10 Common Building Operations Headaches That Tech Solves
A lot has changed in the last few years. Most commercial real estate companies have fully embraced the fact that technology is changing the game. Many now have chief innovation officers to develop and execute a strategy for integrating technology into every level of the business.
With all the shiny new toys at the disposal of owners and operators, it’s easy to begin inventing new problems to solve (and no shortage of vendors eager to assist). But when it comes to operations, it won’t matter if there are chronic issues distracting your teams and negatively impacting your tenants.
Before adding technologies that will require new processes and workflows, real estate companies should consider optimizing what they’re already doing. Every property is performing maintenance, drawing power to run their equipment, making capital investment decisions, and doing everything they can to ensure that tenants are happy and comfortable.
The question is whether these activities can be streamlined by technology and if so, what that looks like.
Here are ten common problems in building operations and exactly how technology can be deployed today to improve how quickly they are resolved.
1. Preventative Maintenance Backlog
An unbelievable 87% of building maintenance today is reactive instead of preventative. This isn’t because operators don’t understand the benefits of maintaining equipment over running it to failure. It’s often because the schedule that was originally set up is no longer functional.
At some point, a combination of breakdowns, tenant complaints, and lack of communication caused the team to get behind on the PM checklist. Once there is a backlog, it’s extremely difficult to catch up. There’s only so much time in the day and the rigidity of the calendar-based schedule does not effectively allow for triage and prioritization.
Worse, as preventative maintenance tasks are missed to react to emergencies, the likelihood of a critical failure increases, causing more missed PM tasks, and more emergencies.
Real-time equipment performance data can now be collected quickly and affordably, so teams can move away from calendar-based preventative maintenance towards a conditions-based preventative maintenance approach. The difference is that instead of having a set of tasks based on manufacturer’s recommendations, operators can rely on the constant analysis of equipment performance to dictate when and where maintenance should be performed.
Under a conditions-based maintenance program, assets are only maintained when performance indicates that it is necessary, reducing maintenance costs by 25–30% on average and creating a much more manageable workload for operators.
2. Human Errors — Scheduling & Set Points
As maintenance is performed, equipment is often shutdown to allow operators to service it. When systems are turned back on, there is a risk that the schedule and/or temperature set points of the equipment will be reset incorrectly.
This is a very common problem, especially in office portfolios, and one of the main drivers of “performance drift.” In fact, studies have found that after a building is fully commissioned to run at peak performance, efficiency will degrade 10–30% in the first two years partly due to inadvertent mistakes like these.
Technology can solve this once and for all by using the same performance data that drives condition-based maintenance. Each piece of equipment is analyzed to determine whether it is a consistent baseload, has a weather relationship, or is variable in nature. From here, the system can infer the building occupancy schedule based on the usage of variable equipment during the day.
If an equipment schedule veers outside of these hours or set points are changed to begin heating or cooling earlier than necessary, an alert is triggered so operators can correct the problem immediately.
3. Short Cycling
As with many aspects of running a building, the detrimental effects of set point changes are not limited to wasted operating expenses. When operators accidentally set the cooling balance point too high or the heating balance point too low, the equipment is in jeopardy of short cycling. This occurs because equipment heats or cools a space when it’s already close to the desired temperature, quickly hits the threshold, turns off, then quickly cycles on again.
Short cycling is a particularly challenging issues for building operators because it occurs periodically throughout the day, and the chance of catching it during a routine maintenance check is remote. Even when an operator is nearby, short cycling isn’t necessarily obvious.
Meanwhile, the quick on/off cycles degrade the system, lowering its useful life and putting it on a path to a critical failure.
Luckily, the same equipment performance data used for conditions-based maintenance and correcting operator mistakes can be used to detect when equipment is cycling ten or more times per hour. As soon as short cycling is detected, on-site operators can be directed to service the equipment before a major problem occurs.
4. Leaks / Floods
Any building operator knows that leaks and floods must be avoided at all costs. Repair and remediation expenses can easily cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, cause insurance premiums to rise, and potentially compel insurance providers to drop the asset.
In fact, water damage claims cost insurance, on average, three times as much as a claim that does not involve water damage. And it’s not an uncommon problem; water damage cases account for more than half of all commercial real estate insurance claims.
To solve this problem, we cannot rely solely on equipment performance data. Although basement flooding can be inferred when a sump pump demand suddenly spikes, a more effective deployment would be a targeted network of wireless moisture sensors that accurately detect leaks throughout a property.
While there are technology companies that specialize in leak detection hardware and/or software, many owner-operators are finding it easier to utilize a platform that combines a range of data types, regardless of what type of hardware, sensor or meter it originates from. This also consolidates the nature of the alerts that operators are receiving.
5. Breaker Trips
It can be very frustrating when circuit breakers trip frequently. While it does indicate that the circuit breaker is doing its job properly—which is to cut off the electric supply when an excessive current is detected—it also means that equipment necessary for maintaining tenant comfort is regularly shutting down.
Like leak detection, low-cost sensors can be placed in each circuit panel to notify operators exactly when a breaker trip occurs. It may seem like a small issue, but the difference between getting a notification on your phone to reset a specific breaker versus getting a tenant complaint, investigating the issue, realizing the equipment is off, and finding the correct circuit panel to reset the breaker is significant.
Beyond that, by combining breaker trip detection data into a platform that tracks equipment performance, correlations between operating conditions and breaker trips can illuminate the root cause of the issue and enable more permanent solutions.
6. Frozen Pipes
As mentioned, nearly half of all commercial real estate insurance claims originate from water damage. Unfortunately, the damage from frozen pipes that burst may or may not be covered by insurance, depending on the plan. This makes it a particularly expensive and troubling issue for properties in colder climates.
In general, inspecting the pipes on a regular basis is not enough. Even keeping utilities on throughout cold months in vacant units does not guarantee that pipes will not freeze (and add needlessly to the building’s operating expenses).
The best bet is to solve this problem with technology. At this point, it should come at no surprise that the solution is to deploy sensors to track the temperature in and around pipes, enabling operators to know when conditions are below freezing and act to prevent pipe bursts.
7. Issues with Minor Equipment
Most activities that operators perform daily are not catastrophes like a pipe burst or a flooded mechanical room. For that reason, streamlining the various issues that arise in the smaller equipment is equally important as avoiding major problems.
Contrary to popular belief, equipment performance tracking is not limited to the very large loads like boilers and chillers. One of the benefits of the plummeting cost of sensors is that hundreds of pieces of equipment can be monitored per building, including small loads like rooftop exhaust fans.
Normally, exhaust fan malfunctions are resolved when a tenant eventually complains about weird smells or stagnate air, and after an investigation reveals the nature of the problem.
Instead, algorithms based on billions of hours of aggregated performance data can detect that a fault has occurred in real time, before tenants even notice. As importantly because of the size of the data set and advances in machine learning, these algorithms can specify to operators exactly what that fault is, whether the fan belt has simply slipped off, has snapped and needs replacement, or there’s a more significant issue like a motor failure.
8. Tenant Submetering Mistakes
In addition to day-to-day operational issues, there are recurring processes that are frequently the source of headaches for owner-operators. One of the most common is tenant utility submetering and billing.
From recording tenant meters manually, to transferring the data to accounting, to transcribing into tenant bills, there are too many touch points to completely avoid errors. And small typos can have major impacts down the line.
In fact, as shown in one of our case studies, simply because a meter reader recorded a “3” instead of a “2,” the bill generated for a client was nearly $16,000 higher than it should’ve been. The potential for needless tenant disputes and animosity is simply not worth it.
A digital tenant submetering process will collect readings in real-time and generate bills automatically each month. To move to a digital process, it depends on what the metering infrastructure is today. This video walks through the most common setups seen in commercial real estate and explains how to get on the path to an automated process for each scenario.
9. Lack of Accountability
Another concern for owner-operators is their inability to monitor that their staff, vendors and service companies are performing their responsibilities. When one of the issues mentioned above occurs, a good manager will try to figure out the root cause and create a process to avoid the issue going forward.
But if that process is servicing a every other week, how do managers know that task is being completed? The answer is that maintenance is generally visible in real-time equipment performance data and managers can be automatically each time. This knowledge helps ensure that the responsibilities are being met and that everything needed to do the job is available to those on the ground.
10. Retrofit Evaluations / M&V
No matter how well a property is operated, eventually it will come time to retrofit existing equipment or purchase a replacement. Each equipment decision will have ramifications for years, or even decades, to come, so it is critical to make the right one.
Usually, the only data available to make decisions is the vendors’ estimates based on averages and rules of thumb. While a vendor may know intimately how their own equipment performs, it is impossible for them to know what effect that will have on the overall property and its operating expenses.
Instead of taking the vendor’s estimates at face value, analyzing the historical cost and consumption data of the current system enables owner-operators to shift from estimates to empirical evidence. In one example with an Enertiv client, a vendor proposed that their electronically commutated motors (ECMs), which reduce the cost to run exhaust fans by 30%, will produce $14,500 in annual savings. However, the data for exhaust fan costs with a 30% reduction only equated to $9,000 per year.
The more empirical data owners and operators have about each system in their portfolio, the smarter decisions they can make.
There is no telling what the future of smart building technology will hold. There’s no need to wait though, there are powerful combinations of sensors and software that can solve the problems that keep operators up at night.
It will take a shift in mentality, but operators should get into the habit of questioning whether the problem they are solving could’ve been avoided if they had been notified as soon as the issue occurred. It is likely that there is a low-cost sensor that could be deployed to do just that.
Get rid of these common headaches. See how Enertiv can help today!