Looking At Big Data

By Julie Knudson | Dec 15, 2013




Big data, that slightly overwhelming concept where staggering amounts of information are gathered and analyzed in search of useful data nuggets, continues its creep into the building automation market. Electrical contractors with a hand in the control system sector should keep an eye on where big data is and where it is going because it will likely become a driver behind more customer decisions on systems installations and retrofits.

Cost-savings initiatives are a primary focus for many building owners, so the first place to look for potential big data inroads is the subset of customers still chugging along with legacy building control systems. With the improving economy comes opportunity to prod these folks into upgrading their older platforms, some of which would be difficult (if not impossible) to connect into a larger data collection and analysis system. Building owners sitting at the intersection of “feeling better about spending money,” “have legacy controls in a closed system” and “must cut energy costs” are the perfect audience to begin pitching new control systems.

Like their legacy-using brethren, customers whose business plans call for expansion in the near future may also be interested to learn more about how big data could benefit them. If they are adding a building to their portfolio, does it make financial sense to leave it as-is and treat it as a one-off location, or would their wallet be fatter down the road by installing new control systems with better connectivity options before they occupy the space?

Even customers with stable real estate holdings and newer control systems could be receptive to adding data-gathering points to their existing stockpile. Lighting control systems are gaining steam, and IMS Research estimates the market for lighting control devices in commercial buildings will double from 29.6 million shipments in 2010 to 61.6 million shipments in 2017. They predict most of those components will be ballasts that include a connectivity technology. Reducing energy usage may be the primary goal for most building owners; however, if they have the ability to gather data on how those ballasts are being used, you can be sure they’ll find a way to crunch the data to their advantage. Prime the pump with customers by discussing where additional connected controls might be added to widen their data-gathering net.

Fault detection is also seen as a significant growth opportunity for big data, according to IMS Research’s projection that the market will expand at a compound annual growth rate of 40 percent during the next five years. Sustainability services provider Accenture recently worked with Microsoft on a smart building program, and the preliminary results showed the monetary value of fault detection and diagnosis. According to the initial report, “One of the biggest single impacts the program has facilitated is the ability to identify building faults and inefficiencies in real-time by analyzing the data streams extracted from building systems.” This is an improvement over the company’s previous program—which building owners across the country emulated—where systems and equipment were spot-checked. By switching to a smart building solution and leveraging more granular data analysis, the organization can reap the benefits of continuous commissioning.

Remote monitoring services in intelligent buildings also are on the rise, and Pike Research forecasts that the global building energy management systems market will grow from $1.9 billion in 2011 to $6.0 billion in 2020, including the associated hardware, software and services components. As the push to reduce energy costs continues to make remote monitoring more attractive, so does the availability of inexpensive cloud storage and better number-crunching technologies. Customers no longer need to worry about investing the time to scour pages of control system data or about cajoling the IT department into giving them additional storage space. Instead, big data’s benefits can be had for little more than an Internet connection.

Connected building controls and a bit of help from big data are also likely to usher in entirely new ways of managing energy usage. Consider real-time analytics, a practice Accenture anticipates could feature in the next generation of smart building solutions. Imagine an entry card controller feeding building occupancy data to the heating, cooling or lighting systems, with services being ramped up or scaled back as people come and go. The acorn of such a concept is already here—in sensor-controlled lighting among other things—but the real oak springs to life when multiple controllers share real-time data across every system in the building.

Another thing ECs may want to keep in mind as customers consider how to get the biggest bang for their buck out of their control systems is the potential to connect those technologies directly to their utilities. The smart grid is getting more intelligent all the time, and part of that evolution is improved communication between nodes. As buildings’ energy usage waxes and wanes and as that information is broadcast to other nodes in the system, the local utilities may be able to better gauge and anticipate load requirements, making for a more efficient use of the available infrastructure. Likewise, buildings could be triggered to shed loads during peak- usage times through an automated demand response system.

Big data’s applicability within the smart building ecosystem is still evolving, but control systems are the portal through which progress will be made.

About The Author

Julie Knudson worked in facilities and telecom management before becoming a freelance business writer. She can be reached at

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