Upgrading existing proprietary building systems to a single integrated Internet protocol (IP)-based management system will take place in nearly every commercial and industrial building in the coming years, and according to some in the industry, U.S. buildings lead the world in this trend. For contractors, the integration and commissioning of building systems, whether as a retrofit or new construction, are becoming not only more common, but easier as the technology evolves. Electrical contractors are playing a wide variety of roles.

“I think eventually all building systems are heading toward open systems,” said Jeff Sewald, high performance building engineer for Building Intelligence Group.

The vendors, in these cases, no longer oversee the work. For that reason, some contractors are filling in a need for a central manager of these systems, some acting as master systems integrator (MSI), which addresses the biggest challenge for commissioning low-voltage systems: making the systems work as designed. In other cases, the contractors are working with MSIs.

The MSI position is a fairly recent creation, but a growing number of engineers are seeking MSI support to merge the expectations of the building owner with the technical reality of an automated system. The MSI consultant sets up best practices, advises on a building master plan, and oversees the installation and commissioning to ensure the system—including the control systems, graphical user interfaces (GUI), and shared databases—operates as expected.

“In more sophisticated installations, a third-party commissioning agent is brought in to understand what the owner’s needs are and come into the design process,” Sewald said.

The MSI, Sewald said, is a specialized contractor that can unify various systems. Individual contractors—mechanical and electrical—install the various subsystems, and the MSI provides the more technology-intensive integration services. However, sophisticated mechanical or electrical contractors could certainly act as the MSI.

Every automation system requires a coordinated effort. The MSI works directly with the owner, ensuring open systems, open procurement, and fair and competitive bidding practices are used. The company can also be responsible for the design and implementation of the system GUIs, so the various buildings and systems have a consistent look and feel. Web browser software makes this possible and prevents a system from being locked to a single vendor’s user interface.

This position is needed because of the nature of building projects today.

“I’m still seeing systems going in that don’t function the way the engineer intended,” Sewald said.

Pressure on the contractors to complete a job within a tight budget often results in the unintended operation. The MSI is pulled in to ensure the end-user, engineer and contractor/installer are on the same page.

Getting control
A variety of vendors provide IP-based control systems to allow the integration of multiple systems. The best thing for a contractor in building automation would be to learn about technology that can accommodate open standards and is information technology (IT) friendly, Seward said. Automated logic systems, such as those from Siemens, Trane and others, are all becoming increasingly IT friendly, he said.

One company, Tridium, offers open platforms, application software frameworks, automation infrastructure technology, energy management and device-to-enterprise integration solutions. Tridium has been providing technology, known as the Niagara Framework, that is directed at the integration. The Niagara Framework is an integration platform to help systems communicate, and it can be centrally managed on-site or from remote locations (sometimes with a PDA) using an Internet connection. Tridium sells its technology to OEMs, and they, in turn, manage the integration and commissioning, sometimes hiring contractors to do the work.

Marc Petock, vice president of global marketing and communications for Tridium, said that he’s been hearing more about electrical contractors getting more engaged in building automation, including both commissioning and integration. He pointed out that contractors may have initially taken on building automation and heating, ventilating and air conditioning systems.

Although it started there, he said, most contractors are aware now that their companies can provide integration of physical security, energy monitoring, lighting, and any other device or system used in the operation of a building.

Petock pointed out that MSIs involvement also is growing in popularity because the end-user wants to deal with as few people as possible.

“The building owner may want something to happen, and the engineer has something else in mind,” Petock said, adding that if an MSI understands what the technology provides, “the technical side can merge with the business needs of the end-user.”

According to Petock, integrated systems will continue to get easier to install and commission and become a standard. Since building owners want to run their buildings at peak performance at the lowest possible cost, the automation system is the best and, eventually, perhaps the only, option.

Lighting gets integrated
When it comes to lighting systems, contractors are now commissioning and integrating territory that lighting control vendors once oversaw. Watt-Stopper, a manufacturer of commercial and residential lighting controls focused on saving energy and providing a high return on investment, sees an upward trend.

“About 5 percent of the lighting controls are integrated into other buildings systems today, but the level of interest is climbing due to concerns about smart grid and real time energy pricing,” said Pete Horton, WattStopper vice president of market development.

While more electricians are installing lighting controls today, many are missing the opportunity to provide additional energy management solutions for their customers, he said. The mechanical controls’ contractor has been providing energy-saving solutions for mechanical systems, but relatively little such work has been done in the electrical division. Three primary opportunities allow an EC to participate in energy management: lighting controls, plug loads and submeters.

In the case of lighting controls, a few simple steps can be taken beyond what’s code-mandated to offer a high return on investment for building owners. Adding switches to the automatic controls and changing the default operation of lighting from automatic-on to manual-on are two examples.

“This simple change saves an additional 20 percent of the lighting energy usage over automatic on/off controls, and offers a two-year return on investment,” Horton said.

Plug loads are becoming a larger part of utility bills, Horton said, which makes them another target for contractors. As part of the new ASHRAE 90.1 2010 energy code revision, 50 percent of receptacles are required to have automatic shutoff in specific space types, such as private offices and classrooms. Manufacturers offer simple plug-in strips that can help contractors with such installations.

In addition, Horton said, energy management companies and federal buildings demand submeters to track electrical consumption. These devices have to be installed by electricians and will typically be monitored by building management companies.

“Getting to know the local building management contractors and offering installation services could provide income and an education on smart buildings,” Horton said.

More sophisticated solutions such as submetering installations will also introduce electrical contractors to building management systems, communications protocols (BACnet, Modbus, Echelon, etc.) and network wiring, which may lead to more installations of controls for the building management companies, Horton said.


SWEDBERG is a freelance writer based in western Washington. She can be reached at claire_swedberg@msn.com.