With master systems integration, all building systems talk to each other. For example, a person enters the garage, which triggers the elevator to come to the basement, lights to come on all the way up to the floor where
the person works and the air conditioning to start cooling the person’s office.
The concept grew out of the building management system (BMS) environment, with systems integrators attempting to connect systems during the construction phase, said Martin Villeneuve, president of Distech Controls, Brossard, Quebec, Canada.
Then an evolution started about five years ago, when more BMS controls and other technology devices in buildings moved to internet protocols, or IP, using Cat 5 ethernet cable or Wi-Fi, just like for computers and other equipment in the IT room, Villeneuve said.
“Many systems in buildings had different communication protocols, and every one—HVAC, electrical, security, fire, elevator and so on—needed their own wiring and infrastructure, and all were independent from each other,” he said. “But with the move to the new IP technology, building owners started asking whether it made sense to have all this different data infrastructure in their buildings.”
Building owners then decided to divide the IP communication infrastructure into two: an IT network to operate the computers and other equipment for their core business, and an operational technology (OT) network, for all the systems including the BMS, Villeneuve said.
Each system was managed differently, so the question became, who would be responsible for installing the OT infrastructure and managing it, while making sure all the systems worked in unison and shared the same data infrastructure?
“IT definitely needs to organize the OT network, but the people connecting to this network were doing it mainly at construction time, which is way before IT gets there,” he said. “Now, master systems integration is being done in a way that is more beneficial to building owners, their facility managers and particularly to their tenants that occupy and maintain space within the building.”
Before, integrators would connect various systems during construction, but not all the subsystems, Villeneuve said. But now, companies such as Distech Controls specializing in master systems integration take full ownership of the OT—including after construction is completed, when tenants occupy the building—and such companies are able to integrate all the various subsystems.
End-users are now contracting with MSI companies for Class A office buildings, higher education buildings, healthcare facilities and, to some extent, data centers and K-12 schools, he said.
Energy reduction and more benefits
Why is it so important to have systems talk to each other? Energy efficiency, cybersecurity and building attractiveness, Villeneuve said.
Energy costs are rising more than ever, due to the cost of kilowatts of energy, he said.
“Building owners and tenants not only have a financial incentive, but also a legal and investment incentive to decarbonize their buildings, which actually accounts for more emissions than even cars on the roads,” Villeneuve said.
“More than a third of carbon emissions are created by buildings, so having systems work together makes more sense. Motion sensors can not only turn off lights but also HVAC systems when people leave the building,” he said.
Master systems integration enhances cybersecurity, he said. Now that all systems can be remotely accessed for maintenance or troubleshooting problems, that also potentially gives access to bad actors. However, MSI companies can provide the right protection with the latest cybersecurity patches.
Such buildings can also attract more tenants. People working there can experience the same kind of technology they have at home with their smart IoT devices, Villeneuve said.
“The race is on for all companies to declare their ESG ratings, and the next race is bringing down their carbon effect to zero,” he said. “That’s a humongous opportunity for companies involved with MSI.”
Master systems integration is going to be more important than ever as the industry evolves from IP to cloud-connected systems, said Scott Cochrane, president and CEO of Cochrane Supply & Engineering, Madison Heights, Mich.
“Good MSI companies will need to be deeply familiar with building controls and devices, while knowing enough about IT and cloud-based systems to seamlessly collect, store and communicate data across multiple systems in order to truly enable the benefits of smart building technology,” Cochrane said.
The industry is going to adopt more cloud or hybrid solutions, with some controls on-premise and some on the cloud, he said. The role of an MSI company is more crucial now than ever simply because of how quickly the smart building technologies are evolving.
The MSI company’s role will require individuals to understand IT and cloud-related systems and tools, while staying on top of the latest developments of building control devices and software, Cochrane said.
“They’re going to have to be able to understand what systems will be appropriate for the cloud and which will need to remain on-premise and how to ensure these systems work together, share accurate and timely data, as well as plan for ‘future-proofing’ these systems for sustainability and extending the life span of smart buildings,” he said.
Opportunities for ECs
Master systems integration is creating new opportunities for electrical contractors, enabling them to enter into service-level agreements, said Josh Bone, executive director of ELECTRI International, the research and education foundation established by NECA for the electrical construction industry.
“All of these connected systems and controls require special knowledge, enabling electrical contractors to operate and maintain this equipment throughout the building’s life cycle, unlike traditional pipe and wire work where the mentality is to get in and install, then get out,” Bone said.
“These systems also have shorter life cycles, where equipment needs to be replaced or upgraded periodically. Electrical contractors offering MSI services are viewed by owners as consultants offering prescribed solutions compared to the traditional contracting approach, which is commodities-driven and focused on lowest price wins,” he said.
Offering service-level agreements gives electrical contractors the ability to create new business offerings built around these integrated systems, he said. These new business models offer the potential of generating recurring revenue different from the contractor’s traditional business of power distribution.
“Service-level agreements are sticky and allow contractors to do work in that building from the day it is occupied through the day of decommissioning,” Bone said.
The way these service agreements are structured is not as risky as traditional construction projects, he said.
“Delivering on the agreement does require a certain level of expertise,” Bone said. “You, as an electrical construction professional, become more of an expert consultant and less of a commodity.”
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