The Effects of Underutilization

Electrical engineers and contractors must teach their customers the value of good design and sound operations/maintenance practices in intelligent building

Do you ever pause for a moment and think about the power of all the electronic devices at your disposal? Whether it's your cell phone, PDA, digital camera, or some other fancy technological wonder, chances are you're not using these gadgets to their full potential. Whenever I stop and contemplate whether or not I'm taking advantage of all these devices have to offer, I quickly feel like a novice. I admit I'm basically guilty of underutilization. Most of the time, I quickly learn the basic capabilities and then settle in to using the device or tool, rarely exploring the full-blown options available to me. I just don't have the time to sit down and read an operating manual or practice using all of the obscure functions. I would venture to say I'm not alone.

When I expand this thought process to equipment, such as computers and handheld portable test instruments, it really gets interesting. Like most of you, I regularly use programs like Word and Excel for basic document creation and database management, but rarely, if ever, do I take advantage of the fancy macros, advanced formulas, or interconnected data wizard options they offer. Likewise, I'm comfortable making basic voltage, current, and resistance measurements with a handheld digital multimeter, but I've never really overlayed data from multiple meters to find cause-and-effect relationships. Again, I'm guessing many of you do the same with your own portable test instruments, electrical design software, or estimating programs.

I believe this same line of thinking can also be applied to the concept of intelligent buildings. After years of discussion, I think many of us would agree there are real benefits to creating an intelligent or connected building — one that features a building automation system that interconnects subsystems such as fire, security, access control, lighting, communications, HVAC, and power through a common communications backbone. But the ultimate success of these sophisticated systems relies on the people who operate and maintain them.

What happens after these systems are installed? Are the individuals in charge of operating and maintaining them given the time to really comprehend their full-blown features? Of course not. They learn the basic functions they need to survive and move on to other more important tasks at hand. The problem arises when something goes wrong or needs to be modified. If that problem is too difficult to overcome — or too expensive to fix — then the quick fix solution is to disable a piece of equipment or manually override a system. This may be appropriate in the short term, but if left unchecked without follow-up, all the money and time spent during the design phase gets thrown right out the window.

Although they're not inexpensive, I believe these so-called Smart Buildings are worth our time and effort. They promise better energy control, enhanced management capability, enriched communications systems, and improved comfort for occupants. But the key to their ultimate success is the systems and components within them must be monitored and managed properly after installation. It's your job to help make sure your customers realize the value of good design and sound operations/maintenance practices. They must believe in the commissioning and re-commissioning process. If they don't, then widespread adoption of smart building designs is going to be a long and painful process. For an update on the latest in intelligent buildings and LEED initiatives, turn to page 18 and read this month's cover story, “Performance Anxiety.” When it comes to intelligent building, learn why breaking out of your underutilization rut just might be worth your while.

TAGS: Design
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