The integrated building system (IBS) concept, sometimes known as building automation, has presented the designer and the electrical contractor with more complex challenges than traditional individual systems did. One of the more critical challenges is ensuring that the requisite power demands of the entire facility under construction are met.
“If we accept the definition that building automation involves a computerized network of electronic devices that monitor and control virtually all of a building’s systems, then logic dictates that this sort of integration is going to incorporate more complicated requirements, including those related to power demands,” said Richard Bingham, Electrical Contractor’s power quality columnist. “With all the systems tied together, it’s no longer a question of simply relying on Ohm’s and Kirchoff’s Laws to determine how the power flows because this is a more complex situation, and all parties concerned in the project have to pay much more attention to what effect one system might have on another.”
Another way to approach the IBS power demand issue is to consider both the quantity and quality of power required.
“With regard to quantity, the U.S. Department of Energy predicts an average 2 percent increase in energy use per annum in the commercial sector for the next 24 years,” said Thomas Glavinich, associate professor of civil, environmental and architectural engineering at the University of Kansas. “This demand rise will relate largely to the amount of electronics going into buildings of various types. But on the other hand, with IBS we should be able to reduce energy use and demand in commercial buildings, including applications such as HVAC, sensors, dimmers and other lighting controls.”
“The IBS environment provides the opportunity to monitor the power demand and shed load if required, and it’s also easier to roll back set points and shut equipment down,” said Matt Hylton, project manager at Dynalectric Co. in San Diego.
Concerning the question of power quality, Glavinich believes that because IBS involves sensitive electronic control systems, this may require providing buildings with what might be called a higher quality of power. Is it the correct frequency, the correct magnitude? Is it a good, pure sine wave, or is there any garbling in terms of harmonics?
How to avoid delegating blame
Given the greater complexity of IBS, the question of interlocking responsibilities among the key players in the development of the project becomes more complicated. And this responsibility issue is especially consequential in the power-demand area.
“From the electrical contractor’s point of view, most of the burden of responsibility lies with the designer to specify what is needed to meet the power demands correctly,” Bingham said. “So the contractor’s main job is to make sure he follows the drawings exactly. But this shouldn’t preclude looking at the drawings carefully and asking some basic questions if he has any doubts about what he sees.”
He recalled one instance during a power outage at a hospital. The generators kicked in, but part of the operating room did not power up. With so many systems tied together, it becomes difficult to ascertain who should have foreseen a system failure of this sort.
This kind of situation can lead to mutual delegation of blame after the fact, an exercise that could be avoided by better communications and closer collaboration in the planning stages.
In studying the development of the IBS trend over the past few years, Glavinich has differentiated among the roles an electrical contractor (EC) might play in this disciplinary sector.
The EC might function as a systems contractor, providing the hardware and software solution to bring the various building systems together, or he might perform some of the systems integration work but would subcontract other functions to specialty contractors. In both instances, he would be analogous to a general contractor.
The major qualifications the electrical contractor brings to the IBS job site are his experience with the installation and operation of power, communications and control systems, and his overall management (including financial) skills.
Obviously, the nature and level of his oversight responsibility on the project will vary according to his role on a given project.
“Basically, it’s up to the electrical engineer/designer to make sure there will be sufficient power available for all the integrated systems in the building,” Glavinich said. “And if it is a design/build situation, then it is the electrical contractor’s responsibility to make sure that the required capacity and the quality of the power delivered to the equipment in the IBS are as they should be.”
Reports from the field
Two Southern California firms, including Dynalectric, that have been involved in IBS work for more than a decade have learned from experience that no one on the project can afford to take anyone else’s work for granted.
“We have our own building management systems department,” Hylton said. “But if an electrical contractor comes onto a project where there is a separate building systems contractor like ourselves, both should take the time to review the scope of each other’s work in detail—and in advance—to make sure there are no gaps.”
And it also is important for the designer to indicate clearly at the outset what is expected of the electrical contractor on the project.
“Most of our work in this area is design/build,” said Frank Hermes, president of Construction Electronics Inc., San Diego. “When we get a communications system job, it’s rare that it has been engineered. Usually someone has simply written a function-and-feature specification, or indicated devices on a two-dimensional floor plan. Then we have to come in and do the engineering for our portion of the work.”
Both of these contractors stress the fact that anyone contemplating entering the IBS arena should be aware of two of the basic realities of the marketplace—one regarding the systems that are to be installed, the other having to do with work force availability.
“One reason the IBS field hasn’t developed as quickly as it might have,” Hermes said, “is that much of the equipment is proprietary in design. Often the manufacturers are quite protective of their own lines. Many don’t want to tell a competitor how to interact with their equipment. There have been attempts at standardization, but this hasn’t really materialized to any degree.”
The work force issue
“An electrical contractor getting into IBS for the first time should be aware that skilled labor in this field is hard to come by,” Hylton said. “You need qualified people, and ongoing training is key because the products are constantly changing. What you buy today is often outdated six months from now.”
Over the years, he said, the company has been doing most of its staffing from within, moving people from the electrical department into IBS work. When hiring from outside, he feels, electricians are preferable to workers with only a mechanical background who may know control equipment and its operation better, but lack the electricians’ established thought process acquired from trouble-shooting electrical circuits and their power sources.
In the final analysis, both industry observers and contractors active in the field agree on certain basic guidelines as far as IBS project responsibility is concerned.
Whatever role the electrical contractor chooses to play, he should be vigilant in ascertaining that what is shown on the drawings will work. Even if a particular aspect of the job is not strictly the contractor’s responsibility, he should ask questions up front.
It’s obviously more professional, productive and cost-effective to get things right the first time around, even if this means modifying or revising the design plans. This can not only solve power demand problems and others before they arise, but also can help avoid the recriminations or even litigation that can occur when critically sensitive electronic IBS equipment fails to function.
QUINN reports on a broad range of business and industry issues for journals in the United States and Europe. He can be reached at 203.323.9850 or email@example.com.