From Building Operating Management July 2005 Issue
Look Out for Automation Pitfalls
Steering Clear of Common Mistakes can help facility executives achieve the expected
benefits of systems integration projects
By James Piper
Email the BOM editors.
Facility executives thinking about integrating systems can count on powerful, user-
friendly technology that offers a wide range of tools and capabilities. What’s open to
question, however, is whether these benefits will translate into improved performance.
Too often, facility executives are unpleasantly surprised to find that a newly installed
system does not perform as expected. It doesn’t have to be that way. Thousands of
integrated systems are successfully installed each year — systems that help improve
comfort, productivity, flexibility and control.
Many factors contribute to failure. Reviewing some of the most common mistakes can
help facility executives avoid the biggest pitfalls.
Not Identifying Needs
Facility executives have many choices when it comes to integrating building functions.
There are proprietary systems and systems that conform to accepted interoperability
standards. A wide range of functions can be included in the integrated system. Systems
can be network-based, hard-wired or wireless. Simply selecting a system or system
features based on what someone else has done or what looks good will probably result in
a system that is unnecessarily expensive or lacking in performance.
A successful system is one that has been carefully matched to the needs of the facility. A
cookie-cutter approach to system design and selection will not work. System capabilities
must be matched to facility requirements.
Bring together representatives of those who will be affected by the completed system:
management, owners, operating personnel and maintenance personnel. Develop a
comprehensive list of the reasons for installing the integrated system. Typical reasons
might include high energy costs, poor existing system performance, lack of information
sharing or duplication of efforts. Prioritize that list. Only then can facility executives start
the process of finding a system.
Throughout the design and installation process, facility executives will have to make
decisions that will affect the performance of the completed system. There is a tendency to
make those decisions in isolation, thinking that the decision will affect only a small
portion of the completed system. But decisions in the integration process almost always
have an impact that goes well beyond the immediate. Call it unintended consequences.
Even a seemingly minor decision can greatly influence overall performance.
Every integration project has an overall purpose that is tied to the needs of the facility.
While decisions may appear to involve only small issues, they may in fact entail
opportunities for improving or diminishing the overall performance of the system and the
facility. Therefore, all decisions must take into consideration the purpose of the project in
the first place. By focusing on the big picture, alternative solutions that improve system
performance will frequently surface that otherwise would have been missed.
Focusing on First Costs
Keeping first costs down is an important element in any successful facility project,
including integration projects. If initial costs are ignored, the project may simply become
too expensive to implement. But keeping first costs low should not be the focus of
decisions made in building integration projects.
The first and most important consideration in any decision is what impact that decision
has on the overall goals of the project. Having a low-cost but ineffective integration
project is counter productive.
One of the problems with most construction processes is that the responsibility for
construction is separated from that for operations. Construction managers are primarily
interested in completing projects on time and on budget. Operations managers are more
interested in long-term performance of the system. What functions will provide a good
return on the investment? How can maintenance costs be minimized? What will upgrades
cost? These issues will affect long-term performance.
When looking at options and alternatives, facility executives must evaluate the impact
those alternatives will have on long-term performance as well as their impact on first
costs. Tradeoffs will have to be made. But ignoring performance to reduce costs can
result in an ineffective system.
The success of an integration project depends on more than picking the right components.
No system design has reached the level of plug-and-play.
Building automation projects, particularly those that integrate the operations of several
functions, bring together a wide range of technologies. But the technologies are generally
beyond the expertise of the facility executive and operating staff. These complex
technologies are expected to work together seamlessly upon completion of the project.
Facility executives are well advised to bring in outside help when needed to evaluate
Assuming One Size Fits All
Too often, the same approach is taken to writing integration specifications that is used in
writing building construction specifications. Building specifications are very strongly
evolutionary; specification writers build on what has been written before, changing to
incorporate new materials or processes while modifying the specification to correct for
past mistakes. While this process may work well for many construction or renovation
projects, it does not work with integration.
Building automation and integration projects must be facility-specific if the needs of the
facility are to be met. A one-size-fits-all specification simply will not work. While
portions of the specification may be drawn from other automation and integration
projects, the majority of the specification must be specifically tailored to the current
Closely related to the one-size-fits-all specifications, incomplete specifications fail to
clearly identify what the owner is expecting to get out of the completed system. A
complete specification must include at least the following items:
• A scope of work that summarizes what must be provided as part of the system,
including shop drawings, as-built drawings, maintenance manuals, commissioning tasks,
warranty requirements and operator and maintenance personnel training.
• A description of what technology standards must be adhered to by the system, including
system architecture, installation practices and programming capabilities.
• A clear description of the minimum requirements of the system that includes detailed
features that the system must provide.
• A complete listing of points that will be included in the system.
• Hardware specifications that set standards for each piece of equipment to be installed as
part of the system.
It is this level of detail that will be required to evaluate submittals from bidders as well as
to determine if proposed alternatives to the specification meet the requirements of the
Facilities once were stable places, rarely changing. Today, few can keep up with the rate
of change. Tenants relocate. Functional requirements of building spaces change. Unless
the systems that support those changes are flexible, it will be more difficult and costly to
keep up with those changes.
The same applies to building automation systems and how they are integrated. As
functions change in the facility, the support systems must change along with them. And
automation systems supporting those systems must be flexible enough to change without
significant cost or downtime.
Consider that the average building system life is 20 to 30 years. The average automation
system service life is 10 to 15 years. The average time between space changes is less than
five years. Facility executives can no longer assume that systems and their automation
support structures will be replaced when the functional requirements of a space change; it
is simply too expensive.
Building automation systems must be designed with change in mind. That means
modular designs, spare capacity and programmability. Without it, facilities will lose their
System integration is a hot topic. But the benefits of integration are sometimes touted
without a clear understanding of how integration will actually affect a specific
application. This is one of the leading causes of dissatisfaction with the entire process.
When the project is completed, owners find that many of the benefits they were promised
either did not materialize or never could have been achieved in their operation.
Start with a realistic understanding of what the systems can accomplish. Compare those
potential benefits to the particular application under consideration. Use realistic
assumptions in calculating the impact of the benefits.
One area where systems frequently fall short of expectations is in energy savings. Most
facilities today are on a time-of-day rate structure. Calculating the potential energy
savings from a particular system function, such as lighting controls, using an average rate
structure will produce inaccurate results.
Another area where benefits fall short of expectations is in the operation and maintenance
of the system. In spite of advances in automation and integration, systems are not install-
and-forget. They require operators to run them and maintenance personnel to keep them
running. Systems will have to be periodically updated as new software is developed.
Ignoring these costs when considering system benefits will result in overly optimistic
Integration projects bring together many different disciplines. Programmers, installers,
control experts: All must function together seamlessly if the project is to be a success.
Such seamless performance does not simply happen; it must be properly coordinated.
Without good coordination, the installation will be poor at best. More likely, it will not
function at all.
Good coordination starts with adequate planning. The project schedule must be
established with adequate time for each component to be put in place, inspected and
tested. Schedules must be coordinated between the various elements of the project to
ensure that tasks can be completed on time and without interference. And every step of
the process must be fully documented so that what was done and why it was done can be
understood by all.
Stopping Before It Is Over
The project is not complete when the contractor says it is complete. The project is
complete only when the system owner is satisfied the system performs as expected.
All elements of the system must be tested and confirmed to be functioning properly. The
most thorough way of performing this testing and verification is through commissioning.
Every point in the system must be tested. Setpoints must be read and calibrated. Controls
must be cycled and confirmed. Data sharing must be demonstrated. Without such
confirmation of proper operation, the system may perform poorly even though it was a
good system properly matched to the application.
Even when the construction is finally over, the project is not over, at least for the facility
executive. Contacts get dirty. Controller setpoints drift. Sensors go out of calibration. As
these errors accumulate, the accuracy and functionality of the system decrease. Given
enough errors, discussions start about replacing the system with one that actually works.
At least once each year, the operation of all points connected to the system must be
verified. All operators must be cycled through their full range to verify proper operation.
Setpoints must be tested and calibrated if necessary.
These are not all of the potential mistakes that can be made during the implementation of
an integration project, just the most common ones. But by avoiding these mistakes,
facility executives can help ensure their facility will gain the greatest benefits from the
James Piper, PhD, PE, is a writer and consultant who has more than 25 years of
experience in facilities management. He is a contributing editor to Building Operating