Installing, Retrofitting, or Upgrading Intelligent Building Systems

In a perfect world, every facility would be able to install a comprehensive, state-of-the-art Intelligent Building system. In reality, however, most facilities only have partial automation capabilities; and some have none at all. The benefits of upgrading to an Intelligent Building system are significant, but so are the costs. It is important that everyone involved in the decision making process fully understands the reasons for the installation, retrofit, or upgrade. Two perspectives—return on investment and cost-benefit analysis—can help decision-makers make the best choices for the facility.

Return on Investment

ROI (return on investment) means that the installed system will save enough money to pay for itself after a given period of time in operation. The savings will typically result from reduced energy usage. Vendors who sell BAS (building automation systems) and other Intelligent Building systems can provide guidelines on the cost savings associated with their products. Keep in mind, however, that the vendors are ultimately trying to sell products, and may thus be overenthusiastic in their own estimates.

While initial costs will likely receive the most scrutiny, life-cycle operating costs will have the greatest impact. Two of the most overlooked operating costs include training and changeovers. Training staff on the new system may require the employees spend several weeks at the system manufacturer’s site. Changeover costs result from maintaining service contracts on older systems until the changeover is complete. This may often take an entire year to complete. Cabling and sensors from the old system often must be kept in place during the installation period. This step is not cost-effective, but it is unavoidable. As well, the complexity of older systems sometimes make a service contract mandatory. The annual cost of a service contract for an old system may exceed the cost of implementing a newer system.

Cost-Benefit Analysis

In many facilities, the motivation for implementing a BAS is to provide better service to or comfort for occupants. In a cost-benefit analysis, the cost of the system is weighed against the benefit to the organization, or to ‘soft’ costs that are more difficult to quantify, such as improved employee performance.

Because most organizations already have some automation capabilities, it is likely that you will retrofit your building to accommodate the new system. The typical benefits of retrofitting a system include:

  • enhanced system performance and reliability
  • reduced disruption to facility occupants
  • improved competitiveness (if the building is leased)
  • increased flexibility
  • protection against system obsolescence

Exactly how these benefits are ranked and presented depends on the needs and investment posture of your organization. The magnitude of benefits depends on how well existing systems are performing. In other words, the worse an existing system is, the better its replacement will look. A study completed in August 2004 by the National Institute of Standards estimates the cost of inadequate interoperability in the U.S. capital facilities industry to be $15.8 billion per year. Of these costs, two-thirds are borne by owners and operators, which incur most of these costs during ongoing facility operation and maintenance. If, through automation and computer controls, a building can be operated and maintained, significant savings can be realized.

When considering whether or not to pursue a retrofit, analyze the following factors:

  • Base Equipment. Before embarking on any Intelligent Building project, the facility manager must make certain that the underlying systems to be controlled are in good working order. Quite often, the reason that facilities’ energy costs are too high is because of defective or inefficient equipment, poor maintenance, or incorrectly adjusted controls. Adding an Intelligent Building system to these scenarios could result in less-than-expected ROI or even make the equipment function more poorly. Before the performance of an old system is compared to that of a new one, the old system should be running as well as its age and condition permit. Improved maintenance of the older system may be just as cost-effective and much easier to implement. A dollar spent on assessing and correcting equipment or control failures may be more beneficial than a dollar spent on an Intelligent Building system.
  • Extent of the Retrofit. In practice, retrofit is an extremely flexible word. It may, for instance, refer to a complete gutting and replacement of an old system, particularly if its manufacturer has gone out of business. Total retrofits are rare, though. Most of the time, sensors or cabling from an old system can be reused, especially when installing an upgrade from the original manufacturer. Newer technology has definitely improved the ability of most systems to run on more than one type of cabling and to control more than one type of sensor.
  • Manufacturer Stability. Manufacturers of building systems have experienced the same market shakeout as other industries. Economic conditions favor the larger, more established firms. A company’s market share, established client base, dealer network, and financial viability have a material impact on how fast you can obtain service, spare parts, equipment, and technical support. Older systems may be very difficult to service, and if a vendor goes out of business or is bought out, you may be left with an expensive ‘white elephant’.
  • Automation Technical Support. As is the case with any computer hardware and software, technical support of Intelligent Building systems is critical. Since the client base for these programs is much smaller than it is for popular applications, such as word processors and spreadsheets, third parties have much less incentive to provide support if a program is discontinued. If a vendor abandons its system because of bankruptcy, buyout, or dwindling client base, it can be extremely difficult to find qualified service personnel.

Upgrade Scenarios

There are many different kinds of systems installed in facilities today, and sometimes there are multiple systems in a single facility. The following paragraphs offer a brief description of the common scenarios for installing or upgrading to an Intelligent Building system, including an analysis of the opportunities and challenges involved:

Separate, Nonautomated Systems

The most basic scenario is that of no BAS or other Intelligent Building system. The facility has separate, nonautomated systems for HVAC, security, fire detection and sprinklers, access control, and elevators, each each with its own nonintelligent control mechanisms. The systems use simple controls and cannot communicate with each other or over a network.

  • Opportunities: The greatest potential cost savings can be achieved when moving from this most basic system to a BAS. Manual controls, no matter how well calibrated and maintained, can never approach the efficiency of an intelligent Building system like a BAS. The reductions in energy costs can sometimes exceed 25 percent, a significant savings.
  • Challenge: While the savings opportunity is largest, the cost of installing a BAS in this scenario is also the largest.

Separate, Automated Systems

In this scenario, some or all of the building functions are controlled by automated systems. These control systems use computers to perform the control functions, but each has its own computer interface, and none are interconnected in any way.

  • Opportunities: Because the individual systems are already automated, there the potential of being able to use their existing control systems and simply link them to a central control interface. This could eliminate much of the cost that is incurred in the scenario of separate non-automated systems.
  • Challenges: Existing systems will likely use a variety of different communications protocols and, which can make integrating them more difficult. Also, depending on the type of control system, some existing controls may not have all of the features desirable in an Intelligent Building, so some additional control work may be required.

Separate, Automated Systems with Centralized, Automated Monitoring

In this configuration, each system is automated and is linked to a central monitoring system. While these systems all report to a central interface, this scenario typically does not allow for precise control of systems, a key element of an Intelligent Building.

  • Opportunities: Because the individual systems are already linked, there is a chance that some of the cabling and communications network infrastructure can be used in implementing an Intelligent Building system like BAS.
  • Challenge: Older systems sometimes use proprietary network and communications protocols, which may make the integration difficult.

Energy Management System Only

As discussed at the beginning of this chapter, the EMS (Energy Management Systems) is one part of a BAS and focuses on operating those elements of a building system (such as HVAC or lighting) that affect energy usage. The EMS has a central interface similar to that of a BAS, but the EMS typically has a more basic scheduling system that is not capable of controlling multiple systems to achieve a coordinated response to events.

  • Opportunities: Because the individual systems are already linked, there is a chance that some of the cabling and communications network infrastructure can be used in implementing an Intelligent Building system like BAS.
  • Challenge: Older Energy Management Systems sometimes use proprietary network and communications protocols, which may make the integration difficult.

This article is adapted from BOMI International’s Technologies for Facilities Management. More information regarding this is available by calling 1-800-235-2664, or by visiting