All Systems Go: How automation can make buildings more energy-efficient
Friday, September 10, 2021
Section: VIECA

Automating building lighting systems can make them more efficient and spell great opportunity for electrical contractors.

The automation spectrum

Automation does not necessarily mean smart buildings, said Christopher Perry, research manager, buildings program at the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE), Washington, D.C.

Many legacy building management systems and building automation systems in existing buildings “do the bare minimum,” such as determining whether something is operating and working correctly, Perry said. In a smart building, all of the components of a building system are able to interact with one another in some way, and there is the ability to set up different types of automations and controls “so not everything has to be done manually.”

“We advocate for upgrading legacy controls to something that is considered smart, though that’s not always feasible given the costs of some of those retrofits,” he said.

More, higher quality technologies are now available—and costs are coming down, particularly for carbon dioxide sensors for demand-control ventilation systems, Perry said. Costs for lighting controls are also going down. Lighting controls, such as occupancy sensing and daylighting controls, are required in current building codes like ASHRAE 90.1, “so they definitely are no longer niche products,” and as a result, are priced competitively.

Building automation systems can vary widely, from very expensive systems that control everything in the building, to fault-detection and diagnostics systems, to energy information systems that may not control building components, but rather provide data on their status.

“Smaller facilities may not need large, expensive automation systems, but it does make sense to at least install an energy-information system and overlay that with sensors to better determine the amount of energy that’s being used,” he said. “Such solutions can be cloud-based, so off-site operators can manage the systems remotely.”

Post-pandemic, when fewer employees are expected to come to offices five days a week, there will be “a great opportunity” to leverage building automation systems to shut down the parts of a building that aren’t actively in use, Perry said.

In the future, building automation systems can also be connected to the energy grid. Within a five- to 10-year time frame, ACEEE anticipates that utilities will offer more incentives for building managers to connect such systems to the grid so that utilities can send and receive signals.

“For example, a utility can send a signal that it is expecting a peak and request a building operator to manage its energy load, which in turn could also potentially help the operator save money on their utility bill—and also manage the stability of the grid,” Perry said.

Chad Frischmann, senior director for research and technology at Project Drawdown in San Francisco, said that it’s important to have more energy-efficient commercial buildings, “as they typically utilize a tremendous amount of energy to light, heat and cool, as well as to provide an environment that it suitable to human well-being.”

Commercial buildings use electricity produced largely from a “dirty grid”—an energy grid powered by combustion of fossil fuels such as coal and gas that produce unhealthy emissions, Frischmann said. The buildings themselves also produce emissions from on-site fossil fuel combustion.

“Building automation systems can reduce the utilization of energy, thereby reducing the amount of emissions from the electric grid and on-site combustion that contribute to global warming and climate change,” Frischmann said.

Indeed, such systems can reduce energy consumption in commercial buildings by up to 40%, according to the International Energy Agency.

How buildings are constructed also matters. The materials typically used, concrete and steel, are high-energy-intensity products that generate a lot of emissions, he said.

“There are alternatives available, including the use of wood in buildings, to reduce the amount of emissions and sequester carbon,” Frischmann said. “In combination with other energy-efficient systems, buildings can essentially become a net sink—storing carbon from the atmosphere.”

Creating a niche

Two electrical contractors have developed a niche in smart technologies—Maron Electric Co. and Malko Communication Services LLC, both based in Skokie, Ill.

Maron installs advanced electrical systems and lighting controls in new construction, particularly large projects such as hotels, conference centers, office towers, academic campuses and tenant interiors.

“We are involved in a variety of lighting and building control projects that address the growing demands for a flexible and productive workspace,” said Joe Migliore, general foreman.

Malko is a communications installation and service contractor, specializing in distributed antenna systems, audio-visual, security and low-voltage products, services and systems. The company develops custom controls, programming and converged technology solutions “to meet the unique needs of each project,” said Thomas Pedergnana II, vice president.

“With the advancement and increased adoption of smart building technologies, we’re able to help building owners and tenants create customizable, contactless and adaptive workspaces and secure ways to help improve the tenant, visitor and customer experiences,” Pedergnana said.

In addition to LEED, WELL and WiredScore certifications, buildings are also now receiving SmartScores to identify best-in-class smart buildings—and contractors such as Maron and Malko have developed niches in helping construct these buildings.

For contractors that don’t have the internal resources or expertise to bid or perform specific low-voltage and smart building systems, broaden your connection with other contractors that specialize in these fields,  Pedergnana said. “There’s a lot of opportunity out there.”


Apprentice and journeyman training

The apprenticeship program offered by the NECA-IBEW Electrical Training Alliance covers structured wiring systems, local area network cabling systems and other low-voltage systems, said Todd W. Stafford, executive director. Later in the program, apprentices learn specific applications such as building automation systems and communication protocols that can be used differently in smart offices, industrial petroleum facilities and smart homes.

“Digital communication technologies have significantly evolved over the last 20 years—anything that uses digital computer controls and media communications protocols,” Stafford said. “As such, our training on these technologies is updated continuously. We have NECA contractors with telecommunications expertise participating on an advisory committee, providing input on our curriculum.”

Maron’s apprentices receive training from the NECA-IBEW program, and its journeymen get extensive on-the-job training on automated lighting controls and other systems, Migliore said.

All of Malko’s technicians are certified in the infrastructure that the company installs, tests and services, Pedergnana said. The training they receive begins in the apprenticeship school and continues through Malko’s extensive internal training program supported by its project managers and engineers, the Electrical Contractors’ Association of Chicago educational programs, and manufacturing and trade partners.

Licensed or certified electricians can also participate in the California Advanced Lighting Controls Training Program (CALCTP) or its sister organization for other states, the National Advanced Lighting Controls Training Program (NALCTP), said Bernie Kotlier, CALCTP co-founder and co-chair.

In states that don’t license or certify electricians, the electrician has to provide documented evidence of 8,000 hours or more of on-the-job electrical contracting work experience.

“It’s beneficial to participate in this program because this kind of work is sophisticated and complicated, as the systems require a lot of skill to install, as well as to operate and maintain properly,” Kotlier said.

For CALCTP, on-site training is offered at most Joint Apprenticeship Training Centers in California and through some investor-owned utility training sites. The class includes a series of lectures and seven hands-on labs that generally take 40–50 hours, and classes are scheduled based on the needs of the local electrical workforce.

“Most electricians are working at their jobs during the day, so the classes are usually scheduled two or three evenings during a week for several weeks,” Kotlier said. “For those who are not located near a lab, it would be difficult to attend.”

Current NALCTP training facilities include the IBEW-NECA Technical Institute in Alsip, Ill.; the Detroit Electrical Industry Training Center; and the Electrical JATC in Toledo, Ohio.

“We are happy to discuss NALCTP training opportunities with new sites that are interested in the program,” Kotlier said.