by Barry McConachie — This article originally appeared in the November/December 2017 issue of FMJ Magazine.
Cut costs. Save energy. Go green. Create desirable work and living spaces. And report on it all to property owners. Real estate and property managers face seemingly conflicting directives to provide the best ROI for property owners.
Imagine being able to adjust HVAC fans based on actual temperatures in your facility — even in remote areas — reducing energy costs and prolonging equipment life? Or being able to dim overhead lights when there is enough natural light and turn them back up when it becomes cloudy — saving thousands of dollars seamlessly and automatically? These are just some of the scenarios made possible by big data and the Internet of Things (IoT). But what is big data and how can it work for a facility manager?
Thousands of Eyes
Big data refers to the ability to use vast amounts of data to streamline operations, provide more targeted services and improve both customer satisfaction and your bottom line. More than just careful ledger notes, or even the most sophisticated system of spreadsheets, big data involves huge datasets that require computer analysis to reveal the patterns, trends and associations within.
A facility manager might be thinking: My buildings consist of thousands of components, but none of them are computerized. How can I get data from these? The answer lies in the Internet of Things (IoT), or the ability to take ordinary objects—such as light switches—and make them smart by adding electronic sensors and the ability to communicate with the cloud. In addition to capturing meter data, sensor devices can be installed to track motion, light, temperature, humidity, CO2/CO levels, and more, and continuously transmit this data wirelessly to the cloud.
At its worst, all this information becomes a meaningless flood – numbers and data-points that are being collected so quickly it’s impossible to make any sense of what it means. At its best, big data is like having thousands of eyes placed strategically throughout the facilities you manage, giving you a better view of all the moving parts.
This data can be analyzed for trends, compiled into reports and used as the basis for a host of actions, from optimized space utilization to predictive maintenance, that can improve both the occupant experience and the bottom line. What’s more, thanks to IoT, much of the monitoring and management of building systems can take place remotely or be automated—giving much more visibility and control without more work.
Info In, Action Out
Big data offers real estate and property managers an opportunity to address some of their greatest challenges, including tenant turnover, controlling costs, and improving servicing. In general, the process looks like this:
- Gain insight. IoT devices allow us to capture all kinds of information—from environmental factors to actual energy use. This data may be interesting on its own, but it gets compelling when it is used in concert. Is there an outside temperature at which energy use rises? Could knowing this help make an investment decision?
- Create a strategic plan. Once there is a clearer understanding of the energy use patterns in buildings, FMs can create a strategic plan for controlling costs based on that knowledge. This may be as simple as turning off lights in unused parts of an office building as employees go home, or as complex as creating new policies to minimize the opening and closing of refrigerators in a restaurant.
- Automate. With IoT-based devices, not only is useful data sent up to the cloud, but with smart algorithms and well-designed dashboards, FMs can control building systems from a remote device or even automatically. Think configuring lighting and HVAC systems to turn down at preset times — but also being able to monitor conditions (such as occupancy) in real-time and adjust on the fly.
- Monitor and optimize. Nobody gets it right the first time, and with IoT-sourced big data, nobody has to. With the power to crunch lots of data quickly, FMs can easily monitor how strategic planning is working and then update and optimize policies and automated systems accordingly.
Putting Big Data to Work
Here are some of the most common ways real estate and property managers can take advantage of smart devices, and the big data they provide, to reduce costs, save energy and provide unique, compelling experiences for building users. Keep in mind these can be used alone or in concert with each other for even more savings.
Energy Usage Trending
Energy is one of the biggest costs for building managers—and one of the most controllable. While utility bill and meter data can help track overall trends, adding IoT-based sensors throughout the facility can help monitor temperature and determine where and when the most energy is being used. Are faulty fans consuming more energy than they need to? Are employees overriding thermostat set points? Are there spaces that are being lit and ventilated long after the people who use them go home?
The granular knowledge gained from these sensors can help control costs and increase ROI through more strategic space utilization, automating HVAC and lighting controls for maximum efficiency, proactive identification and repair of failing units, and other measures. For example, Michael Nielsen, a plant administrator at GE Power and Water, explained that the ability to easily assess the operating costs of unused spaces has been a critical factor in the decision to sublet those spaces.
“We may have left that space idle if not for those devices and the ability to accurately assign costs,” Nielsen said.
In addition, being able to identify heating and cooling issues—and non-issues—in building spaces, and then lock down and control the HVAC controllers accordingly, has significantly reduced the time he spends troubleshooting individual climate complaints.
For Mark Gallagher, facility engineer with Thyssen Krupp, IoT energy metering has been an integral part of the company’s ISO 50002 certification process. Once changes have been made, usage trend data can help determine, and demonstrate to building owners, which measures are working and how much they are saving.
Analyzing trends is a great first step. Once FMs determine how lighting and HVAC systems should be working, they can increase the efficiency of the entire facility and extend equipment life by monitoring these systems to ensure they continue to stay within the optimal range. A well-designed big data system can continually compare data about actual use to projected use and send alerts when systems are operating outside of set thresholds or when faults are detected.
For example, when Wendy McCaskill, administrator of Stonebriar Skilled Nursing facility, wanted to be notified if any of the resident rooms had gone outside of the safe range for temperature and humidity, she implemented wireless IoT monitoring and alerting. She now receives the alerts instantly on her smartphone. She can also see if onsite freezers or coolers have lost power or aren’t cooling adequately. One time, when a breaker tripped over a weekend, the proactive alerting averted the loss of thousands of dollars of frozen food inventory.
With big data, commissioning staff can quickly and easily identify zones and sort by region, building or use, simplifying the arduous task of identifying and scheduling set points. And, once set points are in place, FMs can easily review historical set points and make adjustments to optimize HVAC zones as necessary. This is just what Wayne Apke, facility manager at Atlas Copco, did when a special plant operation meant a portion of the factory needed to be taken offline for maintenance. He used advanced IoT-based commissioning tools to quickly adjust the temperature set points on the facility’s numerous HVAC units—ensuring they were up and running quickly and at optimal efficiency after the maintenance was complete.
The ability to run custom reports using real-time, IoT-sourced big data can help you uncover additional opportunities to increase occupant comfort and energy efficiency. Is it too warm in an area? Is the humidity affecting occupant comfort? Are there people in that space? How many? Is there enough outside light available to allow us to reduce our energy costs, without affecting light levels in workspaces? Big data lets you quickly and confidently answer these questions and more. Whether FMs run weekly reports or want to pull up information on a moment’s notice, the ability to analyze and compile massive amounts of data about spaces quickly can not only help identify problem areas, but give the insight needed to determine which improvements or repairs will give the most bang for a buck.
Integrating big data into a trouble management ticketing system allows FMs to more efficiently identify issues and track resolution. As described above, a well-designed IoT-sourced big data system can often detect issues long before physical inspections. Whether an FM learns about the issue through an alert, or the system is set up to automatically open a ticket, big data can help streamline trouble management and ensure problems get fixed before they become catastrophes.
For example, Susan Scheuermann, energy manager at Einstein Bros. Bagels and Caribou Coffee, is testing an IoT pilot system with alerting features that detect comfort issues in stores before they affect customers. The system also ensures that all the freezers, coolers and heaters are maintaining their correct temperatures. In the future, the alerting system will integrate with their trouble management database to manage and track troubles and dispatch repair crews automatically.
Big data applications can also help maintenance personnel track assets more efficiently. By aggregating data about assets across multiple facilities, FMs gain more visibility into asset values and lifespans, to quickly identify which units need preventative maintenance, improve lifecycle monitoring and more easily make budgeting decisions.
Making the Most of What You Know
Big data and IoT make it possible for FMs to know all of this information about their facilities, but the key to success, as always, is still dependent on the judgment and experience of the facility manager, as well as on how the data itself is used. Is the information easy to access? Is there a dashboard that allows you to quickly see how equipment in hard-to-access areas is performing, or how the interior building temperature is responding to a weather event? As FMs move into this new territory, they’ll draw more than ever on their facility management expertise to turn information into action that controls costs and increases comfort for maximum tenant and owner satisfaction.
Barry McConachie has more than 25 years of business development and engineering experience, building and managing companies in software, renewable energy, data communications and wireless technology. In 2010, he founded Incenergy to develop affordable energy management software solutions for the commercial building market. As founder and CEO, Barry leads the company in innovating economical, wireless, and mobile energy efficiency products that achieve dramatic energy reductions in commercial buildings, accelerating the evolution of the Smart Building.