Access Control for Building Systems?

Emerging facility management techniques in K-12 schools are leading facility managers to at least consider the case for access control technology. So far, however, most have deemed access control too expensive. But developments in another technology field automated building systems may soon make it easier to justify the costs of access control.

Consider, for example, how a facility manager must manage an outsourced districtwide cleaning vendor. What is the best way to provide access to cleaning crews? Locks and keys are the conventional answer. But what happens when the cleaning supervisor holding a key quits and another supervisor comes on board? The facility manager must rekey or change the locks in every affected school and issue new keys to everyone authorized to enter each of those schools. Turnover within the outsourcing service company may give rise to this expense once or twice a year.

The same principle applies to teachers and administrators who need after-hours and weekend access to school facilities. When someone loses a key, the locks must change again.

Access control technology eliminates the need to replace locks and keys in response to every event that might compromise building security. The facility manager can simply cancel the authorization of the access-control card in question and issue new cards when necessary. Still, access control technology carries a capital expense that may be difficult to build into a budget.

In the last few years, another argument favoring access control has begun to emerge: the integration of various automated building systems. Today, it is possible for a teacher to arrive at school on a Saturday, swipe a card at the access-controlled front door that provides security and, at the same time, activate the heat or air-conditioning in his or her room. When the teacher leaves, another card swipe will tell the building control system to ratchet down the HVAC system. The building systems need not be turned on and off by a member of the maintenance staff working overtime.

"As security becomes of more concern to K-12 facility managers, we’re hearing more questions about this kind of integration," says Joe Zeigler, marketing communications manager with Honeywell in Minneapolis.

Zeigler also notes that school districts can spread the cost of access-control technology in other ways. For example, a basic access control system records who goes into a locked building after hours. Questions about equipment discovered to be missing can be directed to the appropriate people.

"It’s also possible to tag computers with infrared and radio frequency devices that will activate readers throughout a building," Zeigler says. "The principal can fold up his or her laptop and take it out of the building. But no one else can remove the laptop without an alarm going off. We’ve done this kind of thing in hospitals with good results."

Some school districts have begun to install card access control systems in alternative schools, facilities reserved for difficult-to-manage students. "Administrators view security as more critical in these facilities," says Roger Schenck, owner of Technical Solutions and Services (TSS), a Morton, Ill.-based network integrator. "They install card access technology to help protect teachers and administrators working after hours."

In 1998, TSS added access control and other security technology to a school being renovated to house an alternative program for the Springfield School District in Springfield, Ill. It was a simple access control system with a single reader at the front door. The building remains locked down all day, except for a half hour each school day morning when the facility’s 200 students arrive. Before and after, anyone who wants to enter the school must swipe an authorized card.

Wayne Mendenhall, who served as director of facilities for the district and has since retired, also equipped the school with an automated energy management system. Mendenhall could control the system by computer from virtually any location offering an Internet connection. "I could diagnose and fix problems from home," Mendenhall says.

One night, for example, Mendenhall received a call from the company monitoring the system’s alarms. A boiler had suffered a flame failure. The temperature that night had fallen below freezing, and a boiler failure could allow water pipes to freeze. From home, Mendenhall used his laptop to shut off the failed boiler and to turn on the backup. "Then I went to bed," he says.

The system also allowed Mendenhall or someone on the facility management staff to adjust temperatures in the building when teachers or administrators wanted to work in the evening or during a weekend.

According to Mendenhall, the district is currently considering the installation of technology capable of integrating both building control systems: access control and heating, ventilating and air-conditioning (HVAC). "We looked at this kind of integration when we installed the original system, but decided it was too new," he says.

Today, five years later, building system networks have begun to prove themselves. Honeywell, for example, offers a product called the enterprise building integrator, which can automate and integrate a building’s HVAC, lighting, access control and fire-safety systems. "We have just introduced energy management to this suite," says Zeigler. "Now the system can also monitor energy use and look for ways to flatten the peaks and valleys."

To make the integration work, Honeywell uses a building system networking product developed by Echelon Corporation, of San Jose, Calif. Called LonWorks, the product includes a system of cables, sensors and microprocessors that can connect virtually any kind of building system, from HVAC and lighting to fire and security. "Our idea is to allow different devices to talk and to leverage each others data," says Steve Nguyen, director of corporate marketing with Echelon. "For example, the lighting sensor in the Honeywell system uses data from the HVAC system and vice versa."

A building system networked with LonWorks or some other open networking technology enables building systems to cooperate with each other. An access control card swipe at the front door will not only open the door, it will also activate other building systems. A teacher’s card can be set to turn on the heat or air conditioning and lights in a particular room. When the teacher leaves, another card swipe will shut the systems down.

At the same time, the teacher need not fear being alone, since the access control system will only admit those with authorized cards.

Neither Echelon nor Honeywell can point to a school that has actually installed such an advanced system. But executives from both companies believe the concept is an emerging trend.

Jeff Stroh, regional sales manager in the Baltimore offices of NetVersant Solutions Chesapeake, agrees but suggests waiting for a while. According to Stroh, integrating building systems is a definite trend, but NetVersant has not combined access control and other security technology with building systems yet. Stroh cautions that the technological connection between security and other building systems may need further seasoning. "I know that owners are doing this in commercial buildings," Stroh says. "I’ve seen it in specifications. Too often though, a design tries to shoehorn security into the building control system. For now, I think it is better to keep these systems separate."

Nevertheless, it does appear that networking companies such as Echelon and others will soon make it possible to connect and control building systems from HVAC to access control on a single interoperable network. Stay tuned.

MICHAEL FICKES -- Fickes is a freelance writer from Baltimore, with education experience.