Smart buildings: predictive maintenance is crucial

February 26th, 2018
Credit: Marco Verch
A talk with Italian expert Antonio Disi about building maintenance, smart technologies and "energy illiterate" citizens

Maintenance represents the bulk of the costs occurring in a building's life. How can the advent of smart technologies lessen this financial burden? And are citizens ready to deal with the innovations? These are some of the questions we asked Antonio Disi, expert in energy efficiency, researcher at ENEA, the Italian National Agency for New Technologies, Energy and Sustainable Economic Development. He is responsible for public campaigns to raise awareness on energy saving such as the "No lift days" and has recently published "Storie di ordinaria energia" (in Italian "Stories of ordinary energy"), ten humorous tales about ordinary people and their stormy relationship with energy and technologies.

How much do maintenance costs affect the overall cost of buildings?

In the life cycle of a building, maintenance costs largely exceed the construction costs. Actually, maintenance is a strategic activity, and a sound planning that starts right from the design stage is very important to ensure the economic sustainability of future interventions. For example, in Italy between 2014 and 2015, the cost of ordinary and extraordinary maintenance works was around €117 billion while the construction sector was worth €169 billion. Safeguarding existing stock was therefore equal to 70% of the building sector's entire turnover.

What about the impact of smart technologies on maintenance costs?

Innovative technologies in smart buildings drastically reduce operating and maintenance costs thanks to their ability to collect and analyse data, which previously was unattainable. In addition, sensors placed on equipment can automatically programme maintenance activities, which are therefore based on use rather than pre-scheduled intervals. Predictive maintenance is 3 to 9 times cheaper than a reactive approach, traditionally achieved when the damage has already occurred. Moreover, with smart building management technologies, owners are informed of potential problems before the equipment actually fails.

Can the average citizen deal with smart building maintenance?

Basically, citizens have no role in the maintenance, not even in reporting the faults. The process is completely automated and any issue is solved before the occupants realise it.

Moreover, the technicians involved in the intervention on the building will not waste time looking for information to fix the problem. Thanks to thermography or infrared scanning, for example, a building manager will be able to detect any device running outside the temperature range. This data can be easily detected in advance, so that maintenance can be performed before the equipment interrupts the system.

Another example is the detection by ultrasound. Electric transmission lines, which have slots or holes, produce ultrasounds. This can go unnoticed in normal cases, but with IoT technology, technicians can easily identify the exact location that needs the maintenance intervention.

Having said that, it is also true that the success factor in a technological innovation lies in the degree of acceptance by users, who can perceive it as a "threat" affecting their daily life. It's therefore important to involve users early on and to familiarise them with the smart technology to be implemented.

Your favourite communication target is those you call "energy illiterate" citizens… Who are they?

Energy illiterate people are those who don't know how much energy they use, for what purpose or where the energy comes from. They have little understanding of the impact and consequences of their behaviour. Why? Although energy feeds all the technologies around us, it is not part of our common knowledge. For example, in the early years of primary school we only learnt the units of measurement for length, weight, time and volume. Nothing about energy. Instead, school children should be taught better, with support from their families, about the role of energy in our daily lives.

One of the main reasons for this lack of awareness is that energy has always been considered a public good. The free market is something quite recent. Therefore, end consumers have never had to bother with grasping the nature, quantity and cost of energy. And this applies to the whole of Europe, not just to socialist countries.

Today things are different. We can now choose our energy providers but to do so we need to be informed. In almost all EU countries, schools are teaching about energy, integrating social and natural sciences. Pupils are learning about the global perspectives and local impacts. In short the so-called "millennials" and the next generation are ready.

The real problems emerge when we turn to pre-millennial generations to implement policies to reduce energy consumption or boost production from renewable sources. They need much more information, and all EU countries are working on this. For example, a three-year information campaign, is being rolled out by ENEA and promoted by the Ministry for Economic Development to raise consumer awareness of energy saving and efficiency.

As a researcher in the energy field, you have also become a science communicator to popularise technical subjects for the general public. Where and when does this need arise?

Ever since I was a child I have dreamt to be a science communicator. My mentor was Gennaro Savastano, known in Nola, my small native town near Naples, as "don Gennaro the scientist". He was a technician and used to fix our home appliances. Entering his laboratory was exciting. He showed me how the refrigerator and the washing machine worked, something I have never forgotten. What most fascinated me was how don Gennaro was clear and even funny in his competent explanations, without being afraid to trivialise technical concepts. Straightforwardness can be uncomfortable for many. It requires much more effort and talent, and there's no cheating, you need to manage the matter very well.

It is the 13th anniversary of the Kyoto Protocol. You said that you would like to be the mayor of the Japanese city, where the world's countries addressed climate change for the first time. Is it still your own dream?

I would very much like to be a mayor, today more than ever… In all seriousness, I do believe that the mayors of the world's cities can play a fundamental role in achieving the ambitious goals set in Kyoto those thirteen years ago.

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