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Intelligent MEP programmes can help build smart cities

It is imperative that all MEP systems are smart, and are managed by building operators who are subject-matter experts – not just technicians

SPECIAL REPORTS, Sectors

Sougata Nandi, founder of 3e Advisory, explains how intelligent MEP programmes can contribute to the development of smart cities.

For all practical purposes, a smart city is a bottom-up initiative, as it gathers data from a small sensor level and assimilates Big Data at a city level.

The Internet of Things (IoT) commenced with the concept of billions of devices being connected to the internet  – according to Gartner, 20.4 billion IoT devices will be connected globally by 2020. 

The consumer segment is the main driver, followed by businesses with smart meters, smart sensors, and smart controllers. With time, businesses will adopt smart LEDs, smart HVAC systems, and IoT-based smart automation systems. Smart or IoT definitions are currently driven by telcos, because “connectivity” is the central focus. 

In the context of the mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP)  industry, “smart” will have to embody other attributes as well. In order to gain a tangible or manageable understanding of smart MEP, five attributes can be used: sustainable (triple bottom-line); monitored, maintained, and managed; assessed and accountable; ranked  or benchmarked; and targeted, or goal-oriented. Given recent trends, the real estate sector has gained some ground as far as sustainable design and development is concerned. Unfortunately, for buildings – and, therefore, cities – to be truly smart, much more needs to be done across the other four attributes.

In order to accommodate expanding gross domestic products (GDPs), buildings around the world are getting bigger and more complex. Traditional operations and maintenance (O&M) methodologies will not remain cost- or resource-efficient any longer, with the increasing number of occupants and devices in buildings. Building operators need data ahead of time to analyse and anticipate likely failures, so that pre-emptive actions can be taken. This will ensure business continuity and enhanced customer satisfaction. 
Therefore, it is imperative that all MEP systems are smart, and are managed by building operators who are subject-matter experts and not just technicians.

The current trends in IoT for smart buildings are primarily focussed on security, surveillance, and access control. These are easiest for developers to understand and adopt. MEP is still languishing in the back office. 

While building management systems (BMS) have been around for decades, they are rarely utilised, and large-scale migration of BMS to the cloud is yet to become a reality. Installed chiller plant managers are rarely utilised, neither to operate chiller plants, nor to achieve energy efficiency. While smart sensors detecting occupancy are quite popular, they are yet to become standard in all buildings. And demand-controlled ventilation as a smart way to reduce energy consumption is rarely employed. These are all opportunities for the MEP industry to organically evolve its business models, and for building developers to actively integrate into their design development process, to extract maximum financial, environmental, and social value from their real estate assets.

Smart MEP is not only about energy efficiency. Its focus needs to shift towards healthy and productive buildings. MEP systems are designed for maximum capacity – peak occupancy and peak cooling loads – which rarely occur for more than a few hours a year. A smart

MEP system should neither be designed for extreme conditions, nor should it be limited by its controls to operate at full load. A truly smart MEP system should be designed to deliver the optimal indoor environmental quality (IEQ), making occupants more productive at the lowest environmental and economic footprint.

While the MEP industry will have to actively participate in this evolution, three simultaneous shifts need to happen for smart MEP to become a reality. 

Firstly, developers need to become more informed in their decision-making, providing equal support to MEP as to architecture and interiors. 

Secondly, a rapid convergence of the MEP industry with the telco industry needs to occur. Why run separate infrastructures for telco and MEP communication? There should be one communication backbone over which all telco, security, surveillance, access, and MEP systems communicate and operate.

Thirdly, the MEP industry, and particularly the HVAC industry, needs to embed intelligence into every device that is manufactured, requiring every valve, damper, sensor, and meter to be intelligent and able to communicate as soon as they are installed and commissioned. This communication needs to happen seamlessly, and this is where the telco backbone becomes an integral component in smart MEP.

With devices getting smarter, we need to collect and manage ever-increasing data for intelligent decision-making. Smart MEP needs to remove silos like chilled water systems, air-side equipment, building automation systems, access controls, and so on, and integrate all these into one strategy. After all, if we can get our buildings to become smart, our cities will become smarter as a result.   

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