Two major trends in the building automation industry are opening more opportunities for electrical contractors—open standards and green movement acceptance. Integration of technology that uses these increasingly open standards means more building owners and operators are installing systems that communicate with their existing fire, automated lighting or communications technology, making the systems more compatible. In the meantime, the mainstream acceptance of the high-efficiency, green building movement offers contractors opportunities for building integration installation where building owners hope to save long-term money by reducing their energy consumption.
While it’s not getting the media coverage it did several years ago, energy efficiency is a trend that often gets underestimated, said Mike Wilson, business development manager at digital control technology company OEMCtrl and marketing chair at standards organization BACnet International, which provides open standardization.
“Initially, the green movement was a hippie thing, but now it truly is here to stay,” he said. “Energy efficiency is becoming more prevalent in operators’ minds.”
And it comes at a time when technology allows for superior methods of communicating building conditions. Still, Wilson said there is a need for broader compatibility.
Opening standards for business
Building owners and contractors have many more options in management systems than they did a few years ago. In the past, a fire alarm, security or automation job went to the lowest bidder, and the same was true for the technology being used. However, building owners have learned that cheaper is not necessarily better.
Today, building managers are worried about getting stuck with the cheapest solution that may also be proprietary, meaning it cannot communicate with other manufacturers’ systems. In that case, what is cheap up front can be expensive in the long run when it can’t be upgraded or integrated with anything else. Until recently, the three largest building automation technology vendors—Honeywell, Siemens and Johnson Controls—had technology using proprietary protocols, locking the user into their company’s isolated solutions.
“The market is getting smart,” Wilson said.
Vendors are, too. Today, the three top vendors provide open systems, and others are following suit. Open standards expand opportunities for ECs as more buildings need integrated automation systems. Honeywell, for example, offers technology designed to interface with divergent systems.
John Terrell, strategic product manager for Honeywell’s Notifier system, likened building automation technology of today to the computer industry of the past. Now, users can purchase products from a variety of vendors and expect them to interoperate. Decades ago, they could not. The fire alarm industry is the same.
“We used to all have our own networks, but we’re starting to see a break from that,” Terrell said.
Today’s technology, such as the Notifier fire alarm control panel and life safety system, can go over fiber for a web-based network, join other infrastructure and allow functionality such as remote diagnostics.
The industry is coalescing around several data communication open architecture protocols for building automation networks—particularly BACnet, LONWorks and ModBus—all varying levels of open standards that allow technology in building management systems to interoperate. Other protocols include Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition for industrial control systems. The concept is to make automation systems simpler, more flexible and more economical by mixing and matching technologies that can function together in one system. End-users are looking for integration, and Terrell said it is not uncommon for customers to report that they have an existing building management system and want to build, for example, their fire alarm on that system. Such end-users also come to distributors or contractors to say, “This is what I have. How can I maximize what’s already in place?” The result is that emergency management systems, once stand-alone solutions, are now included in that building management arena.
Terrell pointed to a few examples—customers may wish to integrate their fire systems with light-emitting diode (LED) signage, sending messages regarding emergencies to the building users through displays on those signs. The result is a form of mass notification. In other cases, customers may wish for the emergency and fire alarm system to integrate with communications systems, enabling the building management to warn building occupants of a hazard. This can be done using pop-ups on their computer screens, text messages, email or social media, such as Facebook. To enable these kinds of functions, Honeywell has developed an interface that sends such a message automatically.
Systems, such as Honeywell’s Notifier, also integrate with aspiration systems and early warning fire detection. In this way, the Honeywell technology can receive an update about smoke detection or other emergencies by using its own gateway to communicate with the aspiration systems. The technology is already popular among data center owners where detecting any changes to conditions is critical.
Identifying the vendors
“Electrical contractors should keep an open mind” about the technology they install, Terrell said, adding that, “The code is always changing.”
He said that anyone doing installation for a customer must be vigilant about what the technology can actually provide and how well it can integrate with other systems. With the growth in the industry, there are always people out there who think they have the greatest new thing, he said. But contractors need to know with what codes the systems comply. For example, with fire and emergency notification systems, anyone who doesn’t have notification systems standard UL 2572 compliance is not going to integrate with other technology.
“In general, the industry is certainly growing and surviving, but what you have to keep in mind is whether the reliability is built-in and is the system scalable,” Terrell said. Backward compatibility, he pointed out, will enable the system to be updated and upgraded with other infrastructure in the future, saving the owner the cost of installing a whole new system.
When selecting technology providers, contractors who have that opportunity should examine how long the company has been in business, if they are a member of BACNet International or another standards group, and figure out whether their products been tested in certified testing labs, such as Underwriters Laboratories. Also, the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers develops standards for its members and others for use of systems in refrigeration, heating processes and design and maintenance of indoor environments.
Ultimately, however, energy efficiency needs to be at the center of any conversation with business owners.
Technology vendors have not overlooked the green trend. In fact, Wilson said, it’s appearing in unlikely places, such as the palette of many company’s logos. The simple way to be greener, though, is making the installation more efficient. As technology evolves, it becomes possible for ECs to get into a job and back out in less time than in the past.
“What [owners] want is to reduce the bucket time—the time when a contractor spends with his butt on an overturned bucket,” Wilson said.
Technological advances are making installation easier and margins lower for building owners and operators. As a result, contractors can get on to the next job faster.