David Handwork
Assistant Vice Chancellor for Facilities Management
Arkansas State University
Jonesboro, Arkansas


HVAC Controls, Computrols Building Automation Software

Computrols has been a partner for the university since about 2003. I was introduced to Computrols through a APPA meeting, so we had our technology conferences in Texas, in San Antonio for several years and we were down there and were talking about our experience with our building automation system, and somebody said hey they were from one of our local hospitals, hey we use this company called Computrols and I called them up and that is what started our relationship.

So, ASU, when I came in fall 2001, we had five different front ends for building automation systems. Eighty percent of that was a Honeywell XL plus that was a campus wide consolidation an adding a DDC system but we had a lot of pneumatics so they wanted to consolidate pneumatics so it covered about eighty percent of the campus at the time and we were about 3.4 million square feet and we’re about 4.3 million square feet today so we have grown about one million square feet or a little over a million square feet so that eighty percent was covered with that Honeywell so when I get there they had already had issues with the Honeywell system and when it was put in 2 years later Honeywell couldn’t support the hardware because it was obsolete. So it was put in and it was on the obsolesce track and maybe how they got the low bid. I don’t know. I’m not picking on Honeywell. I’m just saying that is what happened. We were having to send our boards off to repair shops that could buy chips and re-solder it and make it work. Then it got to the point that was getting hard because they didn’t manufacture chips anymore.

We knew really quick that I had to come up with a different system and the idea was to get a product that instead of us going to a provider that does all the programming and all the service work on it that we can do as much of that inhouse as possible. Could we find a solution that is straightforward? My background had been PLCs automation prior to that, even taught some PLC programming class. I thought PLCs would be great because it is like a graphical relay logic, our electricians understand it. It’s pretty easy, it’s pretty straightforward, but then I realized that scan times in HVAC is 30 seconds. If I had not a high-speed automation but if I had a scan time greater than a 180 milliseconds things didn’t work right. It’s like taking a 4 wheel drive tractor and farming your garden. It’s a tool that will do it but it is way overpowered and is not needed.

We were looking for an appropriate HVAC and I looked at a bunch of different manufacturers. When we came across Computrols, they gave a demo and our technicians and myself, we had seen about six different products out there, and when we saw how to program it was kind of a drop-down menu. It really had other time almost like a configurative type of setup. You could type in code but everything was already preset. Now you had to set up all your data points, but it was Boolean logic, which most logic is like that anyway. If outside air temp, you define that point, is greater than, you use drop-down menus, than 50 degrees then cooling mode or whatever. It was just really simple.

We thought we needed to explore this. We went to New Orleans, we took the time invested to exploring the possibilities. In downtown New Orleans they had great market shares so we saw some high-rise buildings. They didn’t have a lot of higher education market at that time so there really was some schools but we saw enough that we said let’s try this out. We found out the training was straightforward. Our staff, we had two gentlemen that were trained in about a week’s period. We had a small project and Computrols came and in a small building and it was a challenging project because we put a VAV system on the DX air conditioning and if you have never done that before it is pretty quirky. We had multi-stage compressors and multiple compressors so we were able to not freeze up the coil because we varied airflow, but it was tricky. It was so tricky that one of the owners Kevin Lynch, I will be down there programming in a day, we will commission it, and do your training and we will go home, well he stayed a week so it was pretty tricky but it has worked ever since.

That convinced us that we found somebody from that standpoint of the controls that it was easy that we could program it with our staff, and then we looked at the other cost of ownership. We bought the software and the hardware itself has a lifetime warranty. I thought yeah right if lightning strikes this we’ll still have to buy another controller, but we have sent some down for repair and there has probably been since 2004 probably only one controller that we have had to buy because of weather. And we would disclose it and say this was because it flooded or whatever and we would just buy another one, but the things that got lightning struck they would just repair it and send it back. That was the one time cost that was attractive to us it was backward compatible that is one thing that is very important on their software. As we have evolved since 2003, their software with the upgrades, we can still go back and program the controllers we put in back in 2003 and 2004…

We went from five systems and we are down to basically two on our campus and we have over 52,000 software and hardware points on our campus that is completely maintained and owned by us, ASU. When we have a new construction project, we have one going on in the left end zone 68,000 square feet athletic building. I think it has 23 VAV boxes maybe more than that. I know it has four or five air handlers. We are buying the boards, we are buying the VAV controllers, we are handing off the VAV controllers to the contractor. They are doing the installation it is owner-furnished contractor installed. They provide all the sensors. We specify out all the sensors we want. They purchase as part of the contract. They install and wire it. They install the VFDs. They wire it back to our panel. We give them a termination list. They terminate it on the board. We work with them for the point to point verification with our staff. We make sure it works. This is done pretty early in the construction phase. It is not like its two weeks before we are occupying it. The other advantage that we get that is tremendous for us for the total cost of ownership is making decisions to utilize this product and it worked for us with Computrols…

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