your investment for just two years of school!

Second of all, it is challenging. Building automation technicians must be competent in both computer networking and the design and layout of the physical systems (HVAC, plumbing, etc.) that are being controlled. With the increasing popularity of intelligent and "eco-friendly" buildings and the desire by building managers to save on energy and maintenance costs, talented BAS technicians are in high demand.

I personally have no construction background and had unfortunately held what is a very common misconception. I assumed these things were the domain of “maintenance guys." On the contrary! BAS is for men and women of all ages who have an interest in having an engaging and valuable STEM career. As an educator, it has given me a new opportunity to use my love for science and sustainability to help train students who are entering the energy workforce.

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