How does the Analytika building analytics platform and monitoring-based commissioning service help building owners manage their facilities during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond? We sat down with the Managing Director of Analytics for Cimetrics, Hadas Webb, to answer these questions and show us examples of why Building Analytics was a big help to building owners last year.
Cimetrics team: Let’s talk about Cimetrics first. Can you describe what Cimetrics is about?
Webb: Certainly. Cimetrics is a 30-year-old technology-enabled consultancy. We have two branches. One branch is our Analytics group, which is the group I lead, and focuses on monitoring-based commissioning and analytics consulting. Our building analytics platform is called Analytika. The second branch is the technology group, which develops and distributes integration technology, both hardware and software, as well as building IT cybersecurity solutions using the new BACnet Secure Connect protocol. So we have our hands in pretty much all aspects of building analytics, communication, and maintenance.
Cimetrics team: 30 years is impressive! So now it’s January 2021, and in the US, we’re still in the middle of the pandemic, unfortunately. And Cimetrics has been taking a leadership role, in many different ways, around educating your clients, but also the market, on how to implement ASHRAE and CDC’s guidelines, and how analytics can help with that. Basically, you’ve condensed all of this noise into this guidelines document. Can you summarize what’s in that document for everyone that hasn’t read it yet?
Webb: Yeah, absolutely. We were hearing from a lot of customers that they don’t have the time to read reams of white papers, position documents, recommendations. Our clients were asking us, “Just tell us what to do!” We can’t straight up tell our customers what to do because we don’t pay their bills and we’re not liable for any safety issues that arise. But what we wanted to do is summarize the recommendations in a digestible format. And what’s been most valuable to our customers is our breakdown of the cost impact of each of those measures recommended by ASHRAE and the CDC.
I’ve talked to a few facilities directors, and people in finance especially, who just don’t understand that bringing in 100% outside air is going to have a huge financial impact. They can relate to putting in a sanitation station. That’s something they can see. They can grasp it; it’s x thousand dollars per station. When you talk about flipping a switch or changing a line of code to increase the outside air, I don’t think it occurs to people: that’s going to cost a lot of money in energy consumption and put a lot of pressure on your heating and cooling systems.
So each of these measures, like installing UV, increasing your outside air, increasing equipment runtime, increasing the discharge air humidity on your system, those are each going to have a unique cost impact. And some measures are going to have a more obvious economic impact.
For example, if you upgrade your filters, you’re going to have to pay for the new filters and they’re going to have to be replaced every once in a while, and there’s also the impact on your supply fan due to the increased pressure. And then you get to more intricate cost considerations, like UV, where there’s the cost of installation, there’s the cost of maintenance, there’s also actually reduced fan energy because those UV filters are going to keep your cooling coils clean so you’re going to get a boost in fan energy. And you might get a boost in your chilled water performance. At the same time, there’s going to be a little bit of heat associated with those UVs. So in the Northeast, it might be better for your bottom line to run the UV system because you’re going to get a little bit of heat that’s going to help you in the winter, whereas in the South, you’re not going to benefit from that; you actually get hurt from that little bit of heat. Also, changes in electricity use can have a big impact on sensitive instrumentation. So if the UV equipment is tied into the same electrical system as instrumentation in a lab, is that going to affect the instrumentation there? So you can see there’s a lot of fine pieces that need to be considered with something that sounds as simple as installing a UV system.
We’ve helped our customers walk through all those considerations and customized the cost calculation, so, for example, they know if they’re going to increase the outside air 40%, it’ll cost them this much; if it’s 80%, it’s this much; 100%, it’s this much.
And yes, you’re going to want to bring in a hundred percent outside air, but you also want to change that air as frequently as possible. So don’t just increase your outside air to a hundred percent; you want to increase your air change rate too to make sure that you’re purging the space. At the same time, you don’t want to increase it so much that you introduce a lot of turbulence. So it’s a really fine line.
Though I will say, new research is coming out weekly, sometimes even daily. It’s exciting because this is an area that hasn’t received a lot of attention from the research community. All of this new attention to ventilation will, in the long term, benefit the building science field to help us make healthier, safer and more productive spaces for the people that work in the buildings, for customers that use the spaces, for patients, and so on. But right now we’re in an intermediate period where we have some ideas, we’re confident about those ideas, but they’re subject to change at any point.
Cimetrics team: It’s crazy how fast things are still changing. You’d think, we’re almost a year in, we’d start to understand this, but it seems like there’s still a ways to go, and that’s really interesting.
So how are you seeing the Analytika platform helping your clients with managing what’s going on in their buildings related to COVID?
Webb: The Analytika automatic fault detection and diagnostics system is flexible enough that we can adjust our algorithms in response to COVID, for example, the minimum outside air. If previously your goal was 20% minimum outside air, and now it’s 40%, we can go in there and tweak one parameter, and now you’ll be alerted if you’re not bringing in enough outside air based on what your current goals are, or what the standards are. We can also input a schedule, so we can let our customers know, hey, this piece of equipment is supposed to be running 24 hours a day, and it’s only running 12 hours a day.
And now in this COVID and hopefully post-COVID era, I think wellness is going to be another area that our customers will be very interested in. Some of our customers are already very focused on comfort issues, and we have a lot of summary charts associated with occupant comfort.
There’s also new technology for measuring particulates in a space, so pretty soon we might have a device that can detect coronavirus particles in a room and automatically adjust the HVAC system to respond to that.
Cimetrics team: So there are going to be sensors that detect the coronavirus specifically? Is that what you are saying?
Webb: I think that’s where we’re going. Right now, we’re dependent on some other proxies. Carbon dioxide is one of the most commonly used proxies by our clients, and the jury is still out on whether that’s an accurate representation of the coronavirus particle count. And there’s other, different types of particles that can be used as proxies. But I hope that, and I think that the technology is moving in the direction that we will be able to detect specific viruses, or at least virus sizes, and target those.
Cimetrics team: So what you’re saying is there’s future applications, but the applications right now are just basically confirming whether the equipment is operating in a way that meets the owner’s goals for mitigation of the virus in their buildings.
Webb: Exactly. We want to make sure that they’re meeting their goals in mitigating the virus, while also meeting thermal comfort and making sure that their equipment can keep up with the demand. They might say, we want to do a hundred percent outside air, but we can say, look, that is only meeting the thermal load up until 60% or up until 40%. So that is going to have to be the limit of your sequence. Our cost analysis helps with the decisions-making process too.
We have a customer who had a known faulty economizer operation for several years that we brought to their attention. The damper wasn’t bringing in as much outside air as it was supposed to. We believed that the root cause was old, aging pneumatic damper actuators, and we’ve been encouraging them to upgrade their actuators. But before investing the money in that, they wanted to make sure they covered all the bases – that it wasn’t a sensor issue, an air flow issue, a ductwork issue. So they went out and checked the system numerous times.
And finally, they said, you know what? We’ve spent thousands of dollars trying to troubleshoot this and it’s costing us hundreds of thousands of dollars a year because we’re not able to economize. Let’s just go and spend the $5,000 per actuator or whatever it is to replace them, and we’ll be good. So it’s been a several-year process to get them to the point of replacing these actuators. So at the beginning of 2020, they decided to do a pilot project on 2 of the 12 or so air handlers. They upgraded the actuators there just in January or February.
Then along comes coronavirus and this big push to bring in 100% outside air. Now they look like heroes because they’ve already started the process of upgrading their equipment to be able to accommodate 100% outside air, all because we were able to identify an issue ahead of time and give them a heads up that they’re not going to be able to meet their requirements. And now it’s a lot easier for them to get the funding to upgrade the rest of those actuators beyond this pilot project to be able to bring in more outside air. And they’re actually one of our customers that already has MERV 15 filters, so they’re ahead of the curve in other ways too.
We were really happy to support them on this project to be able to bring in more outside air. And the best part is that they were able to submit this to their local utility company to get incentives, so the project costs will be covered by a rebate from their utilities.
Cimetrics team: That matches with the trend that we’ve heard from others, which is: people that added intelligence to their buildings before the pandemic ended up looking a lot smarter once the pandemic hit. It just made people look good. Versus the people that did not.
Any other real stories from your clients during this time about how the platform has helped mitigate the effects of the virus?
Webb: We have another customer who asked us back in April to calculate the cost of running all the return air systems at 100% outside air. All these systems that they were used to running in economizer mode, they were going to crank them up to a hundred percent. We were able to provide a very accurate calculation for them because we have years of data on their systems. In fact, not only were we able to calculate what the cost would be for running at 100% outside air; we were also able to tell them, hey, this system has never been able to run at a hundred percent outside air, so you ain’t going to get there. And then once they did implement those changes, we were able to look at the data and let them know how their systems are operating.
Another thing they did in addition to bringing in a hundred percent outside air was that they increased their airflow to the maximum in all the spaces at the terminal units. We were able to review all the data and let them know: these spaces are now running at a hundred percent or at their maximum airflow; those spaces are still lagging. We were able to provide energy use projections and evaluate the performance of their systems, and all of that benefited from the years of data and the partnership we have with them.
Cimetrics team: What was the result of the calculation?
Webb: It was about $200,000 per year, and this is about a half a million square foot research facility. And since it is a research facility, there are a number of 100% outside air units; so not every system is a mixed air system. But that gives you a ballpark.
Cimetrics team: But that was a significant cost. Likely more than they thought it would be.
Webb: Yeah. So that’s information that can be passed up to their finance teams to help with funding and to give them a heads up, and it also helps them understand, in the future as they work towards some carbon reduction goals, the impact that these changes are going to have towards meeting those goals.
Cimetrics team: That’s interesting to hear these stories from the field.
So, what are you excited about, and what you is your team working on as far as the future of the product, and what you are developing.
Webb: We’ve been collaborating more with government organizations, utilities and other stakeholders to help push their initiatives for better, cleaner, safer buildings, help them develop programs, such as incentive programs that will incentivize our customers to implement the changes that we identify, that will help improve the operation of the buildings, and also lower the carbon footprint of the buildings and in general result in increased productivity, healthier environments, happier employees, staff, customers, patients, et cetera.
There is a growing number of incentive programs for monitoring-based commissioning. We’re based in Boston, Massachusetts, and Massachusetts has been somewhat of a leader in incentivizing programs like this, and we’ve worked with the local utilities for years. We’ve been able to demonstrate that there is value in incentivizing monitoring-based commissioning. We’re finding issues that reduce electric and natural gas use, and that has an impact all the way up to the grid. It doesn’t just contribute to greener cities, but it has an effect on long term grid planning. There are a number of incentives associated with monitoring-based commissioning, or whole building commissioning, or retrocommissioning; it goes by a lot of different names as far as the utility companies are concerned, but we’re seeing these expand. We’ve worked with utility companies in the mid-Atlantic, on the West coast, in the Midwest. We’re seeing more and more of these, and we’re happy to be a part of that process.
Cimetrics team: Are utilities realizing that there needs to be some sort of incentive to incentivize the monitoring, the ongoing fee? Utilities are used to incentivizing things like retrocommissioning where you have a one-time effort, right? And that one-time effort is incentivized. And then there are certain energy conservation measures that are then incentivized after the one-time effort. But with monitoring-based commissioning, there’s this ongoing fee that a building owner sees, and there aren’t a whole lot of utilities that are incentivizing that, where they’re cost sharing on the monitoring fee as well. So, is that changing right now?
Webb: That’s a really good point, because there is a startup investment that’s required to set up a monitoring-based commissioning system, and then there is an ongoing fee. And I think utilities are starting to recognize that. So currently, there aren’t many utility programs that will sponsor the setup fee, but I think we’re getting there. We’re working hard to get there. And then in terms of the ongoing fee, yes, that is included in the incentive programs that we’ve seen for the specific measures that are identified as energy savings measures. So the total cost of implementing those measures that we identify will be covered. And that includes the internal cost for the client, the vendor cost for time and materials, and also the costs of the commissioning program and any analysis and support work that’s done. So we’re creeping in the right direction.
Cimetrics team: That’s good to hear. It’s always good to hear that people are working towards better programs.
So Cimetrics has been doing building analytics for longer than most people, right? After 20 years, how much growth potential do you think there still is for FDD and monitoring-based commissioning?
Webb: That’s a good question. We’re going to see a lot more technology within the buildings that we can integrate with, and that’s going to lead to development of new algorithms. At the same time, we’ll see cheaper data storage and data processing. So instead of looking at one or two or a hundred parameters in our algorithms, we will be able to look at a thousand parameters in our algorithms because that’s going to take a split second to do, whereas 20 years ago, you couldn’t even do it. Algorithms will get more complex. Predictive maintenance is an exciting sub-field of building analytics that we’re going to develop further.
As smart buildings are becoming more commonplace, we need to think what other technologies are we going to be able to incorporate into our systems? In the post-COVID era, we might even see some more biometrics being incorporated into building systems. So, is there going to be a temperature check when you walk in the building that is going to adjust the pressurization in your room and trigger an autonomous cleaning system? I think there is going to be some really interesting technology coming out in the near future that we will be able to incorporate into our systems.
Cimetrics team: You see that as a way to just pull those systems in and really extend the platform to do more analytics beyond just HVAC and traditional systems, cool.
Webb: Another opportunity for FDD is integration into a CMMS system. This is another area that is still in its infancy, but it would be a really powerful tool for streamlining our client’s workflow, because they would see our results directly in their native system. We would see their work directly in our system and be able to open, close, adjust the issues that Analytika identifies so that we can provide the best results for them. It will create a much more streamlined back and forth. It will also allow them to evaluate their KPIs more readily, for example, how many work orders generated out of Analytika are closed, which could provide cost justification for using the Analytika system.
And you can even take it up a higher level. If we’re integrated into their CMMS or other building management systems, then we can look at other effects of the issues that Analytika has identified – how did we affect downtime? Did we help avoid excess downtime because we helped prevent equipment from failing? Has the work that the staff has done based on our findings helped reduce sick time of the employees? Has the work that they’ve done helped with patient satisfaction in a hospital, for example, or data center resilience? These are some things that I’m excited about. There are a lot of opportunities to use building data in ways that can improve our clients’ experience at all levels.
Cimetrics team: If we can summarize what you’re excited about, it is that the FDD and monitoring-based commissioning is branching out beyond just energy savings into other aspects of your clients’ organizations. That’s great to hear.
Anything else you wanted to say to the audience?
Webb: I would be happy to have a conversation with anyone interested in learning more, and provide a demo of our Analytika system. I’ve recently delivered presentations on best practices for launching a successful building analytics program and on the topic of using MBCx and AFDD at newly constructed laboratory buildings, and I’d be happy to present those again for anyone interested. We will be revising the Cimetrics COVID-19 guidelines regularly to account for new studies as they are released and provide some more fine-tuned cost projections.
Cimetrics team: Thank you for the interesting conversation and looking forward to more news from Analytika!
About Hadas Webb:
Hadas Webb has 20 years of experience in engineering, energy analysis, and leadership and currently heads the Analytics group at Cimetrics. Her primary responsibilities include planning & integration of new offerings and enhancements, overseeing the client experience, and coordinating marketing efforts. Ms. Webb holds a B.S. from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and an M.S. from Carnegie Mellon University, both in Mechanical Engineering, and is a Certified Energy Manager.