Hall of Fame nominee: Dennis Leung – AOC MEP Engineer (Retired)

Posted on January 7, 2011

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Due to the technical nature of the materials presented, I received some outside help on this entry. A special thanks goes out to those that provided the materials and technical assistance to this entry.

Dennis Leung is a recently retired MEP engineer for the Administrative Office of the Courts office of court construction & management. It was Dennis Leung, working in concert with former AOC Technical Analyst Michael Paul and AOC utility analyst Bennett Gilbert that recognized the importance of integrating and interconnecting all statewide building management systems to a common open standards platform.

Way back in 2005/2006 while the AOC was beginning to inherit transferred courthouses, these three individuals came to the realization that there were serious issues with the technical management of existing court assets. One day, while attending a LonMark conference in San Diego, they attended an after affair of dinner and drinks which were a part of the LonMark conference. After leaving this affair at the Westin Horton Plaza, they took a walk past the main San Diego courthouse a few blocks away. It was just after midnight and every light in the entire court building was on. A few blocks over stood a federal courthouse with every light in the building off.   

The difference they realized was in the portfolio management of real estate assets, Where the federal GSA had installed occupancy sensors and building energy management systems to manage heating, ventilation, air conditioning (HVAC) and lighting, it was obvious that no one in the county operated courthouse had installed these systems to manage energy in the building or that years of deferred maintenance had rendered these systems inoperable. Either way, the taxpayers were paying to keep HVAC and lighting operating 24/7/365 in a building that was rarely occupied more than 50 hours a week.

While this building had not yet turned over to state ownership these gentlemen realized early on that a comprehensive strategy would be called for to reign in the utility costs of the entire 500+ building real estate portfolio as they rightly suspected, this wasn’t the only large court building that ran its utilities all night without interruption and that serious savings could be derived if funding was secured to retrofit all of these buildings with building management systems. They drew up recommendations for OCCM and Information Services to work together and integrate all buildings on a single remotely monitored and controlled backbone to interconnect all real estate assets. They submitted this plan to former senior manager Fred Stetson and current senior manager Jerry Pfab.

The reply they got back from OCCM management was that building management systems do not work are more trouble than they are worth and upon transfer all such systems would be removed from all of the buildings.

These three gentlemen realized that this would not be possible without hiring a closely synchronized army of “service providers” with walkie-talkies to man the entire building all day and all night to manually operate the systems as most public buildings lack user adjustable thermostats on the wall and only buildings built in the last 15 years utilized occupancy sensors. Without the feedback loops provided by building management systems, utility usage in these structures would go off the charts. The occupants would be exposed to hot/cold swings lasting through the entire day and some buildings with closely engineered systems would experience a phenomena called thermal runaway on hot days where the shell heats up so much it heats the interior of the building and if the HVAC system can’t keep up with what mother nature is dishing out, they fall outside the containment envelope. Once outside the containment envelope, regardless of how much conditioned air was pumped into the building, the building would thermally run away, getting progressively hotter as the day went by. In manual control mode, an army of building engineers might be able to cool the building off enough overnight to make it somewhat comfortable for court workers arriving the next morning where the cycle would repeat itself all over again.

We’re told that Larson Justice Center’s employees have first hand experience with thermal runaway with building temperatures rising to a balmy 120 degrees or more during the day.  Being the very first building to turn over to the AOC, the Office of Court Construction & Management did not wish to inherit the chilled water tank and the facilities management unit managers said they didn’t need the tank which was a critical part of an engineered system.

This tank held water that was chilled to 39 degrees at night and was utilized by the building to cool the building during the sweltering summer days. Without this tank transferring, the whole HVAC system would need to be re-engineered and redesigned to work without the chilled water tank.

The county promptly cut the tank out of the loop and that is where Larson Justice Centers sweltering nightmare began that continues to this day, albeit less evident and less frequent. Of course, instead of chilling water during the evening when utility usage costs are minimal and storing that chilled water in a huge tank to be utilized to keep the building cold in the day, the chillers would now be running full time to keep up with the buildings demand for cold water – and they would be running at the most expensive time of day for utility costs as well as the most susceptible time of day for power outages.

These senior managers who today lead the AOC’s facilities management unit were planning a massive increase in service provider man hours to run these buildings the old fashioned way because they did not trust technology they do not understand. It didn’t matter that many of these systems lacked the manual controls to be able to manually control the buildings, that wasn’t important. What was important was getting these “unreliable systems” out of the buildings.

Mr. Leung and Mr. Paul was not surprised to learn of this position. After all, lots of these people coming over to the AOC came from DGS and DGS had chosen highly proprietary and highly problematic pneumatic control systems to operate most of their buildings. Because the systems were proprietary, they had to return to the sole source for the proprietary systems to get them fixed or maintained. Because pneumatic systems were so labor intensive relying on air compressors and air actuators to perform control, these systems were notoriously unreliable and DGS paid a steep price for their choice.

By 2005, Direct Digital Control (DDC) was the wave of the future and being integrated in every new building. Older buildings were being retrofitted with it.  Utilizing computerized building management software, the computer itself had the ability to utilize IP (Internet Protocol) technology and something called a LON or BacNet bus to digitally control valves and actuators. Most of these systems on the BacNet side remain highly proprietary while LON systems are required to interoperate with any manufacturers devices as a prerequisite to certification.

These three engineers became concerned about the direction OCCM management was heading. With buildings that had yet to be inherited they saw an opportunity to save the judicial branch tens of millions of dollars a year by retrofitting buildings with DDC systems capable of not only remote control and monitoring, but automated trouble reporting and additionally presented the capability of building occupants to have limited control to adjust thermostat or light settings via a web page while offering local building engineers full control over these systems. What they were being told was that quite the opposite would be happening. These systems were to be removed and in their place a significant presence of service providers would be taking their place.

(God I love the term service providers. The only other place I have ever heard the term ‘service provider’ is in reference to prostitutes and it conjures up some vivid images of those who might be maintaining court buildings… but I digress… )

Up until his retirement, Dennis Leung distinguished himself with a common sense approach to the evolution of building technology and if his idea ever got off the ground way back in 2006, the savings derived would have made court closures unnecessary.

This is why Dennis Leung is hereby nominated to the Judicial Banch Hall of Fame.