Building automation in the time of COVID-19 – strategies and opportunities

Interview with building automation expert Andreas Goeres

COVID-19 caught everyone by surprise, including German manufacturers. It was like the tide going out: It exposed which areas “under the waterline” needed investment the most. Underinvestment in digitalization is particularly rampant. Digital processes in building automation can help make many processes more efficient, economical, transparent and environmentally friendly.

Building automation expert Andreas Goeres / Infraserv Höchst

Be more sustainable and stay competitive – with state-of-the-art custom building automation

Many companies have used the downtime offered by the COVID-19 pandemic to re-evaluate internal workflows and customer processes. They often focus on building automation.

We talked to Andreas Goeres, Head of Building Automation & Event/Property IT at Infraserv Höchst, about why this is such a good time to invest in future-proof building automation.

The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted many businesses to examine their industrial and business processes. Have companies also capitalized on this period to invest in modern building automation?

Andreas Goeres: Absolutely! We have received a large number of inquiries about building automation in the past twelve months. Many companies want us to take old equipment that still has to be operated in person and upgrade it with new technology so it can be run 100% remotely. It’s obvious that many people who are responsible for plants are working from home and have realized where improvements are needed to enable remote operation. Of course, it matters who wants to access which information, when they want to access it, and what format it needs to be in – facility managers are interested in very different things than building responsible persons or building supervisors.

One other thing we’ve noticed is that facility operators are now more interested in having a single service provider handle all their service needs – from design and implementation to maintenance and repair. It’s obviously easier to coordinate with one provider than to juggle multiple service companies with different social distancing policies, etc.

“Modern-day customers prefer to have one provider handle all their building automation. We meet that standard by supplying the full range of services for automation, electrical engineering and data communications.”

Infraserv has an advantage in building automation: We can provide the full range of services for automation, electrical engineering and data communications. We supply control cabinets and can also take care of the cabling if needed. Not only that, we also handle all aspects of data communications, from design to implementation, including professional WLAN coverage.

With the advent of remote technologies, how important is it for building automation providers to physically come to the customer’s site?

Andreas Goeres: In building automation, there are a lot of questions that you can answer and problems that you can fix remotely. However, you obviously have to have seen the plant and familiarized yourself with it in person in order to adequately meet the customer’s specific needs.

However, once a plant has been rendered 100% remotely operable and monitorable, it offers tremendous benefits for users. They can operate the building automation from any location – except in cases of breakdowns that require components to be replaced.

Has digitalization progressed so far that remote operation works flawlessly everywhere?

Andreas Goeres: Remote operation works best when everything is highly standardized. The individual system components have to harmonize perfectly with one another. That is not the case if you install devices from various manufacturers that are less than completely intercompatible. I’m not talking about sensors or actuators so much as different brands of controllers in different plants. It’s also important to use devices that support integration over open protocols such as BACnet. You don’t want to be controlling and monitoring umpteen different plants on their own systems but rather have a user interface based on a standard visualization template for all your plants regardless of who supplied the components. So you want to think carefully about your future needs when designing your plant. If you mix and match plant components too much in a quest to save a few euros here and there, you’ll end up paying more later on.

In short, we advise against buying manufacturer- and plant-specific black box solutions. They are often hard to integrate. There’s no point in building a plant on the cheap if the maintenance costs are sky-high. That's why we make sure to build manufacturer-agnostic building automation systems for our customers in which all the elements dovetail perfectly.

“It’s always important to consider the total costs of acquiring and operating equipment if you don’t want to pay more later on.”

Why is this such a good time for companies to invest in modern building automation?

Andreas Goeres: (chuckles) It's simple: This is the best possible work environment for us because so many people are working from home. We have so much less coordinating to do when converting rooms. For example, we may have to drill into some walls or turn off the ventilation system in order to convert a laboratory. Before, there'd be plenty of times when we’d get set up to install a controller in the ceiling only to be told, “Not right now!” The problem is that there's never a time when it's not “not right now!” (chuckles). These situations make it hard to estimate scheduling and always entail a lot of discussion.

So the COVID-19 pandemic has been a positive for the building automation business?

Andreas Goeres: You obviously have to make some allowances for the current state of the economy, but we’ve noticed that companies are starting to release investment funding for building automation in particular.

What benefits does smart building automation have to offer?

Andreas Goeres: Smart building automation brings us a big step closer to greater sustainability. It offers tremendous cost and energy savings. Building automation can transparently model an entire facility. You can immediately spot “energy drains” and do something about them. You can also optimize energy consumption based on actual room occupancy by linking the building automation systems to occupancy sensors or an attendance calendar, adapt heating and cooling to user behavior or shut down some building equipment on holidays. Smart building automation opens up sustainable new options with regard to ISO 50001 (energy management), too.

“Smart building automation provides a solid foundation for significant cost and energy savings as well as intelligent maintenance programs.”

In addition, smart building automation can form the backbone of predictive maintenance models. For example, its sensors can detect changes in vibration patterns or operating temperatures in blower motors that indicate excessive wear or looming problems. The facility operator can then proactively maintain the equipment before it breaks down and thus avoid the tremendous cost associated with unplanned downtime.

What processes can you design to be smart with today’s building automation and what developments can we expect on this front in the near future?

Andreas Goeres: Automation has made huge inroads into buildings – you can now control air-conditioning, ventilation and lighting in various rooms. For example, if oxygen levels are about to get too low in a conference room, a CO2 monitor can remind the attendees to open the windows or automatically activate a system to supply fresh air to the room.

What are the most common weak points at companies that an efficient building automation system can fix?

Andreas Goeres: The biggest problem for many companies is that their building automation is more than ten years old. Some systems are still running on Windows XP computers. That causes security problems. Old standalone systems can generally no longer be expanded or integrated with other systems.

In these cases, we actually recommend completely redesigning the building automation so that it meets current standards and uses current technologies. Customers are often persuaded by the improved security and potential energy savings that a redesign offers.

“If the building automation is completely outdated, it’s definitely worth investing in a new system – if only for the long-term cost and energy savings.”

What do Infraserv experts do when designing a custom building automation system for a customer?

Andreas Goeres: The first step is always to inventory the current equipment and building automation systems in order to assess what changes are needed. Also, we always need to know what customers expect their building automation to do and what information is needed by the people who are responsible for the facility. Every building automation system that we build is a custom solution based on standard components. It’s the best of both words: a solution flexible enough to scale easily and accommodate future needs but made from standardized parts.

Mr. Goeres, thank you for talking to us today!