Smart building technology is changing the guest experience.

When guests arrive at a hotel in Canada — in steamy July or bone-freezing January — they benefit from some of the most advanced heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) systems in the world. Automated systems ensure a great experience for years to come, while also easing pressure off the bottom line.

“Our systems are being upgraded as we speak,” says Wayne Stoughton, chief engineer at The Fairmont Empress in Victoria, B.C. “We’ll be upgrading panels and adding some additional interfacing points to assist the engineering team in controlling environmental space conditions to further enhance our guest experience.”

At The Fairmont Empress more data will now be available from the HVAC systems, allowing for closer monitoring and management of room, supply and return temperatures. The system is supplied by Reliable Controls, which adheres to the BACnet data communication protocol for building automation, part of the “smart” building trend taking the industry by storm. “With BACnet, multiple vendors can bid on the same system, which maximizes return on investment,” says Tom Zaban, Reliable Control’s executive vice-president of Sales and Marketing. “A hotel can mix and match components, which adds value and extends the life of the technology.”

Typical upgrades for a standard HVAC system run in the area of $10,000 to $15,000 for each unit. Usually there are several units in a building. In the case of The Fairmont Empress, Stoughton has approximately 15 units in total, each unit lasting approximately 25 years. Adding an automated system increases energy efficiency, with full return on investment coming in three to four years.

In a typical retrofit it’s not unusual for an automated system to deliver full ROI in three to four years. For an HVAC system to be most effective, it not only has to offer control to hotel operators but also to its guests.

“In every one of our properties the guest has control of the heating and cooling at all times,” says Norman L. Nelson, senior director of Engineering for Homewood Suites by Hilton, based in Raleigh, N.C. “However, while the temperature is controlled by the guest, the ventilation is managed by a centralized system.”

Putting guests in charge has obvious advantages, but it presents unique challenges, too. In a franchise model like the one employed by Choice Hotels Canada, for example, corporate specifications are expected to be followed by the independent owner/operator.

To better understand HVAC, it’s important to understand the terms ‘PTAC’ and ‘BTUH.’ ‘PTAC’ refers to a common ‘packaged terminal air conditioner’ while ‘BTUH’ is jargon for ‘British thermal units per hour,’ a standard energy measurement. “We don’t want to have noisy units, so we specify a through wall PTAC unit with a minimum 7,000 BTUH capacity, with internal drainage systems, which are also highly recommended,” says Brian Leon, managing director, Franchise Growth and Administration, Choice Hotels Canada. “We also require a minimum 3.5 kilowatt heating unit, unless heat pumps are installed, which will result in a larger heating capacity requirement.”

Understandably, capacity and cost-control issues differ when moving to larger units. This is of particular relevance at Homewood Suites, where a studio or a bedroom averages around 550 square feet. “A property can be managed automatically, or a housekeeper can do a manual re-set after the person leaves,” says Nelson from Homewood Suites, which has properties in Ontario and Quebec. “If you have an automated system, it can be seasonally adjusted,” but, he cautions, “you have to be sure the room can return to a comfortable temperature in a reasonable amount of time.”

Quality assurance teams visit twice a year to ensure the Homewood Suites properties adhere to Hilton’s expectations. Individual properties have some controls, but, as with Choice Hotels Canada, they also benefit from corporate governance. “Windows and sliding doors can open. That’s a choice that can be made,” says Nelson, “but if you have those options then we have a system where, once a window or door is opened, the heating or cooling system will cut off automatically.”

Breathing easy, staying cool

To deliver the best experience, it’s crucial hotel guests avoid surprises, and from an HVAC perspective, that means odd smells, unwelcome noises, and temperature extremes. “We have a seaport outside the hotel,” says Stoughton from The Fairmont Empress, “and, as a result, there’s a lot of spent fuel in the air. Depending on the inversion effect from the ocean, some of the spent fuel is drawn into the hotel’s fresh-air intake.” To combat this effect, Stoughton installed a set of pleated carbon filters to capture the offending fuel smell, eliminating complaints from staff and guests. From an industry perspective, there is also a broader trend toward more sophisticated filtration systems to deal with airborne allergens. “We have used HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filters in guestrooms,” says Nelson. “The Hilton in Chicago does and charges a higher room rate. For those travellers with allergies, it’s proven to be very popular.”

Innovation in HVAC systems is extending to other areas, too. These include pools with energy-efficient dehumidification systems, separate air conditioning for exercise rooms and green initiatives such as geothermal ground cooling and LEED building certification. However, perhaps the most challenging area — from an energy-use, noise and safety perspective — is the kitchen.

“We recently installed an on-demand kitchen-ventilation system,” says Stoughton. “We went with Intelli-Hood from Ohio-based Melink Corporation. The system utilizes variable speed drives on all exhaust and supply fans — when a chef commences cooking and turns on a gas burner, the hood devices will ramp up the fan motors.” A system that runs more efficiently with technology can typically deliver an ROI in one to two years, with fan energy savings of up to 90 per cent and conditioned air savings of up to 50 per cent.

“We put optics and temperature sensors in each hood cavity and variable frequency drives on the exhaust and dedicated make-up air fans,” says Bill Donaldson, Melink’s director of Strategic Accounts. “The optic sensors are similar to the safety on your garage door — if there is no smoke or steam in the hood cavity, based on temperature, we slow down the fans, and if there is smoke or steam the system goes back to 100-per-cent fan speed.”

Air purge fans keep the optic sensors clean, but the system can also conduct self-diagnosis in case of grease build-up. Every day at 2 a.m. a test signal is sent. If there is grease build-up, the system will self adjust the beam strength, and if build-up persists over time the system will sound an alarm, flash a visual signal and kicks in to full bypass while sending an e-mail back to Melink’s quality department, who, in turn diagnoses the issue and reports back to site personnel. 

“I installed a Melink system when I worked at another hotel in Ottawa,” says Stoughton. “An impressive and unexpected benefit was that kitchen staff noticed a significant drop in the noise levels around the kitchen. Here at The Empress, the system allows the kitchen exhaust fans in a mechanical room adjacent to several guestrooms to ramp down instead of running full out ‘twenty-four, seven.”

The result? The hotel has had very few guest complaints since the system was installed. And that’s good news for guests who can’t see what’s going on behind those walls, and would rather not hear about it either. For a hotel, quiet comfort is the name of the game, and in the 21st century, automated hotels may be among the smartest buildings in town.

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