NIST Converts Lab to Test Commercial Building Energy Efficiency Technologies

August 27, 2014 By Karen Henry

NIST-energy-manageThe National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is converting one of its laboratories into the equivalent of a small office building to develop and test smart software technologies designed to slash energy use in commercial buildings.

NIST figures that energy-eating operations such as heating, cooling, lighting and powering plug-in equipment can be accomplished more efficiently with existing equipment by more intelligently coordinating their use. At the mock office building now under construction in a standard 1,000 square foot modular lab space, NIST researchers will put this assertion to the test. There, they and their collaborators will investigate whether artificial intelligence tools already used in search engines, robots, routing and scheduling programs, and other technologies can work cooperatively to optimize building performance, including minimizing energy use.

Intelligent agents are combinations of software and hardware—sensors, mechanical devices and computing technologies—that perceive their environment, make decisions and take actions in response. They can monitor, communicate, collaborate and even learn, predict and adapt.

The energy-saving potential of this smart technology will grow with the evolution of the smart grid and its two-way communication capabilities, according to NIST. So, for example, cooperating teams of intelligent agents can parse time-of-day pricing, weather forecasts, availability of renewable energy supplies, and occupancy patterns to adjust individual equipment and systems to achieve optimal overall performance.

NIST will install and test prototype intelligent agents on HVAC systems—the most energy-intensive of building operations.

Modern HVAC systems consist of thousands of devices from local dampers, heaters, thermostats and fans to boilers, air handling units, chillers and cooling towers. When a building’s HVAC system is first installed and tested, components can be tuned so that the system performs at peak efficiency. Over time, however, efficiency tends to degrade from the optimum. Intelligent agents distributed throughout a HVAC system would enable continuous tweaking to orchestrate the operation of all components to maintain peak performance and efficiency throughout the building’s lifetime.

The working building-in-a-laboratory is scheduled to be completed in the fall and will consist of four zones serviced by two chillers, three air-handling units, four variable air volume units and one ice storage tank, plus pumps, heat exchangers and other equipment.

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