Smarter Mechanical Systems for Schools

Mechanical systems control the quality of indoor environments in school buildings. The better the indoor environment, the better the learning.

The quality of the environment provided by a building affects the quality of the work done in the building.

That is as true for an office building as it is for a school building. The quality of work suffers in an office building that provides a sketchy environment. Extrapolating that thought to K-12 school buildings, schools with a lower quality environments reduce the quality student performance across the board.

Educational leaders are trying to bring K-12 architecture into the rapidly evolving era of smart buildings — buildings that can adjust to the weather outside and the occupancy inside and maintain a comfortable, productive environment.

“The smart building arena is evolving right now,” says Bob Bittner, senior manager, partnership development with Cary, N.C.-based Dude Solutions.

Bittner’s wide experience includes 40 years as a senior facility manager including the past nine years as director of energy and physical plant with Wake County Public Schools, the 17th largest K-12 school district in the country.

“We used to call this kind of building ‘green’ or ‘LEED’.

“Today, we use the term ‘smart’ building to refer to building-wide technology that allows a lot more control over lighting, HVAC, security and other technical systems,” continues Bittner. “We used to call advanced technology buildings ‘green’ or ‘LEED.’”

Smart building technology enables various building systems to talk together, control each other and to a great degree manage and operate building systems independent of the need for human intervention.

For example, in an advanced smart building, when the last person leaves at night, the building senses that it is empty and shuts its systems off or down to low levels, while activating the security system.

That, of course, is the ideal. For a number of years, engineers couldn’t quite get there. “Some of the equipment didn’t work well because it wasn’t installed or calibrated properly,” says Bittner. “While we have made these buildings work today, each still has its own personality and works slightly differently.”

In other words, a smart school at one end of a town in Maine will have different operating protocols than another smart school down the road.

Managing Smart Building Technology

No matter how smart a building is, facility managers may still intervene when they decide it is necessary to deviate from the regular smart routine. A facility manager has to get to know people as well as buildings.

 “Typically, a building automation system is smart enough to learn work patterns and work schedules and adjust the building environment based on outside temperature and humidity” Bittner says. “There are software programs that can help with this.

“For an example, check out a program called Optimized Start Stop.”

In addition, room-scheduling programs can interface with electronic door controls, HVAC, lighting, digital signage and so on.

“I’m not sure how much these programs are used in schools today, but they would make it possible to schedule rooms through a digital system. With such a system, you could set auditoriums, gyms, conference rooms, classrooms and other spaces to go into a standby mode when not being used. That reduces the HVAC load and lighting associated with those rooms.

“The program will even lock the doors to the rooms. That will prevent people from going into rooms you don’t want to be used and turning on the lights and HVAC.”

In most schools, students, who are between classes, often look for unoccupied rooms to study. While studying is a good thing, it is more economical if students used designated study halls instead of turning on the lights and HVAC in rooms not scheduled for use.

Bittner notes another useful classroom management feature that is being introduced today. By using appropriate sensors and the Internet, individual rooms can be equipped to sense occupancy and respond by turning on the lights and HVAC.

“In addition, most of us carry cell phones,” Bittner says. “Even when we’re not using our phones, they are always turned on and working to connect with the local wireless hub and communicate with the building automation system.

“If the building automation system senses only a few cell phones, it will understand that the room is not at capacity and back off the air flow system. If the system goes too far and the room becomes uncomfortable, I can activate an app called Comfy on my phone. Comfy or another app that performs similar services can interface with a building automation system and enable me to adjust the temperature in a room based on how I feel. When I leave, Comfy knows I’m gone and resets the system.”

Comfy and other applications designed for building users can cut building costs for both energy and labor. “I would estimate that you can produce a savings of about 20 percent across the board with these kinds of energy savings technologies,” Bittner says.

“On the flip side, however, it’s important to realize that it requires a higher level of technical skill to maintain and support these advanced technologies, many of which are moving into a building’s IT infrastructure. In fact, advancing technology is beginning to marry the facility department and the IT department.

“This is a scary thing for facilities people and IT people because neither side understands the other side’s language. To the facility management people, IT seems like a foreign country, with a language all its own.

“At the same time, IT people don’t understand the language spoken by the mechanical department.

“This, of course, has been going on for years. Today, the two sides really do need to learn to communicate much more clearly with each other.”

Bittner suggests that this communication problem may solve itself, noting the age difference between the two workforces. Maintenance people are older and aging toward retirement, while the IT workforce is younger. The older segment of the workforce hasn’t really wanted to learn how mechanical systems and IT can complement each other and work together.

“I think that is beginning to change, today,” says Bittner. “As I see younger people coming into the operational side – including maintenance — they, of course, are accustomed to holding a device in one hand. Unlike the older generation, they are comfortable with this. Within another 10 years, the entire workforce will be comfortable with technology.

The rising maintenance generation may have necessary technical skills, but there are fewer of them

“At the same time, fewer young folks are skill with mechanical system repairs and maintenance. The statistics regarding this trend are daunting. For every seven maintenance technicians that retire, on three are coming behind as replacements.”

Bittner attributes this to an educational problem, saying that today’s educational system has minimized the value of working with the hands. “We’ve said that you have to go to a four-year school for business or engineering to make a decent living,” he says. “We haven’t explained to young people that they can make a good and decent living as a skilled technician working with mechanical systems.”

In the end, technology is making schools smarter and smarter, and maintenance departments have to begin to put a priority on keeping up — through better educational options for aspiring maintenance technicians as well as refresher training for technicians already on the job.

(There’s More)

Funding Hassles for Maintenance Departments

The Great Recession of 2008 continues to exact its toll from K-12 school districts across the country.

According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonpartisan research and policy institute, most states slashed financial support for elementary and secondary schools during the great recession.  That, of course, was to be expected.

What almost no one could expect is that ten years later — today — budgets have not returned to normal. In fact, recession-era budget levels continue to prevail. That is to say, budgets have not risen in many states for a decade. Even worse, the Center observes that some states are continuing to cut their K-12 education budgets.

The Center also notes that local funding for education has also fallen over the same period in an estimated 18 states.

Such comprehensive funding cuts have reduced maintenance spending for mechanical systems in many schools. As a result, the condition of plumbing, water treatment, drinking fountains, sinks, air condition systems and other pieces of complex mechanical systems have suffered.

When funding finally does begin to receive attention, the deferred maintenance problems created in K-12 mechanical systems will need their fair share of increases.