Building Maintenance

How to Proactively Manage Control Systems of Aging Buildings

Grainger Editorial Staff

Learn how to recognize the signs of aging control systems that are critical to your building’s overall operations.

On any given workday, facilities managers spend their time managing budgets, working with service providers, supervising multidisciplinary teams of employees and making sure their facilities meet environmental, safety and health standards. They also allocate physical space to specific business functions and put out the daily fires that come with operating commercial buildings.

This may sound like more than enough to fill a 40-hour workweek, but today’s facilities managers also have to keep tabs on the underlying systems that keep their facilities operational. According to a recent report by Grainger The State of Aging Buildings: Today’s Building Management Challenges, many of the 1,000 facility managers surveyed see aging control systems as an area where proactive steps can effectively ward off future problems.

As buildings age, the systems that run them will begin to show wear and tear. “Buildings don’t fall apart overnight. Deterioration is a slow process that takes its toll over time, which is good news for facilities managers,” Control Solutions, Inc points out. “It means you have time to assess and plan for upgrades before they become costly repairs that interrupt operations.”

What Is a Building Control System?

A building control system or building management system (BMS) comprises one or more solutions that support the management, control and/or partial automation of mechanical and electrical systems (e.g., lighting, chillers, boilers, HVAC, security, etc.). With the advent of the IoT (Internet of Things), artificial intelligence (AI), and increasingly-connected facilities, more organizations are thinking beyond legacy building control systems and infusing more automation into these processes.

But even as technology continues to make its way into facilities nationwide, many legacy control systems still run the show: 72% of U.S. commercial buildings were built before 2000. When building control systems are functioning properly, no one notices them—the building temperatures are comfortable, the water is running and all of the lights are on. “But there comes a time when the building controls no longer perform optimally. And the complaints from unhappy building occupants begin mounting in your e-mail inbox,” FacilitiesNet points out. “You know the problem. The building needs a controls overhaul.”

Key Signs to Watch out for


Expected to keep buildings operating as intended and their businesses running smoothly, facilities managers often have to resort to contingency planning to deal with the safety, usability, operational and security issues that can occur within their four walls. In many cases, this contingency planning may be all they need. In the case of building control systems (which can impact multiple areas at once), however, it pays to take a more proactive approach.

A good first step is to know the signs of an aging building's control system. Here are some important warning signs to watch for:

  • Parts Obsolescence If the component you’re trying to fix is no longer supported by its manufacturer (or an outside parts supplier), then it may be time for an overhaul. If it takes months to track down the parts needed to fix the building’s power management system, for instance, then a new one is probably in order.
  • Repeat Repairs Do you find yourself repeatedly calling on someone to help repair the same issues over and over again? If your building’s HVAC system has a leak that won’t ever seem to go away or if it can’t ever “catch up” to the desired temperature, then it’s probably time to consider a replacement.
  • Productivity Decreases Forced to work in uncomfortable conditions (e.g., too hot in summer, too cold in winter), your valued labor force may slow down and be less productive. While this may not translate into a “hard cost,” over time it can significantly reduce a company’s bottom line in the form of lower productivity. To avoid this problem, demand control ventilation (DCV) solutions can automatically adjust ventilation equipment according to occupant preference.
  • Too Many Manual Processes Building control systems have advanced to the point where facilities managers can monitor and manipulate critical components from their smartphones. If you’re still running across the plant to the thermostat to turn down the temperature—or waiting for your monthly water bill to measure consumption—it’s probably time to update your control systems.
  • Poor Application Integration Older building management systems relied on standalone applications for HVAC controls, power management, lighting, water usage and other important systems. When these systems don’t “talk” to one another or share data, facility managers are forced to address each component individually. Today’s solutions are highly integrated and they allow organizations to manage their core building controls in a systematic, automated manner.

Four Action Steps for Facilities Managers

Vital to keeping a facility operating efficiently, building control systems have come a long way in the last 10-15 years. The newer solutions incorporate intelligent technology like AI, IoT and Machine Learning (ML) that allows facilities managers to focus on core responsibilities versus having to worry about their buildings’ underlying systems. Knowing when it’s time to invest in upgrades can mean the difference between running an inefficient, expensive facility and operating an energy-conscious, comfortable and safe plant.

Use these four action steps to start upgrading or replacing your facility’s aging control systems today:

  1. Pinpoint the real problem. Find the root cause of the problem(s) and determine how those issues are impacting your facility. According to HVAC venting company Primex, "Performance declines, for example, can be the result of tenants interfering with the system. So, the first course of action is to inspect the building and check against the system specs.”
  2. Pay attention to proprietary systems. There was a time when proprietary, customized and even “homemade” solutions were the only options on the market. The problem is that these solutions rely on communications protocol that is specific to a certain manufacturer or group of manufacturers. “This limits any improvements, because any expansions or changes to the system must use the same proprietary language,” Primex notes. “The problem is further exacerbated if the original equipment manufacturer (OEM) has gone out of business.”
  3. Work with your organization’s decision makers to develop a priority list for the repairs/upgrades. Create a business use-case for the upgrades (e.g., show decision makers why the changes are necessary and how they will translate into real cost savings, lower operating costs, a safer workplace, etc.). Illustrate this business use-case in terms and numbers that the decision makers can easily digest and understand. Then, create a list of core needs and a budget to support those needs.
  4. Don’t be afraid to get outside help. If you want to outsource the work, find a firm that specializes in building management systems and that has experience in your specific industry. If you’d rather do it on your own, talk to peers in your industry about how they’ve implemented similar projects. Then, use that feedback to develop your own upgrade or replacement plan.

Download The State of Aging Buildings: Today's Building Management Challenges to learn how facility managers like you are planning for and prioritizing projects to keep their aging buildings operating safely and efficiently.


The information contained in this article is intended for general information purposes only and is based on information available as of the initial date of publication. No representation is made that the information or references are complete or remain current. This article is not a substitute for review of current applicable government regulations, industry standards, or other standards specific to your business and/or activities and should not be construed as legal advice or opinion. Readers with specific questions should refer to the applicable standards or consult with an attorney.


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