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Exploration of Intelligent HVAC Operation Strategies for Office Buildings

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posted on 15.12.2020, 22:15 by Xiaoqi Liu

Commercial buildings not only have significant impacts on occupants’ well-being, but also contribute to more than 19% of the total energy consumption in the United States. Along with improvements in building equipment efficiency and utilization of renewable energy, there has been significant focus on the development of advanced heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) system controllers that incorporate predictions (e.g., occupancy patterns, weather forecasts) and current state information to execute optimization-based strategies. For example, model predictive control (MPC) provides a systematic implementation option using a system model and an optimization algorithm to adjust the control setpoints dynamically. This approach automatically satisfies component and operation constraints related to building dynamics, HVAC equipment, etc. However, the wide adaptation of advanced controls still faces several practical challenges: such approaches involve significant engineering effort and require site-specific solutions for complex problems that need to consider uncertain weather forecast and engaging the building occupants. This thesis explores smart building operation strategies to resolve such issues from the following three aspects.

First, the thesis explores a stochastic model predictive control (SMPC) method for the optimal utilization of solar energy in buildings with integrated solar systems. This approach considers the uncertainty in solar irradiance forecast over a prediction horizon, using a new probabilistic time series autoregressive model, calibrated on the sky-cover forecast from a weather service provider. In the optimal control formulation, we model the effect of solar irradiance as non-Gaussian stochastic disturbance affecting the cost and constraints, and the nonconvex cost function is an expectation over the stochastic process. To solve this optimization problem, we introduce a new approximate dynamic programming methodology that represents the optimal cost-to-go functions using Gaussian process, and achieves good solution quality. We use an emulator to evaluate the closed-loop operation of a building-integrated system with a solar-assisted heat pump coupled with radiant floor heating. For the system and climate considered, the SMPC saves up to 44% of the electricity consumption for heating in a winter month, compared to a well-tuned rule-based controller, and it is robust, imposing less uncertainty on thermal comfort violation.

Second, this thesis explores user-interactive thermal environment control systems that aim to increase energy efficiency and occupant satisfaction in office buildings. Towards this goal, we present a new modeling approach of occupant interactions with a temperature control and energy use interface based on utility theory that reveals causal effects in the human decision-making process. The model is a utility function that quantifies occupants’ preference over temperature setpoints incorporating their comfort and energy use considerations. We demonstrate our approach by implementing the user-interactive system in actual office spaces with an energy efficient model predictive HVAC controller. The results show that with the developed interactive system occupants achieved the same level of overall satisfaction with selected setpoints that are closer to temperatures determined by the MPC strategy to reduce energy use. Also, occupants often accept the default MPC setpoints when a significant improvement in the thermal environment conditions is not needed to satisfy their preference. Our results show that the occupants’ overrides can contribute up to 55% of the HVAC energy consumption on average with MPC. The prototype user-interactive system recovered 36% of this additional energy consumption while achieving the same overall occupant satisfaction level. Based on these findings, we propose that the utility model can become a generalized approach to evaluate the design of similar user-interactive systems for different office layouts and building operation scenarios.

Finally, this thesis presents an approach based on meta-reinforcement learning (Meta-RL) that enables autonomous optimal building controls with minimum engineering effort. In reinforcement learning (RL), the controller acts as an agent that executes control actions in response to the real-time building system status and exogenous disturbances according to a policy. The agent has the ability to update the policy towards improving the energy efficiency and occupant satisfaction based on the previously achieved control performance. In order to ensure satisfactory performance upon deployment to a target building, the agent is trained using the Meta-RL algorithm beforehand with a model universe obtained from available building information, which is a probability measure over the possible building dynamical models. Starting from what is learned in the training process, the agent then fine-tunes the policy to adapt to the target building based on-site observations. The control performance and adaptability of the Meta-RL agent is evaluated using an emulator of a private office space over 3 summer months. For the system and climate under consideration, the Meta-RL agent can successfully maintain the indoor air temperature within the first week, and result in only 16% higher energy consumption in the 3rd month than MPC, which serves as the theoretical upper performance bound. It also significantly outperforms the agents trained with conventional RL approach.


National Science Foundation

Center for High Performance Buildings


Degree Type

Doctor of Philosophy


Civil Engineering

Campus location

West Lafayette

Advisor/Supervisor/Committee Chair

Panagiota Karava

Additional Committee Member 2

Ilias Bilionis

Additional Committee Member 3

Jianghai Hu

Additional Committee Member 4

Athanasios Tzempelikos