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Microsoft 'smart campus' makeover saving millions in energy costs

Submitted by jesse_berst on April 22, 2013
Microsoft's foray into smart building management represents the holy grail -- namely, an application that improves sustainability and improves resident satisfaction while also paying for itself. If we can help cities get started with high-payoff applications like this one, the savings can help to finance the next wave of improvements.  But there is a dark cloud around this silver lining. In many parts of the world, there is a mismatch between who pays for the improvements -- the landlord-- and who reaps the benefits -- the tenant. Microsoft doesn't fit this mismatch, since it fills both roles in this case. -- Jesse Berst

When Microsoft realized it had an energy-inefficient campus filled with buildings of different styles and configurations – and different building management systems – it was estimated that spending $60 million was needed to fix the variety of problems with traditional solutions. Fortunately for the company, the engineers dealing with the issue did something entirely different.

They came up with a solution combining mounds of data and software that gave the company the smart campus it wanted. That solution is now saving the tech giant millions, and they're sharing it around the world to help others achieve far more energy-efficient building operations.

An article in Realcomm tells the story of what the small team of engineers did, how they did it and how it works. A key figure in Microsoft's smart buildings makeover is Darrell Smith, the company's Director of Facilities and Energy. The work done at the campus has made him something of a rock star in smart building circles, a description he would probably never use himself.

When the engineering team began working toward their goal of a smart campus three years ago, they were met with 125 campus buildings built in different configurations and styles and at different times. They also were confronted with very different building management systems with 30,000 unconnected sensor-enabled pieces of equipment.

Examples? Heating and cooling systems were fighting each other to maintain comfortable building temperatures, and in one instance the exhaust fans in a building garage had been overlooked and ran continuously for a year, which amounted to an unnecessary expense of $66,000.

The estimate for tearing out the old equipment and replacing it was more than $60 million, and it would mean expensive construction as well as down time for the labs as the work was being done. Smith and his engineering team thought there had to be a solution that didn't involve that expense and disrupted work schedules – but they couldn't find one.

So they made their own. With help from three commercial building data systems vendors, they developed a pilot for 13 buildings at the Redmond, Washington campus that involves an "analytical blanket" placed over the various systems, a software blanket that allowed equipment and buildings to communicate with each other. It was a resounding success.

"The challenge with building systems is that they can create a lot of chatter from multiple systems, but there's value there if you connect and capture it. It's all about the data. If you can't get data out of the building, you're done," Smith explained.

The solution they developed now brings 500,000 building data points every 24 hours to the "brain," the Redmond Operations Center, a feat that has made it "one of the smartest corporate campuses in the world," to quote the Realcomm story. And with the help of those vendor partners, Smith's group created its smart buildings software using Microsoft's own off-the-shelf Windows Azure, SQL Server and MIcrosoft Office software.

Facilities engineers Tearle Wilson and Jonathan Grove have certainly been impressed with the difference the smart buildings software has made in their lives. Before the development, the two would spend two weeks in each building inspecting and tweaking, a five-year process that began again once a round of inspections and fixes was completed. The energy savings from that exhaustive process was about $250,000 per year.

The new data solution is expected to yield six times more than that. Now the two spend the majority of their time at the operations center, working with the massive amounts of data being collected.

That does not mean Smith can say "Now my work here is done." He's taking the smart buildings success story on the road - presenting it to business, government and industry, performing a show and tell for  oil companies, hospitals, car makers, cities and federal agencies, including the Pentagon.

Knowing that commercial buildings soak up 40% of the world's available energy and that U.S. businesses alone pay roughly $100 billion yearly in energy costs, Smith and company want to share the smart buildings software to help others find the road to the success they experienced.