Smart Products Transforming Modern Mechanical Rooms
PME Magazine July 2020
By Nicole Krawcke
Mechanical rooms are the heart of commercial buildings — these systems control the quality of the indoor environment. Because these rooms are so important for building health and safety, it makes sense for the equipment to feature the latest and greatest technology. In fact, many mechanical rooms are increasingly incorporating smart products.
“First and foremost, the one thing that makes a mechanical room smart is the designer or installer,” says Dave Yates, former owner of F.W. Behler, a contracting firm based in York, Pennsylvania, and BNP Plumbing Group columnist. “He or she sets the stage and is the band director. Once you step beyond the ‘smart’ product, be it a boiler, furnace, geothermal or inverter heat pump (either unitary or mini-split), the entire system will soar like an eagle or fall flat on its face, depending entirely upon the skills of the designer or installer.”
Yates explains that in both commercial and residential spaces, smart products are becoming more popular in today’s mechanical rooms.
“I can pull up my two-stage heat pump in Chincoteague, Virginia, monitor its performance, change thermostat settings and see how our vacation home’s energy usage stacks up against other homes in the region,” he says. “I can monitor my home’s inverter mini-splits and boiler and change the settings as well. It’s all available via apps on my smartphone, iPad, computer or the old reliable walk to the thermostat and physically change settings (boring!).
“We’ve now seen IoT being built into products, including additional BOS (balance of system) components, such as circulators for hydronics or zone dampers for air-based HVAC systems. What we’re not yet seeing is cross-platform communication to tie it all together. We’re getting there with emerging technology so that modulating boilers can communicate with modulating ECM circulators to ramp up or down in sync.”
In hydronic systems, there are three main areas where smart products would be used: Heat or cool sources, such as boilers, heat pumps and chillers; circulators; and thermostats, notes John Siegenthaler, P.E., principal of Appropriate Designs in Holland Patent, New York, and another BNP Plumbing Group columnist.
“I think there is increasing use of these devices partially because manufacturers keep putting more of them on the market and hyping the features they offer,” Siegenthaler says. “This seems to be the contemporary competitive ‘battlefield’ between manufacturers.”
Siegenthaler adds he sees the value of such products in terms of diagnostics and the ability to communicate specific errors to service techs prior to any travel to the site to perform traditional diagnostics.
“Personally, I like circulators that can report their operating status — such as flow rate, head and power consumption,” he says. “The ability to know the flow rate, in particular, is helpful in terms of determining if the system, or a part of the system, is performing at nominal conditions. It’s also nice to have equipment that can ‘self-diagnose’ or at least point a service tech toward the likely problem.”
However, there is a downside to these connected devices, Siegenthaler notes, saying equipment wholly dependent on 24/7 internet access or that is highly sensitive to power quality fluctuations and voltage spikes can cause issues such as a “blow out” of the proprietary control board. Since a replacement board can cost hundreds of dollars, it would cancel any potential energy savings associated with having the smart controller in the product.
“My take on modern mechanical system is that reliability is paramount,” Siegenthaler says. “Most successful contractors gain familiarity with specific brands and models and tend to stick with those products because they’ve gained good understanding of them. After 40 years in this field, I’ve seen many situations where a supposedly high tech device experiences some technical glitch that frustrates both the service tech and the owners, whereas a simpler and ‘less sexy’ device would have endured and keep the building comfortable.”
John Kopf, product manager for Navien boilers, has a long list of features and capabilities that make a mechanical room smart. That list includes remote access via BMS or equipment OEM-provided solutions, predictive maintenance, equipment that talks to each other, adaptive controls, Wi-Fi sensors and cameras and smart thermostats.
“I see more and more boilers and other pieces of equipment communicating with each other,” Kopf says. “For example, you can use boilers to heat an indirect tank or a storage tank for hot water for your faucets and showers. But then, the boiler can be switched and can talk to air handling equipment and can heat the coil based on the space heating demand. Then, both of them can communicate with the building management system. That’s just an example of how more and more pieces of the mechanical room talk to each other, versus being in their own silos.”
Smart mechanical rooms also save building owners money because they increase operating efficiency so less money is spent on not only operating cost, but also with less expensive service and maintenance by preventing critical failures and disruption of business, Kopf adds.
“Servicing ahead of time or preventing a failure saves money versus replacing equipment when the critical failure happens,” he says.
“Another big one is you can only manage what you can measure. If you don’t have any data, you’re running blind. When you have the data sets, you can make educated decisions. You want your mechanical room to be smart so you can make better, informed decisions. For example, Navien equipment allows you to download the data sets. You can download to an Excel spreadsheet and analyze the data.”
Additionally, Wi-Fi sensors are also becoming more prevalent in mechanical rooms, Kopf notes.
“Wi-Fi sensors can sense moisture, temperature, pressure, leaks, smoke, carbon monoxide, open or closed doors, and more,” he says. “Wi-Fi cameras are not just for security, but can show what’s in a mechanical room. Navien has a mobile app that allows a service technician to call our tech support group. The technician can take their phone and point it at the equipment and show different components or a display. Our tech support will guide them through the display and say, ‘Hey, go to this point. I want to see what kind of amps you have, or flows or pressures.’ The technician can also show how the piping was done.”
Chris Edmondson of James M. Pleasants Co. — a Bell & Gossett rep, notes that most building owners and engineers are looking for HVAC and plumbing systems that are smart — but easy to understand and manage.
“Owners and engineers are unable to maintain or provide full-time staff to monitor the operation of equipment day-to-day,” Edmondson says. “With today’s new energy, water and building safety codes, the use of dedicated smart equipment in mechanical rooms is mandatory. A smart mechanical room is one that can meet these new codes and standards while protecting the mechanical equipment without the costly expenses of full time supervision.”
He adds that individual products combined with dedicated smart sub systems are becoming common in all projects.
“A good example would be combining a pump, ECM motor, variable speed drive with dedicated smart controls, such as the Bell & Gossett ecocirc XL high efficiency ECM pump, into a system to meet energy efficiency codes and extend pump life,” he says. “Another example of smart, connected products in plumbing is combining multistage pumps, motors, VFDs, pressure sensors, valves and dedicated smart controls into prefabricated pumping station pressure boosters for buildings, such as a Bell & Gossett model e-MT TechnoForce. These type of products are the basic building blocks of a modern, well-designed mechanical system for new buildings to be smart enough to meet all performance expectations and codes in the most economical way.”
Redundancy is a must
Kopf emphatically states for a mechanical room to be smart, it must have built-in redundancy.
“A mechanical room in the commercial setting without redundancy is not a smart room,” he says. “In my previous life, I worked with chillers and we had this one situation where the chiller failed. They had only one single piece of equipment. They had to replace it and the new chiller had a 12-week lead time from the OEM. They ended up calling a temporary cooling company to rent a chiller, which was super expensive. That’s not even including the lost revenue due to multiple days down. In my opinion, no one should design a commercial heating system with a single boiler, they always have two or more for redundancy, so you don’t lose 100% of heat and end up with freezing pipes.”
Good, preventative maintenance also extends equipment life, Kopf notes.
“We keep telling our customers that our condensing boilers will work for 15, 18, 20 years, but you have to take care of them,” he says. “With the right maintenance, you will have your equipment running for many, many years.”
When it comes down to it, engineers specify the products that customers want, Kopf explains.
“Engineers are designing smart mechanical rooms because it is better engineering and allows for better management of equipment and resources,” he says. “The other reasons engineers specify these products are the ones I already mentioned. Smart equipment saves money and the environment. You can do more maintenance with fewer people.”
According to Edmondson, engineers should specify stand-alone, dedicated smart equipment sub systems on all projects in order to meet new energy, water usage and safety codes to protect the owners.
“These products will easily pay for themselves with the energy, labor and extended lifesaving benefits the facility owners will receive,” he says. “All building providers are now looking long-term at the cost of ownership.
“These smart mechanical room equipment dedicated sub systems need to be able to function in a stand-alone mode without the need of the building management system (BMS),” Edmondson adds. “Smart mechanical rooms need to be able to communicate with the BMS and allow on/off, set point changes and monitoring as desired by a specific application. They all need to have the commonly used control language readily available. These smart dedicated mechanical room sub systems are the wave of the future and will dominate every equipment room in ways we are just beginning to dream about.”