The gradual emergence from the recession, as well as development of more efficient technology, is signaling what vendors predict will be a surge in commercial building automation. That trend would provide an opportunity for contractors to continue to shift their role from installers to consultants and specifiers. The biggest news is that commercial property owners are starting to spend money again, something vendors and contractors are beginning to see so far in 2011. Most growth is in urban areas, but according to Paul Golden, national business development manager, Energy Solutions, for Schneider Electric, it’s likely to continue nationwide.

Over the past few years, with a reduction of occupancy in many commercial buildings, some have realized the opportunity to become more sustainable and gain trendy status in environmental practices. Others bought commercial buildings at bargain prices and are now seeing the opportunity to begin upgrading in advance of increasing tenancy.

But how can these improvement measures be implemented? The best way is to use building management systems (BMS) and create intelligent buildings that usher in much of the greater efficiency building owners are looking for. These building management methods provide the control technologies, which allow integration, automation and optimization of the services and systems.

Still, commercial automation has grown very little as most commercial facility owners are still struggling with the effects of the recession, said David Klee, director, marketing and strategy, HVAC, Johnson Controls. Doing more with less by reducing both energy and operational costs is the most common theme among the company’s customer base, he said. More owners are looking to their building automation systems/BMS to enable optimization and reduce energy consumption. The need for cost savings drives applications for all vendors.

Golden said he is at the end-user level, trying to position Schneider Electric’s technology regardless of the cost. At that level, he said, much negotiation takes place for property owners who want to see the greatest efficiency with the least investment.

This is where value engineering comes into play, said Melissa Golden, market segment manager, contractors, for Schneider Electric. A skilled contractor can look at a specification and recommend ways to improve value. In addition, vendors such as Schneider Electric provide consulting and program resources for contractors to help them assist building owners in bringing down their costs.

“We want to work with electrical contractors, so they can meet the customers’ requirements. This is absolutely an opportunity for electrical contractors to go into consultive mode,” she said.

Building owners will need as many affordable efficiency improvements as possible as more electricity demands—for example, charging electric vehicles—are placed on buildings.

“Typically, they’re looking for help, to guide their decisions,” Melissa Golden said. In this case, vendor representatives, such as Paul Golden, can offer the end-user resources, but a contractor, she pointed out, can play a significant role as the leader.

In the meantime, sorting through the technology options is a challenge for even the savviest contractors.

“I think there are so many technology providers it gives a lot of contractors pause,” Paul Golden said, adding that, in his experience, the market needs to catch up with the plethora of technology offerings, which may include intelligence, smart meters and the technology geared for the bright green movement (a term for the leveraging of intelligent technologies to improve environmental sustainability).

Increasingly for new construction projects—the number of which is expected to rise in 2011 and 2012-—the cost of installing an automation system to make a building “intelligent” is not much greater than the cost of building a traditional structure. In fact, for the end-users, cabling and labor costs are often lower where intelligent designs are used. However, users must understand integration of the access control system with lighting and heating, ventilating and air conditioning (HVAC) systems, for example, can cost more up front than a system with multiple independent systems.

In comparison to new construction the initial costs for a retrofit can vary considerably and require a different approach to justify expenses. Typically, renovations and retrofits are driven by energy-cost reduction. In these cases, payback can be nine months or less, according to a Department of Energy study. In the case of new construction, end-users may rely on prediction of energy savings in intelligent and green technologies because there are no previous numbers to consider.

“This is a huge opportunity for contractors,” Paul Golden said, adding that when it comes to the simple solution, such as installing solar panels on roofs, everyone is tripping over each other to get the work done, while automation technology is still out of the scope of most contractors’ tools.

“The best thing for Schneider Electric is to see electrical contractors educate themselves, help make them smarter, and help them make some money,” he said. That means educating contractors in options such as packaged solutions.

“We have buildings that have gone from [having] eight systems to one or two,” Paul Golden said.

Furthermore, the technology continues to improve.

For example, Johnson Controls’ Klee said, “First, some new mechanical equipment has been introduced that is more efficient than we would have thought possible just a few years ago.” In addition, he said, some technologies support energy-cost reduction by applying focused applications and analytics to building systems. “Energy dashboards and kiosks are providing great paybacks by making data visible.”
Johnson Controls Central Plant Optimization 10 (CPO 10) and CPO 30 software enables persistent peak performance and energy savings in both new and existing buildings. To achieve peak performance in central plants, the software applies advanced intelligence to the process of choosing which chillers, pumps and towers will run and at what set points to run them. These cost-effective investments offer a highly promising return on investment. When fully implemented, CPO can deliver central-plant energy savings of up to 60 percent, Klee said. He predicted continued refinement of the central plant along with considerable focus on demand-response programs, software to monitor and manage local power generation from renewable sources, and more sophisticated enterprise applications that analyze operations and identify waste.

“However, in many enterprises there is still a chasm between the IT people and the facilities people,” Klee said. Many new solutions are based on programs that require large databases and servers that often are considered IT assets. These people already have their hands full with business applications. With optimization, the industry challenge has been to provide solutions that are standard, scalable and repeatable. “This is important for reliable and consistent implementation and persistent performance.”

Standardization is one answer to that question.

“A smart programmer can make a system operate efficiently, but he or she cannot be in all places at one time to implement or sustain their solution. Packaging intelligence into standard, scalable and repeatable applications that have been proven, tested and documented helps ensure consistently reliable implementations from site to site and persistent performance over time,” he said.
Cloud computing might be another answer.

“Letting a third-party host the application and/or data storage for information that is not business-critical may be an acceptable option in some cases. The more sophisticated and unique the application, the more desirable it will be for others to manage the hardware and software on a common platform outside of the building,” Klee said.

But there are many options for a more traditional approach. For example, Honeywell offers a system that links HVAC systems, lighting, utility monitoring, security and life safety, while Cisco provides a software solution—the Network Building Mediator—to enable different building systems to communicate across facilities management. Siemens Building Technologies division also offers building automation solutions and low-voltage power distribution for electrical installations.

And, to focus on the sales part of the business, Schneider Electric’s EcoXpert Program can help contractors learn how to increase sales opportunities through knowledge of energy-efficient and renewable-energy products and solutions. Those who have been through the program are expected to be better able to advise, sell and install a broad range of preengineered energy solutions in commercial, industrial and high-end residential locations.

Included in the program is instruction on controls for more efficient lighting and power distribution, secure power with uninterruptible power supplies, electronic motor-control solutions and variable frequency drivers, and energy monitoring/power management systems intended to reduce energy-related costs.

There are other challenges ahead for contractors and building owners alike, such as charging station installation to support electric vehicles and power generation systems from photovoltaic solar, wind and other alternative-energy sources.


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