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IBM connects dots for smarter buildings

IBM introduces Intelligent Building Manager software, which makes buildings more energy efficient by analyzing data from office cubes, HVAC systems, and other building hardware.

To IBM, buildings are just another source of data its computers can crunch and make sense of.

The computing giant today at an event in New York is unveiling its Intelligent Building Management software, which collects and analyzes information to improve energy efficiency and maintenance. It's part of IBM's smarter planet initiative to use technology and its business consulting group to tackle big social problems.

Many commercial buildings are already have building management systems that use sensors to communicate information with a central computer. For example, heating and cooling equipment and offices can monitor temperature, humidity, light levels, and the vibration of air handlers.

IBM developed software to pore over that data and provide useful guidance to building managers or higher-level executives. Its software will work with building management systems from Johnson Controls and Schneider Electric and put it into a data warehouse, which will generate reports, explained IBM vice president of smart buildings Dave Bartlett.

"Adding this real-time monitoring of everything that's happening in a building or a portfolio of buildings lets you determine the best and worst performing," he said. "So you are tactically using software and analytics to do real-time building and energy optimization."

By analyzing how efficiently a cooling system is working, the system could determine, for example, that a motor on ventilation equipment needs replacing. The software could work for a single building, but it's best designed for multiple locations where the analytical algorithms can ferret out less obvious problems, Bartlett said.

Originally, IBM expected that the energy savings would be the primary reason that building operators would use the software. IBM estimates that some companies could cut their energy usage by up to 40 percent with the software.

For example, it tested the software in its Rochester, Minnesota facilities, where an environmental initiative had already led to significant cuts in energy use. Using the analysis shaved another 8 percent off their energy bill after six months, Bartlett said.

In trials with early customers, IBM found having a data analysis dashboard for building equipment made the maintenance scheduling more efficient, Bartlett said. Having a better idea when equipment needs to be tuned or replaced lets building managers combine trips and get away from reacting to problems, such as building occupants complain about indoor temperature, he said. Companies could cut maintenance costs by 10 percent to 30 percent, he said.

A screen shot from IBM's Intelligent Building Manager software for tracking energy use.
A screen shot from IBM's Intelligent Building Manager software for tracking energy use. IBM

Having networked buildings management systems and more interest in energy efficiency has led dozens of tech companies to move into commercial building efficiency, including IBM, Cisco Systems, and many start-ups. IBM is targeting medium-size and large businesses that already have building management systems installed. The software will be integrated with building management systems from Schneider Electric, Siemens, and Johnson Controls next month and is the price is determined by the square feet of buildings.

Buildings consume about 40 percent all energy worldwide, and it's generally easy to measure the return on investments from efficiency programs. Large commercial and industrial customers are seen as good customers because of the money savings. Also, a number of companies have corporate sustainability initiative to track and reduce their environmental footprint.