Checking your work: Maintenance validation via smart sensors

In this edition of What Works, connected vibration sensors make an immediate impact on building management.

By Christine LaFave Grace, managing editor

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It’s the kind of moment that geeks out a reliability engineer: Sean O’Connor, a reliability engineer with Jones Lang LaSalle, was on his desktop computer at his home base in New Jersey, examining recent vibration data from a sensor recently installed on a fan at a JLL-managed life sciences facility in Redwood City, CA. On the phone with his counterpart in California, O’Connor witnessed a sudden drop in vibration on the fan.

“I said, ‘Why did you guys turn (the fan) off?’ ” O’Connor recalls. “He said, ‘We didn’t; we just changed the running speed.’ That’s how much the vibration instantly dropped. It was actually a pretty cool moment, from a technology perspective.”

It’s that real-time functionality and insight – the ability to collaborate remotely because everyone’s viewing the same continually updating data at the same time, and the ability to identify immediate consequences of any action taken – that has made O’Connor something of an evangelist for the use of smart technologies to enable a more-effective, more-efficient approach to maintenance.

As a real-estate services and investment management firm, JLL handles building management for companies whose expertise is not in that area. When JLL took over management of the Redwood City site, it undertook an evaluation of maintenance practices – what maintenance was being performed at what intervals, and did those strategies align with how the space would be used by the life-sciences company, a new tenant? In addition, O’Connor notes, “One of the first things we did was walk through an asset criticality study to determine which pieces of equipment really represent the largest risk in terms of disrupting the client’s business.” The finding of that study: “Almost the entire top 20 list was HVAC-related equipment, so that gave us a targeted focus for what we wanted to devote resources toward.”

JLL also sought to expand the use of predictive maintenance technologies for the space. There was no formal vibration monitoring program in place when JLL took over the site, and “we knew with the amount of rotating equipment we had that vibration analysis was going to be a cornerstone of our program,” O’Connor says. JLL evaluated options ranging from a basic walk-around monitoring approach to online continuous monitoring systems, and it was during that process that JLL connected with Silicon Valley IIoT startup Petasense. As O’Connor describes it, what set Petasense apart from other offerings that JLL was considering was the company’s expertise in both software and vibration analysis. Petasense’s wireless, triaxial vibration sensor, the Mote, relies on IoT platform provider Electric Imp for secure device-to-cloud connectivity, scalability, and life-cycle management. Petasense and Electric Imp clouds collect sensor data at user-defined intervals for trending and analysis with the aid of machine-learning algorithms.

Petasense seeks to help companies move from a time-based maintenance approach to “a completely predictive maintenance approach, where you go out to the machine only if the software tells you, ‘Hey, there’s a problem’; otherwise you don’t waste your time and resources,” says Petasense co-founder and CEO Abhinav Khushraj.

Find it faster, fix it faster

For O’Connor, the tech-centric approach to vibration monitoring has more than proved its worth. The aforementioned vibration issue with the fan – a critical fan for the facility – was spotted within a few days of the sensors going live in 2017, he says. The fan had been running close to or at a critical speed, but the problem previously was undetected.

“When you run a fan through its full range of speeds, there are going to be some rough spots that you’re going to have to get through,” O’Connor notes. “The problem is, if you don’t lock those rough patches, those critical speeds out of programming, sometimes (the fans) settle on it. And you wouldn’t even realize it, because this is a big, enclosed air handler. If you were to walk past it, you might not know up until it gets really bad that there’s anything wrong with it.” But a sensor logging the vibration data picked up a vibration spike, allowing the JLL reliability team to take action.

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