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Breakthroughs Magazine

Mission Critical

Diagnosing unhealthy buildings

Diagnosing Unhealthy Buildings - Model of Building with stethoscope.

Money is blowing out windows, people are breathing unhealthy air and often nobody knows it. With Pacific Northwest National Laboratory's diagnostic software for buildings, however, the culprits will be exposed, reducing operating costs and making facilities healthier.

The Whole Building Diagnostician, or WBD, reveals hidden illnesses that plague most heating, ventilating and air-conditioning (HVAC) systems. It monitors the performance of air-handling units to detect problems with outside air control and tracks overall building energy use.

Many times people are unaware that a piece of equipment or even an entire system isn't working properly. For example, a fresh-air damper could be stuck shut, leading to stale and unhealthy air in the building, or it could be staying wide open and wasting energy by dumping conditioned air outside.

In one study, the WBD found only one of 18 systems working perfectly, and seven had multiple problems. These deficiencies are caused by mistakes in design or installation, operator error and equipment deterioration.

"Often operators don't fix the root cause, but address the symptom and end up exacerbating the problem," said Rob Pratt, a staff scientist at Pacific Northwest who worked on the software development. By running the WBD on a personal computer attached to a building automation system or an HVAC digital control system, the real problem can be discovered.

"The WBD will let people know when something is broken," said Mike Brambley, the project manager for the program. "The program turns data made available by building automation systems and digital controls in HVAC systems into valuable information that people can use," he said.

Even though energy conservation has been a goal for decades, this kind of software is new. "There is essentially nothing like it on the market," Pratt said. The U.S. Department of Energy funded the research and software development.

The WBD was tested on Pacific Northwest's buildings before it was released in January 1999. It also has been demonstrated in a major San Francisco hotel for a private utility company.

Potential users include electric utilities, energy service companies and building operators and maintenance staffs. Pacific Northwest is seeking a commercial partner to market the WBD.

Brambley sees the WBD expanding into a diagnostic tool that easily could save as much as 40 percent in energy costs for commercial buildings. He hopes to add modules and automate the entire process—creating a plug-and-play diagnostic system much like those used today by auto technicians.

This story was written by Alan Bacon, a high-school English and journalism teacher, who participated in Pacific Northwest National Laboratory's Summer Internship for Educators

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