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Making Your Building Smart

Carol J. Ott in Green Ideas on September 17, 2019

New York City

Smart Buildings
Sept. 17, 2019

What caught our eye. Smart buildings.

Say what? No offense, but your building is probably kind of dumb. Not because it’s inherently a bad building, but because its energy infrastructure works like it did in the early aughts. Take a typical heating system that monitors outside temperatures and heats the building accordingly. This method, which has worked for most buildings since they were built is, in light of today’s technology, lagging. To still be using what worked when energy was cheap and climate change was not upon us, is, to be blunt, dumb.

Why it matters. Resident comfort, energy expense, and carbon emissions. If you could make your building’s heating system responsive to the various temperatures on the inside of your building, rather than on what the weatherman says is outside, you would be on your way to a smarter building. In one fell swoop you could increase the comfort of your residents and lower your energy expense and carbon emissions. Given the looming requirements – and potential fines – of the city’s new Climate Mobilization Act, now is the time to invest in your building’s smarts.

The big question: where to begin? “It’s a process,” says Marc Zuluaga, CEO of engineering consultancy Steven Winter Associates, “that involves putting in new technology and fixing the pipes and vents and the hundred-year-old stuff so that it can all work holistically.” Because most things don’t happen at one time, he says, you need to make sure that first-step decisions won’t close future options. “You can put in a new set of wireless sensors that talk to your boiler,” he says, “but it could be some proprietary system that doesn’t allow you to integrate with another building system.” Technology should use standard communication protocols that can integrate with other systems you might install down the road.

Expert insight. “From a building-owner standpoint,” Zuluaga remarks, “smart should mean responsive to the people in the building.” From a state perspective, he says, the definition of “smart” is a building that’s responsive to the grid. “Buildings that can be smart about when they use electricity or gas depending on time of day translates into operating cost savings,” says Zuluaga, “but it’s a bit removed from being responsive to the actual needs of building residents.” Since many of the smartening steps qualify for New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) incentives, understanding this is important in your decision-making.

Risk. Overcomplicating your building. Think of your building as an engine. You want it to be responsive to your needs and at the same time to be aware of costs imposed by the larger world. What you don’t want is a new system that is not a good fit for your building’s existing system, or its staff. “Training is very, very important,” Zuluaga emphasizes. “We’ve all been in buildings that have had control panels ripped out because there’s not a training component - and the technology is not used.”

The takeaway. Define goals to smarten your building that make sense, irrespective of the technology that is available, and then come up with a game plan that utilizes the rebates NYSERDA offers.

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