Mercy modernized its existing HVAC systems by installing sensors, controllers and electronic actuators.

Feb 21 2024
Patient-Centered Care

How Modern HVAC Systems Support Smart Hospital Transformations

Healthcare organizations are using Internet of Things-enabled climate-control systems to conserve energy and improve conditions for patients.

Heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems use a lot of energy. They account for as much as 44 percent of a commercial building’s total energy consumption, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. It’s clear why healthcare organizations such as Mercy are automating their HVAC systems to make them more energy efficient.

The technology allows Mercy’s facilities department to centrally manage temperature and climate conditions in every room, resulting in millions of dollars in energy savings a year, says Tom Brinkmann, Mercy’s director of facilities maintenance and operations.

The facilities team programs HVAC settings on a preset schedule. Occupancy sensors automatically reduce output if rooms are empty. Once someone re-enters a room, the system restores optimal conditions for patients and staff.

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“With a digital system, we can make sure we are not cooling a space that has reduced or zero occupancy during certain hours, such as nights and weekends. By scheduling it, we can save a lot of money,” Brinkmann says.

Many hospitals are deploying Internet of Things-enabled HVAC systems as part of their smart hospital transformations. The technology reduces energy consumption and enables healthcare organizations to gain granular control of temperatures, humidity levels and air pressure, which improves patient safety and comfort.

Smart HVAC systems also simplify management, allowing staff to use software to troubleshoot problems more easily. However, because these modern HVAC systems are connected to networks, they can become targets for malicious actors. IT teams must secure them.

Security best practices include using network monitoring tools to detect security threats, placing the HVAC system on a network separate from other IT systems, and using VPNs and multifactor authentication to secure access, says Curtis Franklin, principal analyst for enterprise security management at research firm Omdia.

“Always carefully monitor the network traffic in and out of HVAC systems because it should be very well-defined traffic to very well-established and known destinations,” Franklin says.

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Large Healthcare Provider Mercy Migrates to Smart HVAC Systems

Mercy has taken a phased approach to upgrading its facilities’ HVAC systems as its budget allows. The major healthcare provider is currently building two facilities with state-of-the-art HVAC systems. But it must also upgrade old HVAC systems that use pneumatic controls in existing facilities.

So far, the organization has modernized HVAC systems in two-thirds of its spaces, including at Mercy Hospital St. Louis and 16 other hospitals in Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma. “We have hundreds of buildings in four states with different kinds of HVAC systems of various ages and degrees of technology,” Brinkmann says.

To update existing HVAC systems, Mercy has installed sensors, controllers and electronic actuators. The organization installed wiring to network the equipment together and deployed building automation software to centrally monitor and manage the systems. 

The technology automatically maintains climate conditions in different rooms. During the phased upgrades, Mercy prioritized critical patient areas such as operating rooms or areas with vulnerable patients, where environmental controls are most important, Brinkmann says.

Mercy also upgraded HVAC operations in rooms that store sterile supplies because control of humidity is needed to maintain product safety. “Now we can do a better job at maintaining a healthy, compliant environment,” he says.

How Organizations Are Securing Smart HVAC Systems

Since Internet of Things-enabled HVAC systems are connected to networks, facilities and engineering managers say they work closely with IT on security and software management.

At MaineHealth, for instance, Maine Medical Center’s IT department uses multifactor authentication as part of its security measures, says David Neely, the center’s senior director of plant engineering. The building automation software is also installed on redundant servers, so if one fails, the backup keeps operations running, he adds.

Houston Methodist’s IT department installed Cat5 Ethernet cabling throughout its 950-bed hospital to connect the new HVAC equipment, including smart thermostats. As part of its security strategy, facilities staff can only log in to the building automation software from the intranet, says James A. Law III, Houston Methodist Hospital’s manager of facilities management services.

The Mercy Technology Services department combined hospitals, clinics, pharmacies and other facilities into three regions to reduce the technology footprint and consolidate configuration needs, says Dan Henke, vice president of information security at Mercy.

HVAC applications moved to Mercy’s primary data center, with added physical, technical and administrative controls. MTS then converted all the systems’ authentication into a single Active Directory domain, he says.

“Mercy adheres to the principle of least privilege, restricting access to users who need it to complete their required tasks,” Henke says. “We accomplish this by using a strong identity access management program.”

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Houston Methodist Improves Patient Safety and Comfort

The upgrade to a smart HVAC system allows Houston Methodist to better control temperature, air quality and energy usage. “We have critical areas like operating rooms, isolation rooms and biosafety level 3 labs that require constant monitoring of critical environmental conditions that we could not do with a pneumatic system,” Law says.

Fifteen years ago, Law says, about 70 percent of the hospital campus used an old HVAC system with pneumatic control. The other 30 percent used a legacy digital system with electronic actuators to manage pneumatic valves.

But five years ago, he presented hospital leadership with a 10-year plan to modernize to a new smart HVAC system. Today, 90 percent of the system is upgraded and digitized. Through building automation system software, Law and his staff can control, manage and monitor settings anywhere, including operating rooms, isolation rooms and MRI rooms.

For example, isolation rooms with infectious patients must have negative air pressure to prevent the spread of airborne illnesses. Before automation, staff used smoke bottles to manually test air pressure, he says: “We could only do that maybe once a day or every three to four days. But with automation, we can monitor the air pressure every minute.” 

Though Houston Methodist presets room temperatures, the hospital does offer local control, so patients and staff are comfortable, Law adds. Thermostats in patient rooms can adjust temperatures to as low as 68 degrees and to as high as 74.

Tom Brinkmann
Now we can do a better job at maintaining a healthy, compliant environment.”

Tom Brinkmann Director of Facilities Maintenance and Operations, Mercy

Maine Medical Center Benefits from Centralized HVAC Control

Maine Medical Center is also taking a phased upgrade approach to its system. About 80 percent of the 700-bed facility has been upgraded. An addition is being built with the latest HVAC controls.

“We can essentially control temperature, humidity and air pressure in every space of the building with the touch of a finger,” Neely says.

Automated building controls allow hospitals to improve HVAC systems management and troubleshooting, resulting in improved patient satisfaction and increased productivity for technicians, he adds.

Remote management capabilities mean that technicians can log in to the building automation software with Apple iPad devices to adjust temperatures or fix an issue on the other side of campus without any travel time, Neely says, such as when the temperature in an operating room must be raised to accommodate an infant patient. 

Neely and his team also use the software to diagnose and solve problems. The HVAC system’s sensor data can be analyzed to help resolve any issues that emerge, he says.  

At Mercy, the software sends alerts if it spots potential HVAC problems. Local facilities teams meet monthly to review and prioritize issues that the software discovers, Brinkmann adds. “The difference is like night and day. There was very little manageability in the old system,” he says.

Photography by Mark Katzman

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