Specifier Review

A rational approach to alarms

Timely notification about any events concerning a building services infrastructure is vital. However, Steve Browning at Trend Control Systems, explains why the generation of too many individual alarms is deterring end users from configuring a Building Energy Management System (BEMS) to undertake the monitoring of their key compliance needs.

When initially presented with the choice, most end users with a fully optimised BEMS will opt for as many alarms and notifications to be configured as possible. On one level this is understandable, as more often than not it doesn’t cost them any more. Also, they might think that it’s better to be alerted to a potential issue than not be notified at all, particularly in mission critical healthcare environments such as hospitals.

While this sounds logical in theory, the reality leads to what can only be described as the ‘boy who cried wolf’ scenario, where so many alarms are generated that they are soon ignored and considered a nuisance. Not only does an overwhelming volume of alarms make them virtually worthless, it discourages end users from developing their BEMS into the comprehensive monitoring and management solution it’s intended to be, minimising the full operating potential of any investment.

This issue was recently highlighted to me at a seminar of healthcare professionals who all felt that, in order to mitigate the risk of legionella, they would rather manually check temperatures of tank held water as part of their water safety plan rather than receive automatically generated alarm based notifications from a BEMS. The reason for this was purely down to the high levels of alarms that they already receive and some even considered the BEMS to be a hindrance in this regard.

Temperature monitoring is just one way that a BEMS is able to guarantee a consistent standard of water quality, so hearing these comments was both worrying and frustrating. Given that a BEMS should be a focal point in ensuring delivery of a compliant, resilient and sustainable built environment, it should be fully exploited in order to support decision making but do so in a way that provides genuine value, rather than allowing generic, worthless alarms to complicate a user experience.

One simple answer to this conundrum is to reduce the volume of alarms and rationalise the amount of notifications that are set, so that the end user can gauge the importance of an event. There’s little point in having 500 ignored alarms amongst, say, 10 mission critical ones. End users therefore need to decide what they consider to be the most relevant events to provide notification about and work with their chosen integrator to put these in place.

Alternatively, and perhaps more usefully, a graphical user interface (GUI) such as the Trend 963 Supervisor could be used to improve the presentation of valuable information so that users can quickly recognise situations requiring their attention with nothing more than a glance. This technology can create clear, relevant, succinct metrics within a BEMS for display, the premise being to create indicators that are just as effective as the actions they are intended to instigate.

These visual indicators can be configured to suit the exacting needs of the end user and be based upon an understanding of specific objectives, how they are to be achieved and who is going to action them. They could take the form of dashboards with only the most important icons configured, ‘traffic light’ style devices or graphs, or it could even be set up to send an email or text message to a designated person if certain parameters are breached – the possibilities are almost endless. Appropriate indicators will drive appropriate timely responses to significant alarm situations and enhance the capabilities of a BEMS.

While the use of alarms is always advisable, they must be configured in a way that makes prioritising actions as straightforward as possible. Ultimately, this is what makes a BEMS infinitely useful. Designing a BEMS to account for profiles, rules and exceptions will also facilitate a better understanding of how a building works and identify what is simply an anomaly – saving valuable time and effort.

A BEMS that issues alarms in a structured, meaningful and discerning way is far more beneficial than one that simply bombards the end user with notifications that are then ignored. Alarms are usually configured post-occupancy, so integrators and end users therefore need to work together to decide upon levels of importance for different events and configure the BEMS appropriately. End users need to manage their infrastructure in a way that suits a specific set of needs and, when it comes to alarms, sometimes it is simply a case of less being more.