Building Program

Nardone authors guide to 'smart' systems

By Mark Sullivan
Staff Writer

In today's "smart" buildings, where computers control everything from heating systems to fire alarms to elevators, a small programming glitch can pump up the heat on a sweltering day or trigger the air conditioning during a rainstorm, says Planning Department Mechanical Engineer Mary Nardone.

"The smallest typo in the programming can throw off the delicate interchange of building sensors," said Nardone. "If a program is botched, the boiler might shut off every time a late-night cleaning person opens a door. It could happen if an error in the program is not detected. Programs can have glitches that are never caught."

Nardone, who cut her teeth as a young architectural engineer in the mid-1980s de-bugging the heating and air-conditioning system of the then-new Thomas P. O'Neill Federal Building in Boston, has come to be regarded as an authority on the ins and outs of building-control systems. Her new book, Direct Digital Control Systems: Application and Commissioning , offers architects and engineers a primer on the sometimes finicky workings behind "smart" buildings.

"It offers a guide on how to care for - or put up with - the building-control system in your life," Nardone said. "You can take it out to the job site. It's meant for the tool-kit, not just for the shelf."

Before coming to BC six years ago, Nardone had worked for a company that manufactured and installed building-control systems, at a time the technology was first being widely introduced. In those early days, she recalled, building-control systems could be very sensitive to electrical noise or interference.

"A lightning storm would wreak havoc," she said. "Even a hand-held radio could affect the system."

Mechanical Engineer Mary Nardone.

Today's systems are more advanced, Nardone said, employing the latest breakthroughs in artificial intelligence. Elevators are programmed to come to rest at floors where they are most likely to be called, she said, or inside temperature controls are set to read the weather outside.

"The aim is to write programs that allow machines to mimic human decision-making," Nardone said. "For example, the building-control system might pay attention to the fact that it's Monday, and that a lot of heat has been lost over the weekend when no one was at work. So the heater is instructed to kick in two hours earlier that morning."

Programming bugs are common in such "smart" systems, observed Nardone, who leads semi-annual seminars on computerized building controls for the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers.

Her new book walks the reader through the hardware and software of building-control systems, then provides a guide to thoroughly "de-bugging" the system before the tenant moves into the building.

"It teaches you how to check the programming for problems, so the air conditioner doesn't go on automatically every Tuesday and leave the house freezing," she said.

Of course, the much anticipated granddaddy of programming meltdowns - the widely feared "Y2K Bug," expected to render computers' internal clocks useless at the turn of the new century - still looms on the horizon.

"I might take a vacation day on Jan. 1, 2000," Nardone said, with a laugh. But she expressed confidence that BC buildings will remain in fine working order on the first day of the new millennium.

"Personally, I'd worry more about my money in the bank than about the building-control systems," she said. "Things can still be run manually."

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