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The essentialness of a digital HVACR ecosystem

The ability to analyse the data lake of knowledge available and identify actionable insight can lower operating cost for building owners, contends 2020-2021 ASHRAE President, Chuck Gulledge in this interview he gave to Surendar Balakrishnan. Excerpts…


Could you share a few words on your presidential theme? What is the core message of the ASHRAE Digital Lighthouse and Industry 4.0?

Chuck Gulledge

The whole passion behind the theme I created for this year has to do with digital evolution of our ecosystem. It spans engineering, construction, the procurement supply chain and operation. We are all evolving with industry 4.0 into a digital way of doing work, and it’s a redefinition of what work is. I tried to encapsulate that into the theme to challenge the ASHRAE membership. We are evolving to a digital world. I think that’s a good high-level perspective.

When it comes to budgeting, what is the mindset of building owners towards digital solutions? Are IT systems supervising buildings viewed as a critical addition, given their ability to infuse agility, predictivity and responsiveness to building O&M? Getting building owners to adopt digital solutions was a challenge even during normal times. So, what would you suggest as persuading building owners to adopt digital solutions now?

That’s a very fair question, and before I answer I want to lay some groundwork for the whole reason behind adopting and evolving to a digital culture, which is associated with the quest to find value and to eliminate waste – and that is in our design processes, construction processes and operating processes. Those whom I would characterize as innovators in this direction understand the value that is uncovered and how they can improve their productivity and margins when fees, costs and budgets are being squeezed. But you ask from the perspective of it not being in the budget and how do we get it in. How do we reframe the question from saying that we can’t afford it, because we only have so much money, to how can we not afford it and save the money in the other things and get the concept in the job. I am talking about leaving the owner with a digital twin that lets them manage and operate the building. Is that really something that is not in the budget? Because if we put control system in, we have information and knowledge. The real issue is collecting that knowledge, analyzing that data lake of knowledge available and identifying actionable insight, all of which impact the operating cost. We are getting into the lifecycle cost, not the capital cost of the building. The mindset of all stakeholders has to evolve to the total cost of operating and maintaining. This evolution will find that productivity and value and, in the long run, reduce cost. I love the way you ask the question, because that’s where the evolution has to take place.

With IoT, we don’t need to wait for anyone to tell the story of a building any longer, but are we really equipped as an industry to fully understand and appreciate the full scope of IT solutions in our grasp?

I love how you frame that question. There are elements and market sectors in our ecosystem traveling this path already. Mission-critical pharmaceuticals and healthcare sectors understand and see the value and are doing this. But, holistically our entire ecosystem has not evolved. How do we bring everybody – jeez, that’s rewording of my theme you just enumerated – vendors, suppliers, manufacturers, commissioning and testing, validation, the code people, the owners themselves and their subdivisions of stakeholders together. The challenge and reality are we are evolving down that path. Some have started, and others have not, and I don’t know how to get everybody evolving now. Education, demonstration… sometimes, you just have to show people what can be done and what you get by doing it, and until we get more of that exposure out there for everybody to see and understand, we are going to have opportunities to bring everyone along.

So, it’s a reasonably long drawn out process, then. Is that why you use the word, ‘evolution’?

It’s an evolution. Some people are there who understand the principles of the manufacturing industry, as applying to the construction dialogue and narrative. I don’t know that holistically we will bring everybody together – some market sectors may not see the value and understand. But to end up with that digital twin – all that data-connective knowledge and the understanding that now, you have the ability to operate and maintain a living electronic organism for everything you do, and not just maintenance. I’m talking about occupants themselves – their health and well-being, energy and water, your emissions to the environment, your carbon footprint. We have the capacity now with this digital evolution to manage those scenarios. I think down the road, when we start connecting buildings to other buildings – a campus mentality, when buildings get connected into the city, and cities get connected into the state – we will have the ability to share knowledge and information and understand resource use from a micro perspective.

Look at Europe and digitally built Britain. They are going down this path, about having knowledge connecting the knowledge and doing something with the knowledge – and therein is the evolution.

Given that in the case of digital solutions, a set-and-forget approach will no longer do, how important is it to give constant attention to maintenance of fully automated control systems?

The scenario you described is an all-too-painful reality. Too many owners end up with a control system building management system of viable strength and complexity, and too many times it’s just ignored and overridden. This is an evolution for the ownership of a built asset. It has to be a realization that this is a tool having a new utility of the building how to manage and operate that building. And the digital savvy resource that understands all this has to be applied to managing and using information from it to improve its part of that lean continuous improving cycle of what is this telling me, what can I improve, why is this going on, what is my predictive scenario of changing filters. It’s about understanding what gives me so much performance. On air handlers, no one is perhaps paying attention that the filter is approaching dirty and it’s time to replace.

What’s done is that people have service contracts, where people come every three or six months. There is just a disconnect with operations with tools available versus O&M procedures. There has to be a metamorphosis. You have something very powerful now to live with this building, and the training needs to come into place to do it. The support from the ownerships needs to be with it.

How imperative is it to re-skill FM teams to bring them up-to-date on fully automated control systems? Considering that FM firms are bogged down by costs, what financial model should they adopt in providing training and constant capacity-building?

It is imperative we equip resources operating built solutions, how they work, why they work the way they work and what to do with the knowledge available to them to keep them doing what they are supposed to do. Sadly, this aspect is not funded or supported in budgets from an operations standpoint. So, step one is that hurdle has to be breached with owners understanding the value of having those resources to do what’s needed to be done for the facility.

I would also add that with digital capacity and the connectivity, owners don’t have to have all the resources in house to do that. Let’s say if a pump broke down, the impeller ran off the shaft. With this evolution, we have the capacity for someone to use augmented reality and look at that pump, pull out the information in goggles and understand what to look for and what to do and how to call a centralized service provider. You don’t have to have all people on site that need to do everything. We have connection at the point of need by understanding the model, to reach outsourced resources to help fix the issue. That is a reactive discussion, and the narrative burden doesn’t have to be on the owners to have this incredible team know every element of it. That is the beauty of connection and the Internet of Things, but it still comes back to owners needing to realise and support with their cost model the ability to see that digital twin capture the data and analyse it, understand what’s going on and respond to what you’re told to do, and it just evolves from that plug-it-in-and-walk-away mentality.

That’s got to happen, and there are resources and capabilities available around the world to help manage the facilities. You don’t have to look for drawings. Everything is available in digital model, and that is part of the value of digital evolution. It’s going to be a staged process. Owners have to understand the value available to them by investing something to have it available to them.

We are seeing numerous instances of HR structures derailing digital strategies and solutions aimed at better HVAC-related building performance. Cost-cutting has led to constant turnover of personnel trained in digital solutions, with those replacing them perhaps not so proficient. So, even with the best of technologies, we are confronted with the human element. What kind of structured, institutionalised approach would you suggest?

We need somebody to replace the filters and someone to make sure the refrigerant is charged, because not all building owners have in-house capability to handle these. And what happens when outsourced services cut down the value they offer by not having the most qualified resources to do what needs to be done. For me, what the digital landscape offers is the opportunity for those that can deliver value and make owners happy. It gives them an opportunity to stand out from the competition and demonstrate, ‘We have your back, we got this covered, and we can do it cheaper and faster, just by eliminating waste not by cutting quality immediately.’

Let’s talk about cybersecurity, which is a valid concern here in the Middle East.

That’s a huge concern.

Are we able to confidently say we have evolved a comprehensive system of regular updates, patching and vulnerability assessment protocols and practices, so vital for the well-being of automated control systems in buildings?

Cybersecurity is extremely important. We are talking about collecting data from across a wide range of things, be it heat sensors and motors, be it information on elevators, or refrigerator and ice makers. You see how big the landscape is here. The challenge we face is the fact that we are collecting the data, which in and of itself provides a vulnerability point to us.

The cybersecurity discussion is a changing playing field every day we operate these buildings. We are always having to look to see if our firewalls are safe, and if the data have to go outside the firewall and come back in. We always have to look at the vulnerability points, much as the financial markets do. We face that every day. It would be naïve to say we are secure and don’t have a problem, but also naïve to not recognize this is a daily activity to stay in front of to make sure we minimize this vulnerability point. Hackers are getting very sophisticated all the time.

I want to move to a more general line of questioning. Building-retrofit projects, for long, have been unidimensional, with a majority solely focusing on improving energy and water efficiency. With COVID-19, are you seeing any, or more, instances of the inclusion of IAQ as one of the outcomes of retrofit efforts? Or, Are a perceived lack of metrics and inability to precisely measure financial and health benefits of good IAQ still standing in the way of incorporating better IAQ-related solutions in existing buildings?

That’s a pretty open-ended question. I would ask you to point your readers to a lot of the information ASHRAE is publishing on the Epidemic Task Force (ETF) webpage. Our webpage group has been gathering objective, proven, scientific information to share from the engineering control contribution that can be part of  a response to a pandemic. Just from an engineering control point of view, what can be done and what do we see from this. There is a reinforcement of the value of having proper ventilation in the breathing zone and making sure correct amount of outside air is delivered to the breathing zone. Sadly, people cutting down to save energy and lack of ventilation is an exposure point to increasing your risk. We see narrative on humidification levels, depending on the climate zone. This virus has the propensity to be more of a threat if the humidity within the space is outside the 40-60% RH band. Not all buildings have a humidification system. As for filters, we don’t have to go all the way to HEPA but at least MERV 14. It’s an inter-connected scenario of energy use, increased pressure drop and what does the air flow on the space looks like, as the fan goes back to the curve. Those are real issues out there people are facing if they feel systems have to be modified or enhanced, so let’s talk about surface disinfection, the whole UV light scenario – it’s very effective in killing the virus, but it needs contact time. We can’t just put that band of UV light on surfaces, because it is harmful to people. We have to apply UV when people are not in the building, or we must have it at an elevation that it doesn’t touch people.

When we talk about getting ventilation air into the breathing zone, let’s make sure we are moving the air in and out of our spaces in a proper manner and that we are not spreading by entraining virus to the detriment of people. If you have improper air velocities around that kind of environment, you can entrain all those particles and aerosols and spread them into the breathing zone around the people. So, a holistic look of proper ventilation effectiveness and air distribution effectiveness is part of that supplemental pandemic response, and there is really good information based on ASHRAE research to help guide people, but some of it comes at a cost. And when I say cost, it’s not human life; I’m talking about capital cost to implement, tweak and supplement.

And it’s not just about COVID-19 for these facilities and buildings that have been offline for months. Just think of the stagnant water allowed to stay on the pipes to feed into the dead legs. The potential for proliferation of legionella is now increased. People are not talking about that now, but as part of the response, you have to look at potable water systems to make sure you don’t have a legionella issue, because you have stagnant water at ideal temperature populating it with so much things. That’s an important storyline to get out.

COVID-19 has brought the issue of the number of air changes per hour into sharp focus. Even before the pandemic struck, some, like Dr Joe Allen of the T.H. Chan School of Public Health at Harvard, were calling for an increase in the number. What is ASHRAE’s view on this? What ought we to do to better fortify our buildings from future pandemics?

Right now, we are showing via the ETF webpage the reinforcing data that demonstrates effective use of ventilation and having it in the breathing zone. These conversations are connected. Just increasing air change rate is not in and of itself effective. Now, are we going to see an increase in the ventilating rate in ASHRAE 60.1 and 2? I don’t have that crystal ball in front of me right now. I’m curious myself, but the data we see suggest if we are providing effective use of ventilation values we have now that is what our goal should be. Let’s evolve an evolution. The more the outside component, the more the cost of energy. Either cold or hot, full of moisture or dry as a bone, something has to be done to offset impact. There is an interdependency that does mean it is going to cost energy as we raise the number of fresh air changes. The question I have is, does the actual minimum ventilation rate itself need to get higher, or is it about making sure we are effectively getting ventilation where it’s supposed to be properly delivered?

So, I understand Dr Allen’s perspective there. I want to make sure we are talking about the same language. For me, it’s not just you turn more air over; it’s about the right amount of ventilation, as part of that total equation and getting to the breathing zone of people.

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