Today's building automation systems have advanced far beyond their HVAC-centric past to handle additional functions such as lighting, security and more, providing key opportunities to save operational and maintenance dollars.
Integration and interoperability are key trends in building automation systems (BASs), creating new opportunities for hospitals to save money. At the same time, new wireless applications are allowing health facility professionals to check building vitals from almost anywhere.
"For years, BASs were based on proprietary networks, which meant facility managers were locked into a single vendor," says Ron Holdaway, P.E., CEM, LEED AP, chief mechanical technical resource at the design and engineering consulting firm of Smith Seckman Reid Inc., Nashville, Tenn. "Now, with industry standard protocols such as BACnet and LON, an owner is no longer committed to a single vendor," he says.
"Another major trend is that BASs are now browser-based, which means the network is available to facility managers from any place that has an Internet connection," Holdaway adds.
Greg Turner, vice president of global offerings for Honeywell Building Solutions (www.honeywell.com/buildingsolutions), Minneapolis, sees more focus on common enterprise system architectures that allow building and clinical management systems to interact and share infrastructure.
Graeme Robertson, global business development director, health care solutions, buildings business, Schneider Electric (www.schneiderelectric.com/us), Palatine, Ill., adds, "Recent developments in BAS open communications technology allow systems such as HVAC, lighting, security, electrical power and data centers to interoperate with one another in more intelligent ways — improving the healing environment for patients and allowing for more efficient facilities management."
Indeed, there is a movement away from separate building systems with multiple front ends (security, fire, medical gas, emergency generators and lighting) and toward greater ability to share data between systems by use of open protocols such as BACnet and LON, according to Kimberly Barker, application engineer for the Building Technologies Division at Siemens Industry Inc. (www.siemens.com), Buffalo Grove, Ill.
Another trend is the integration of controls at the room level to manage ambient conditions in discrete spaces affected by the number of occupants, daylight, time of day and other factors.
"Beyond open protocol language, wireless and Ethernet platforms with Web connectivity, I see unique interfaces being built among facilities, external utilities and clinical systems," adds Damon Greeley, P.E., CEM, HFDP, CBCP, principal at the engineering consulting design firm of Mazzetti Nash Lipsey Burch, San Francisco. "These interfaces use information to automate energy reduction strategies while setting and validating optimal conditions for providing patient procedures, treatment or care."
Most vendors have a BACnet version of their BAS, even if they also have a proprietary version. So compatibility is less of an issue than it was several years ago, experts say.
Having the ability to communicate via BACnet is important for anyone in the controls industry because it simplifies vendor-to-vendor communication, which has been a challenge in the past, according to James Barrette, product marketing specialist, Phoenix Controls (www.phoenixcontrols.com), Acton, Mass. Communication via universal protocols such as BACnet MS/TP, BACnet/IP and BACnet/Ethernet can reduce or eliminate the need for proprietary protocol translation servers or routers along with the added integration time, Barrette notes.
Meeting hospital documentation requirements is another area where BASs can help facility professionals, says Richard Fish, director of sales for the Pittsburgh branch of Automated Logic Corp. (www.automatedlogic.com). "We see more use of trending and reporting features of BASs in health care to help satisfy the documentation requirements of regulatory authorities such as the Joint Commission or National Institutes of Health."
Innovative use of BASs can save hospitals money, says Mike DeNamur, LEED AP, vice president, strategic marketing and sales, Automated Logic, Kennesaw, Ga. "Hospital operating margins are incredibly thin," he adds.
Within hospitals, should BASs use the same infrastructure as the medical and business systems or should it have its own? Proper design is the key, experts say.
"Running BASs on the same network as business and medical systems has its advantages," says Brendon Buckley, health care enterprise solutions manager, Johnson Controls (www.johnsoncontrols.com), Milwaukee. "However, a properly designed network must be in place to provide the reliability and robustness required of hospital information technology (IT) systems." He adds that the design must take into account relevant integration points, traffic load, application behavior and quality of service elements.
Turner sees a dramatic reduction in the amount of wire and cable routed to each room in hospitals. Rather than having multiple systems (phone, TV, lighting, nurse call, etc.) with dedicated cabling to each room, a single, high-bandwidth Internet protocol (IP) connection now can be provided, usually with fiber-optic cable, so that all room systems connect onto virtual IP networks.
"Simple issues such as fire proofing of penetrations benefit from this consolidated backbone," Turner notes.
Fish says the technology in most BASs can work equally well with a dedicated server and data lines as with an infrastructure that shares functions with the clinical and business parts of the organization.
"The desire for a dedicated server stems more from the ability to control access and what else is being installed on the server [rather] than a functional need," he explains. "While some facility managers prefer to have their BAS networks separate, many are now leveraging their core business IP networks for the BASs. It really depends on the preference of the customers and their approach to IT systems."
Since these systems handle so many operations, do they need off-site backup? An analysis of all variables is required here, experts agree.
The facility must have a carefully planned vision for power backup strategies and scenarios to ensure quality of care because clinical and patient systems are themselves sensitive to the environmental conditions in which they operate, according to Barker. The Joint Commission also is involved in these backup planning details and requirements.
"Typically, a risk analysis is helpful in determining what systems need backup power," adds Rodger Reiswig, director of industry relations, SimplexGrinnell (www.simplexgrinnell.com), a Tyco International Company based in Westminster, Mass. "Stakeholders should complete an analysis of the types of events that could occur and then develop an emergency response plan."
Once a plan is developed, determinations can be made on the selection of equipment and how it is used, installed and powered.
More wireless room and zone-level controllers are being proposed and accepted in BAS projects — at the same time, they are evolving to address concerns of interference, compatibility and reliability. However, further development is needed in this area for health care, experts agree.
"There may be merit to wireless BAS devices in health care facilities, but it is limited," says Holdaway, pointing to reliability concerns with sensors, especially those that serve critical spaces. "With increases in wireless functions, there are concerns about wireless network interference with medical telemetry and wireless networks. Even in hospitals where wireless sensors are used, BAS devices for critical spaces should be hardwired."
Wireless is an area for caution, Turner agrees. There are clinical areas where wireless may create interference with diagnostic or treatment equipment, and others where radio-frequency noise generated may make wireless ineffective. "However, the productivity, safety and quality of care improvements possible from wireless are undeniable, so experienced system designers who know health care are required to make it work."
What is becoming more prevalent, according to Greeley, is the use of wireless electrical power, flow/temperature/humidity meters, and other performance monitoring equipment that can relay data to a central Web database. This data then can be analyzed by building intelligence algorithms to support real-time operational decision-making, he says.
When it comes to wireless applications, security of data transmissions is not a major concern, experts agree. One reason is that wireless BASs use a variety of encryption key protocols. Security of wireless networks is really no different from wired networks, and relies on user-access rights.
"Controller and sensor-level mesh networks such as ZigBee are typically not a security concern," explains Fish. "The data at this level are not sensitive and are transmitted over a low-power mesh network to an Edge controller that is then connected to an IP-level network. Wireless 802.11 b/g/n networks can be secured via a security key just as in any business application."
Holdaway sees more facility managers using mobile apps for BASs.
"Facility managers are requesting full functionality of the system on iPads and iPhones, and on tablet computers," he explains. "There have been application issues with both iPads and iPhones because they do not support Adobe Flash. This problem has been mitigated with iPad apps that convert to Flash."
Clouds and grids
Some hospitals are considering the use of "cloud computing" (using off-site servers and data) to handle their BAS data. Yet, others want to keep data on their own servers, mainly for security reasons. Experts agree that this is an area worth watching.
The cloud may be a great place to store BAS information remotely such as trending and reporting data, according to Jim Beam, director, global products and operations, health care, for Trane (www.trane.com). "Cloud computing could be used to facilitate automation functions across a campus or group of remotely located buildings," he notes.
"I would not identify cloud computing security as a risk, but rather the dependence on the Internet and associated connectivity as one," says Greeley. "The advantages are best realized by systems that have multiple facilities in regional, national or international locations where the cost of connectivity by any other means would be prohibitive."
Joint Commission information needs to be current and available at all times, he adds, so using a local server that provides backup for this information is necessary.
Use of "smart grid" technology (two-way communication between a facility and electrical grid) offers one way for hospitals to take advantage of nonpeak pricing and possibly sell electricity back to the grid when not needed. Channeling electricity use to nonpeak times to save money could be a major application for BASs, experts say.
Smart grid is an up-and-coming technology that could be used in many ways, according to Beam. "We have not seen the full extent of the possibilities of smart grid systems," he says. "Over the next few years, we will see more opportunities for hospitals to conserve energy, and to interact with their power providers in other ways."
Michael Sheerin, P.E., LEED AP, BD+C, principal, director of health care engineering, TLC Engineering for Architecture, Orlando, Fla., believes that smart grid will become a helpful tool over time. However, hospitals are big energy consumers, he notes, so their connectivity to the power grid is best accomplished via smart energy meters at this point.
"As 24/7 operations, hospitals have a limited ability to do things that standard businesses can, such as pre-cooling buildings or making ice, in order to save energy," he explains. "Facility managers are getting smarter and more diligent about saving money by turning off power when possible. The challenge is to identify actions that will not disrupt clinical operations or compromise patient care."
Integration between lighting and HVAC in BASs is another area of importance, experts say. In fact, many hospitals now integrate lighting and HVAC through occupancy sensors and daylighting controls that not only control lighting for energy consumption, but balance light heat gain and ambient thermal gain.
"There is more integration among all of the facility systems," says Buckley. "Especially in health care, we are seeing an increase of integration with lighting, blinds, infotainment, temperature controls and location systems. The benefits go beyond providing cost savings, but actually impact health care metrics such as patient care and satisfaction."
Neal Lorenzi is a freelance writer based in Mundelein, Ill.
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For further details on the building automation systems featured in this "Marketplace" article, readers can contact the following vendors:
Automated Logic Corp.
Honeywell Building Solutions
Siemens Industry Inc.
SimplexGrinnell, a Tyco International Company