As the United States slowly moves past the recent global health crisis, a growing interest in constructing healthier and more resilient buildings has led to significant growth in connected and intelligent plumbing products. This is good news for an industry that has historically been left behind when it comes to innovation.
Managing plumbing systems is about controlling, monitoring and responding to system conditions. Unfortunately, many systems are designed and constructed without the ability to easily control or monitor their operation. This makes system management time-consuming and difficult, placing an undue burden on facility teams.
As detailed in Control Solutions’ article, “How Building Automation Is Changing Healthcare Facilities Management,” the industry embraced digital innovation to improve building management and operations (https://bit.ly/3OJXZVn). Building automation is currently used in hospitals and a variety of other building types to manage HVAC and lighting systems, building security and access control, video surveillance, intercom systems, mass notifications, and even fire systems that can monitor temperatures and provide early notifications when a fire occurs.
Missing from this article is any mention of digital innovation being implemented within the plumbing system.
Plumbing systems are critical to health and hygiene; however, there is an obvious absence of innovation embraced by the commercial design and construction community when it comes to plumbing. Implementing innovation into construction happens slowly. Each project is burdened by budgets and timelines, so when a new product, system or method is implemented, it must avoid disrupting the known processes.
In Brian Potter’s article, “Why It’s Hard to Innovate in Construction,” he points out that construction innovations need to be incremental and evolutionary, things that don’t change the underlying processes (https://bit.ly/3Ot0JXt). If intelligent plumbing systems are to be embraced in the market, then they must operate within the framework of known design and construction methods while advancing technological improvements for building management and operations.
So just how intelligent should plumbing systems be?
Digitization is the First Step
Digitization is the foundation of smarter products, processes and systems. Converting analog data to digital data allows enormous amounts of information to be captured, stored and analyzed. Users can then determine how the information will be leveraged to create the intelligent functions of a plumbing product or system — this is digitalization. As more data is available, how users leverage the data becomes paramount.
• Digitization: Converting data, documents or processes from analog to digital.
• Digitalization: Transforming a process by leveraging digitization.
Automation is a common form of digitalization. Simply put, automation performs repetitive tasks based on a set of commands and rules by leveraging digital data. Automation is an efficient and reliable technology that can add a great deal of value to many building system applications.
Machine learning is the logical evolution of intelligent plumbing. Machine learning is often considered a subset of artificial intelligence since its operating boundaries are not as strict as those used in automation. Products or systems capable of machine learning have the freedom to identify relevant patterns and act accordingly by analyzing information — adapting as the environment around it changes.
As you can imagine, there are a multitude of ways plumbing systems can use digital data. Here are just a few:
• Optimize energy or water consumption by analyzing historical use data;
• Automatically adjust flows in a circulation system to maintain hydraulic balancing;
• Predict expected end of life for fixtures or equipment;
• Automate preventative fixes before failure occurs;
• Perform remote maintenance or alert technicians of the need to adjust or replace parts;
• Log critical data for documentation and reporting;
• Control and monitor a system using cloud-based remote access.
It is important to note that not all technology is good technology. Even though a product is considered “smart,” it does not necessarily mean it adds value. Ask these three questions before selecting an intelligent plumbing product or system:
1. Can I clearly identify and articulate the added value to key stakeholders?
2. What are the risks, if any, of implementing this technology and can those risks be mitigated?
3. What is the project impact on the AEC team, budget, schedule, etc.? If the product disproportionately burdens one particular stakeholder, the implementation may fail.
Identifying opportunities where smart plumbing products provide added value to stakeholders is vital to the growth of intelligent plumbing systems. Here are four real-world applications using smart technology:
1. Reduced consumption, lower costs. The key to reducing energy costs and maximizing water use is to ensure that hot water systems operate efficiently. With automated control, based on real-time temperature data, intelligent circulation systems, such as the Hycleen Automation System by GF Piping Systems, constantly maintain temperatures throughout a facility to deliver hot water quickly.
It was the perfect solution for an existing apartment building looking to reduce energy consumption.
Marcus Steineck, project manager at the housing cooperative, saw huge potential in the technology and seized the opportunity to incorporate Hycleen into the co-op’s sustainability plans. The focus of the refurbishment was the distribution of hot water; the heart of the upgrade was the digital circulation control system.
By analyzing data obtained from the system, Steineck determined the water heater set temperature could be reduced thanks to the lower heat loss and constant distribution temperatures. Following the upgrade, energy consumption for hot water decreased by 22.7% in 2020 compared to 2019. The co-op also saved approximately $3,100 in hot water energy costs for 2020 compared to 2019 — despite a large increase in hot water consumption during the
2. More technology, lower risks. Two long-term care facilities wanted to lower the risk of Legionnaires’ Disease without the use of continuous supplemental disinfectants. Engineers chose automated valve technology to implement a routine flushing strategy to prevent stagnation, minimize biofilm growth and maintain residual disinfectant levels.
By automating this process, the facility staff is saving labor hours and ensuring consistent implementation of a fundamental Legionella control measure.
“The consequences of having a Legionella outbreak can be devastating, if not life-taking, so when we began design on the state’s new veterans homes, we wanted to incorporate means to mitigate, monitor and attack portions of the [hot and cold water] systems as needed,” explains Michael Rogers, CPD, senior plumbing designer at Henderson Engineers. “The [automated valves] were exactly what we were looking for.
“The integration and simplicity of having a building system accessed through a single display unit, the logging of events in real-time with temperature and flow, along with the ease of automation for the [smart valve] system itself are important in today’s ever-changing world. We are continuing to look for opportunities to use smart and prescriptive systems such as the [automated valve] system in future projects to assist us in providing cutting-edge buildings for our client’s needs.”
In addition to ongoing labor savings, the automated system simplifies adherence to water management plan requirements by monitoring and logging critical data for risk assessment, verification and reporting.
3. System diagnostics, data-driven decisions. Health-care facilities can have large, complex water systems — making a diagnosis of operating issues a real challenge. This is when digital data becomes invaluable. Analytics can anticipate problems or failures identifying early signs of trouble; the more data you collect, the better the hypothesis you are able to generate.
When engineers needed to diagnose a chronic hot water problem for a hospital, they turned to technology for the solution.
“When considering options to tackle a recurring hot water issue, the [digital circulation control system] came to mind because it gave us the flexibility to make adjustments; the real-time feedback would help identify the root cause of the issue,” notes Jeremy M. Williams, PE, LEED AP BD+C, a senior mechanical engineer at HEAPY. “The system allows for an exceptional level of control and safety.
“We were pleased with the results and the overall system improvements, which allowed our client to make decisions based on real-time data and ensured any issues could be addressed immediately.”
4. Remote access, efficient management. Ensuring guest comfort is a top priority of every hotel operator. When it comes to managing a hotel water system, this means guests receive hot water on-demand and any issues are addressed quickly — day or night.
Faced with this challenge, Mark von Coppenollel, a Holiday Inn Express general manager, incorporated a digital circulation control system with cloud-based remote access, giving him the flexibility to control and monitor the hot water system no matter which location he was working from that day.
“I am in charge of several hotels; I am not here every day,” he explains. “When I have a system at hand that precisely tells me, ‘Wait a moment, we have a problem in Shaft X,’ or whatsoever, then I react relatively quickly.”
Digitalization is the keystone of a safe and sustainable water future. The plumbing industry must consider implementing smarter, more intelligent systems that take advantage of market innovations to improve the built environment. These smart products can ensure occupant comfort, increase system safety, optimize water and energy consumption, and reduce operating costs.
Intelligent plumbing systems raise the bar on what we should expect from building water systems and how we approach water management.
Greg Swafford, CPD, GPD, ASSE 12080, is technical sales manager, commercial water, for GF Piping Systems. He serves as Affiliate Liaison for Region 5 of the American Society of Plumbing Engineers and is a committee member of ASHRAE SPC 514, Risk Management for Building Water Systems: Physical, Chemical and Microbial Hazards. Contact him at email@example.com.