Automated building systems today are highly sophisticated. Yet most building owners aren't getting the full range of benefits because they don't take time to maintain and customize the technology, says Marc Fisher, a Transwestern Commercial Services senior vice president.

On average, building automation systems cost $1 per sq. ft. — a huge chunk of cash even for small buildings. The hefty upfront cost is typically earned back to owners through energy savings within two to three years, however, if the system is used properly, says Terry Hoffmann, director of building automation systems marketing for Johnson Controls.

Optimizing a building automation system is not expensive once it's already been installed and paid for. The key is getting the right bells and whistles going in. "What people often miss is the next level of customization and they're leaving money on the table," says Fisher.

These systems, also known as energy management systems, have become commonplace in all sizes of commercial buildings over the past several years because they help curb costs related to heating and cooling, lighting and even water consumption.

But the software technology becomes more advanced every year, which means that building management needs to track those improvements to gauge when to re-invest in updates. "The problem that we see over and over is that the energy management system never gets upgraded," Fisher says. "The other problem is that beyond installing the software, no one has taken time to really tweak it for the building. These systems have to be customized to the building and constantly changed since seasons change."

Most building managers and owners use building automation technology in very simplistic ways, such as controlling heating and cooling system cycle times and measuring energy consumption on specific floors to calculate charge-backs. With a little modification, the software can help the building become even more efficient. On a very hot day, for instance, the system could adjust the building's air intakes to limit the amount of outside air that it brings in the building.

"Energy is such an enormous part of the operating expenses," says Fisher, "so finding a way to maximize an energy management system that is already is place is critical."