Automated system detects problems in ‘smart’ U buildings

by Nathan Hall

If there is a fire, a break-in at a research lab or heat leaking from a hole in the wall somewhere at the University, and if it happens in a “smart” building, a computer program will know about it well before a human being does.

The Building Systems Automation Center is the Facilities Management safety alarm that monitors the campus 24 hours per day.

University officials describe it as the “brain center” that reports building and technology malfunctions on campus.

“It was installed in the early 1970s when we had our first real energy interruption and fuel rationing was starting to happen,” said Robert Uphus, a Facilities Management manager in charge of the center. “Many institutions, including the University of Minnesota, saw technology as the answer to reducing utility costs.”

The center’s installation increases efficiency because it allows operator technicians to centralize in one area in which they monitor computer-generated alarms posted on nine flat-screen computers and dole out service-call requests, Uphus said.

Thousands of sensors in University buildings send the information to the technicians. In addition to observing unusual fluctuations in temperature, the center can also potentially monitor thousands of different concerns.

For example, chemical leaks are detected by an electro-chemical sensor that creates a chemical reaction, which alerts the center’s inner circuits, said Andrew Phelan, program director for the University’s environmental health and safety department.

Phelan said he estimates the center’s implementation decreased the University’s electric bill 18 percent to 22 percent “and saves us a small fortune in the process.”

The primary challenge now facing the Building Systems Automation Center project is purchasing additional electronic and computer equipment in order to “marry” – uniformly integrate and automate – hundreds of fire alarms, thermostats and other building equipment that is old or from widely disparate proprietary systems, Uphus said.

“Sometimes thing go unnoticed like if there’s a water leak Ö in one of the older buildings like Jones Hall and Nicholson Hall,” Uphus said. “In that case, the Facilities Management call center gets a report and that’s forwarded on to us, who in turn take the appropriate measures.”