Leveraging FDD Analytics Technology for Commercial HVAC Applications

Technological innovation is growing at an exponential rate; technical advancements that once took years to develop can now be done in weeks or even days and, based on this supersonic pace, it’s not out of the question to think that within a decade the time to develop innovative technologies will shrink from days to minutes. It’s remarkable when you think about it. It wasn’t long ago that enormous computers filled entire rooms to perform simple tasks, but now we casually carry around powerful supercomputers in our pockets, along with our wallets and keys (and if you’re really tech-savvy, your one device can act as all three!). Even with technology advancing at rapid rates, however, commercial building maintenance and HVAC plant operations have largely bucked this trend and continues to be performed the way it has been for decades—through emotion.

The anxiety derived from a combination of constant cuts to operational and staffing budgets combined with the daily routine of reacting to constant hot/cold service call “fires” forces building techs to instinctively revert to what they know (indefinite overrides on setpoints, damper positions, or pump/fan speeds) while shunning new technologies or sequencing (disabling energy-conserving resets or setbacks). Unfortunately, these kinds of emotional responses can contribute to unnecessary stress on equipment and potentially lead to premature failure. It can also hinder the further application and advancement of energy conservation strategies and technologies aimed at making the most efficient use of precious resources (most importantly time). Fault detection and diagnostics (FDD) is a buzzword that is becoming more prominently applied in today’s HVAC design and operations circles. However, it is not being utilized to its fullest extent to proactively institute real change and to help make informed decisions based on data.

Another way to think about the above scenario is by comparing it to the variety of navigation tools used when making a cross-country road trip. Not too long ago, you would go to AAA or the like and pick up a road map—a static tool that laid out all the twists and turns of paved streets between you and your destination. Any construction that occurred from the time of the map printing (which could theoretically have been months prior) and your departure date weren’t considered, and a detour on an unpaved road most likely wasn’t something that could easily be navigated through. Then, when the internet became more widely available and people were able to print out routes on MapQuest, some major construction and detours were able to be accounted for and a lot of stress was alleviated. However, the plan was still subject to changes and inevitable lane closures due to accidents that would add hours to commute times. Next, portable GPS devices became available that used real-time satellite imagery to map out the route, eventually leading to today where applications like Waze can be projected through your cell phone to the car display. Apps like Waze notify users of unknown obstacles in the road, parked cars on shoulders, police patrols, and most importantly as it relates to the topic at hand— alternate routes presented in real-time based on suspected delays based on the constant ingestion of data from others using the application.

Fault detection and diagnostics (FDD) is meant to provide individuals at all exposures to different equipment and systems within the built environment with the information needed to help make decisions on where to best invest time and capital into improving the infrastructure to support the program type of any given space. The necessity of the output(s) from the FDD analytics platform should be simplistic, yet meaningful. It is critical to engage and maintain the interest of the reader long enough to educate them on what to do with the diagnostic analysis provided. In my opinion, the same set of outputs should be simplistic enough for an on-site technician to quickly read through and extract what information they may be looking for while also providing the most senior consulting engineer with the detail needed to properly outline the necessary scope required to resolve systemic issues that their client may be experiencing.

There is a multitude of platforms that provide analysis of the many facets of the built environment. There is no way I could go into all the different applications, outputs, and implementation strategies for any given facet without either writing a manifesto in the process or inadvertently doing a disservice to the potential readers of this blog by not being able to fully acknowledge the capabilities and impact that any given technology provides. With my career’s focus on commercial HVAC systems/equipment, predominantly the instrumentation and controls devices used to operate and maintain that equipment, I wanted to start a blog series discussing building management/automation systems (BMS/BAS), FDD analytics platforms, and energy management information systems (EMS) in their basic applications.

My primary purpose is to engage in conversation intended to promote critical thinking around these tools’ application, to promote my selfish desires in attempting to reduce waste of precious resources (most efficiently and responsibly) while maintaining necessary performance and supporting metrics with the most critical resource of all being time.