Brainy Building Automation Systems are Coming

Isaac Newton didn’t need an apple to fall on him to come up with his first law of motion: Unless acted on by an outside force, a body in motion tends to stay in motion.

Today’s building automation systems (BAS) are in motion, thanks to technological advances, but outside forces acting on them seek to accelerate their evolution.

Through integration, the advanced new systems—let’s call them SuperBAS—promise greater control of buildings. Using Internet communication, remote monitoring and control might enable a reduction in the building maintenance work force.

What’s more, it literally seems that if you can dream it up, someone has predicted that a BAS will do it. For example, the Air-Conditioning and Refrigeration Technology Institute (ARTI) has a compiled a list of SuperBAS responses to real-time information—quite possibly without human intervention. (See SuperBAS and its Super Functions on page 52.)

BAS and you

What does this mean for contractors? Clearly, there’s opportunity here to become more valuable to customers. Use of integrated building systems will require at the very least a much more sophisticated approach to building system grounding efforts. But hurdles and potential dangers are possible. Two quick examples:

A fall 2004 revision to MasterFormat, the standard setup for construction documents, separates what otherwise appears to be coming together. Virtually all BAS work once ended up in Division 15 (mechanical) or Division 16 (electrical) of a building specification, but the revision distributes it into six to eight divisions. Suffice it to say that the new MasterFormat approach seems antithetical to the convergence and integration envisioned by SuperBAS advocates.

Another trend sees contractors that tackle HVAC and other building controls handling lighting-control work. Many now subcontract that work out to electrical contractors. But there is a worst case: Technological advances may stimulate the rise of a mechanical, electrical and plumbing (MEP) contractor—a super systems contractor to go with the SuperBAS.

Agreement on destination

If you listen to building experts, designers and others talk about the future—what we’re calling SuperBAS—you’ll hear pretty much the same thing:

• “Fire, life safety, building automation, audio, video, lighting controls—you name it—it’s all moving toward a common platform, and that’s Internet Protocol,” wrote Chip Chapman, a building technology consultant, in Archi-Tech magazine.

• “This third wave of IT focuses on an integrated building model...that becomes the ‘digital DNA’ for providing services across the entire lifecycle of a facility,” wrote Paul Doherty, a facility manager/architect, on the Design Intelligence Web site (www.di.net).

• “The move toward interoperable products and services, and the growing convergence of information technology and building automation, are likely to lead the market.” From “Convergence of IT and BAS” a recent BAS market study by Frost & Sullivan.

• “No single advance in recent years has had as immediate and sweeping an impact on such a broad range of innovations as the convergence of multiple technologies onto digital data networks,” wrote Tom Condon, columnist for Today’s Facility Manager magazine.

• “Savvy building owners and managers are realizing that their buildings are a prime source of data, providing insight into operations in the same way such key areas as sales, human resources, marketing, and financial information are used for business intelligence.” From Buildings magazine.

• “Regulating agencies and construction code authorities are increasingly enforcing stricter energy efficiencies and environmental policies. These forces, coupled with the availability of low-cost communication systems and access to real-time information via the Internet, have created a fertile ground for building industries to move toward an integrated and global approach for operational optimizations.” From Consulting-Specifying Engineer.

...but a lot of maps

But wait—if everyone thinks the convergence /integration/BAS concept is the way to go, why aren’t we there?

While everyone agrees on the destination, the details of getting from here to there are still in play. How do you accomplish building control technology in SuperBAS? There are now three answers when two years ago there were two. BACnet, an HVAC industry protocol, and LonWorks once were the hot technologies, but now Open Building Information Xchange (oBIX), which uses the XML Web language for building monitoring and control, is making tongues wag. Here’s its mission:

“To define a standard Web services protocol to enable communications between building mechanical and electrical systems, and enterprise applications. This protocol will enable facilities and their operations to be managed as full participants in knowledge-based businesses.”

But wait. According to a recent article in Automated Buildings magazine, companies are working on offering products compatible with both LonWorks and BACnet. According to Al Mouton, president of Loytec Americas, “It is becoming clear that both protocols have become well established and manufacturers are working to offer building systems supporting both platforms.”

Besides competing technologies, there are corporate competitors. Firms such as Schneider Electric/Square D, Johnson Controls, Siemens and Tyco are all in front of the SuperBAS movement.

Why owners might bite

Interfaces today between BAS and energy-management and control systems—what might be the most logical tie-in—are rare. Only one in six respondents to a recent survey said they had tied in their EMCS with their BAS.

One driver, then, will be the integration of virtually all building systems offered by the SuperBAS approach. Doherty has used “the building as computer” in presentations. The idea is to funnel all of the data, from every system, into a central controlling unit. This includes capturing data and warranty information on products installed in the building.

In an October article in The Air Conditioning, Heating and Refrigeration News, a Johnson Control executive paralleled Doherty’s concept: “While management decision-making is aided by the quick, easy and intuitive delivery of appropriate information to individual users, the future of information flow is much more dependent upon delivery from computer to computer.

“This provides further opportunity for consolidation and analysis, as well as setting the foundation for intelligent systems applications (which were promised by a number of manufacturers in the marketing phase of our industry).”

Building owners will like various aspects of the SuperBAS. According to Frost & Sullivan, one hurdle is a seemingly high initial cost. But there are payoffs, some real and available now, others in the process of crystallizing.

Is this SuperBAS movement limited to skyscrapers and other supersized buildings? Not really, according to Frost & Sullivan: “Small commercial buildings represent almost 40 percent of the total building sector. This potential is likely to increase even further as evolving market needs ensure that manufacturers keep pace with the superior technology.

“In the long term, it is likely that these systems will justify the high installation costs by reducing the requirements for building engineers and maintenance staff.” EC

SALIMANDO is a Vienna, Va.-based freelance writer and frequent contributor to ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR. He can be reached at jsali@cris.com.