• InSite Intelligence


Building Operators’ Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic

By Justin Lee, InSite Head of Engineering

The traditional roles of on-site building engineering personnel are being challenged through reduced tenancy, closed businesses and stay at home mandates. Reimagining how legacy engineering practices and new technologies can coexist addresses a host of issues these engineering teams are currently experiencing across multiple sectors during the COVID-19 pandemic. Building engineering teams that are provided with digitally enabled facilities and systems are able to respond quickly and with great efficacy to the rapidly changing landscape.

Building Operators’ First Action: Keeping Buildings Safe

Unlike Hospitals and other Healthcare facilities, infection control and mitigating the spread of infectious diseases is not a primary function for building operators servicing facilities in the Commercial Real Estate and Retail sectors. However, due to the highly contagious nature of COVID-19 many building engineering staff in non-medical facilities are being asked to do what they can with their existing systems to help slow the spread of COVID-19 through enhanced cleaning practices and revising their HVAC sequences of operation. In response to these new demands on building operators, ASHRAE recently provided guidance on actions building operators can take during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Providing building engineers with new tools available through digital enablement of their facilities and systems will allow building operators to rapidly respond to these evolving circumstances. Even though many of these suggested sequences are atypical in non-medical facilities, digitally-enabled assets are able to quickly adjust their operations and provide verification that the extra effort to protect their assets is effective. Figure 1 shows an example of a digitally enabled asset disabling their Demand Control Ventilation sequence several times each week to keep the Outside Air dampers open 100% for extended hours to provide increased ventilation air to the tenant spaces. Figure 2 shows new algorithms deployed to monitor the Indoor Environmental Quality and verify the revised sequences operate as communicated to the facility’s stakeholders:

Figure 1: Verification of revised ventilation sequence in response to COVID-19

Figure 2: Algorithm triggered a fault identifying a zone where humidity levels were not within the CDC’s recommended range

In facilities where the building operations staff are taking steps to increases ventilation rates to provide greater dilution of air and reduce circulation within the occupied spaces, the steps taken will only be effective if all components of the air distribution system are working in concert to deliver the increased ventilation flow rate. This requires verifying:

  • Outside Air Handling Units and Supply Air fans, and associated dampers, are a maximum possible flow rate

  • Supply Air fans throughout the air distribution system are functional during these periods of increased ventilation airflow to disperse the air to the terminal units and

  • Terminal units are operational with primary air dampers open to deliver the ventilation air to the tenant spaces.

Figure 3 shows an example in a facility that forced open their manual Outside Air dampers 100% to increase the ventilation flow rates; however, the BAS lost communications to several terminal units which kept the primary air dampers closed and prevented these spaces from getting any ventilation air at all. The digital enablement of these assets allowed the building operators to quickly identify which terminal units were not responding to the BAS commands and corrected the issue so the tenant spaces could receive the increased ventilation air as intended.

Figure 3: Fault Detection and Diagnostics system identified VAV dampers that weren’t being opened by the Building Automation System

Building Operators’ Second Action: Navigating New Roles and Managing Operating Costs

Building operators must maintain a focus on balancing operating costs while maintaining a safe and healthy building environment during extended periods of varying occupancy levels. Some buildings are completely empty and have shut down, while many are operating at a fraction of their normal occupancy levels while supporting essential workers and businesses. This requires constant communication between building operating staff and the tenants, as well as adjustments to building operations while persistently measuring the impact of revised operating strategies.

One strategy deployed by a commercial office building that is currently operating with two-thirds of the floors vacant is to start the occupied floors during normal startup, but delay start-up of the unoccupied floors and only run them for several hours in order to condition the space, filter the air and provide new ventilation air to the floor. Figure 4 displays an example from an unoccupied floor running part-time that provides building operators feedback to adjust their new HVAC operating strategies in real-time.

Figure 4: Real-time, algorithm-based feedback from revised building operations in response to the COVID-19 pandemic

Another necessary strategy being deployed by building managers is to reduce the number of building operating staff and to cycle them in shifts to adhere to social distancing guidelines or to adjust to staff that may be required to self-quarantine for extended periods of time on short notice. These factors have resulted in reductions in building operating staff on-site during a standard daily shift by as much as seventy-five percent in some cases.

While other facilities, particularly medical facilities, may not experience significant reductions in building operator FTEs, the building operators may find themselves dedicated to new, high priority tasks far outside their standard core competencies. For example, they could be brought into a project to convert a Hospital’s surgical ICU beds to respiratory ICU beds. This also pulls staff from regular building operations and disrupts the routine day-to-day operations for their facilities.

Digitally enabled facilities will be well-equipped to handle these revisions in the workforce via several strategies, such as:

  • Leveraging algorithms to monitor equipment for optimal operation, even as operations are constantly adjusted

  • Using Fault Detection and Diagnostics to quickly prioritize and surface the root cause of maintenance issues

  • Using predictive analytics on utility demand load curves to watch for unexpected spikes or drops in energy consumption, and

  • Enabling algorithms to watch all building systems after-hours.

With many schedule changes being made to adapt to unprecedented building operations, it should be anticipated that with less on-site operational support many issues that would normally be quickly addressed will not be caught in a timely manner. This becomes a high priority when the issues that are being overlooked impact major building equipment, systems, or undermine new safety protocols.

The power of providing building operators with the tools that come with digitally enabled facilities to rapidly adapt to evolving circumstances presented by the COVID-19 pandemic cannot be overstated. Digitally enabled facilities provide building operators the tools to measure new safety protocols in real-time and keep their facilities running with less staff on-site; this provides a key piece to ensuring a robust and resilient response to the current crisis. These digitally enabled tools also free up building engineers to dedicate their time to other high-priority projects related to the COVID-19 pandemic while still staying on top of maintenance issues, which creates safer spaces for tenants and their communities.

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