Whole-Building Automation: Opportunity or Not?

Electrical contractors constantly search for a way to set themselves apart from the competition. Some contractors excel in the installation of complex fire alarm and security systems. Others specialize in the systems controls. Regardless of the area in which you choose to expand your capabilities, change always will serve as the one constant in the electrical business.

Building automation offers another area in which the professional contractor can use his or her expertise to develop a specialty market.

Building automation does not really present a new concept. But, it appears to have experienced difficulties in becoming the norm rather than the exception. The building automation systems (BAS) idea appeals to building owners because they can visualize the potential for the BAS to save money. BAS can provide savings, both in the initial installation and in future updates. In fact, the updates may become necessary to take advantage of future savings.

As with any specialty market, the many players involved must work together to make sure the owner gets what he or she asked for. Suffice it to say that any project that intends to use building automation will more likely be a large project.

Traditionally, the construction process requires each of the specialized construction trades to complete their tasks essentially independently.

However, to make certain the BAS will do what it is supposed to do requires close coordination between the electrical and mechanical engineers, as well as between the mechanical and electrical contractors.

Of course, the wiring backbone provides the key. So you must truly understand the operational requirements of the BAS before you pull in the first cable. As with any complicated wiring system, the devil is in the details. You should not take an agreement to wire a BAS lightly.

First, be sure you understand how the engineers want the system to work, and determine whether they have developed an operation matrix to aid in that understanding.

Secondly, research the specified products you must supply to ensure they will actually perform as the marketing and sales people say they will.

Current practice involves the installation of separate building systems for fire alarm, HVAC control, security, lighting control and building process automation. The long-term goal of BAS will seamlessly integrate all of these systems into one.

The major drawback to this concept comes from the fact that the suppliers of these systems must maintain their own systems. In this scenario, someone must have sole responsibility to ensure interoperability of all the systems. Some suppliers have recognized the need for interoperability of their systems and have developed software solutions. Electrical contractors with a strong background in communications may hold an edge when installing building automation systems. But inevitably, specific training for more efficient installations will become imperative.

Installing building automation systems takes a team effort. This effort requires the electrician to have some understanding and knowledge of how the electrical work interfaces with the other trades. And, the electrician must possess an understanding of the function and operational design of the intelligent building system.

In addition to the technical knowledge necessary to install building automation systems, a contractor must always keep code compliance in mind. Unfortunately, conflicting requirements exist within the applicable codes. Integration of fire alarm systems within the BAS framework offers one of the potential nightmares. The National Fire Alarm Code and the authority having jurisdiction work in concert to regulate the design, installation, maintenance, testing and use of fire alarm systems. Many authorities do not want the fire alarm system integrated with any other system. They do not want the non-fire alarm systems to interfere with the proper operation of the fire alarm system.

Thus, the fire alarm system presents certain inherent obstacles, and the contractor must deal with these. The National Fire Alarm Code allows the fire alarm system to interface with other building systems, as long as the integrated system meets certain requirements. These include ensuring when other building systems share the fire alarm system signaling line circuits, the integrated system meets the requirements established for combination systems. Essentially, this means the fire alarm system operation takes precedence over all other building automation systems. NFPA 72-2007 also requires the following:

... all signal control and transport equipment (such as routers, servers) located in a critical fire alarm or fire safety function signaling path shall be listed for fire alarm service unless the following conditions are met:

(1) The equipment meets the performance requirements of (Voltage, temperature and humidity variation requirements) and

(2) The equipment is provided with primary and secondary power and monitored for integrity as required in Section 4.4.1 (power supply requirements)

(3) All programming and configuration ensure a fire alarm system actuation time as required in (All alarm functions must actuate within 10 seconds after the activation of an initiating device.)

(4) System bandwidth is monitored to confirm that all communications between equipment that is critical to the operation of the fire alarm system or fire safety functions take place within 10 seconds; failure shall be indicated within 200 seconds.

(5) Failure of any equipment that is critical to the operation of the fire alarm system or fire safety functions is indicated at the master fire alarm control unit within 200 seconds.

In addition, the fire alarm system must have a listed barrier gateway integral with or attached to each fire alarm control unit or group of control units, as appropriate, to prevent the other interfaced systems from interfering with or controlling the fire alarm system.

As with any complicated system, the BAS contractor must recognize the inherent risks. First, you cannot bid these types of projects without understanding the dependence you will have on your suppliers. The suppliers must provide you with the necessary training and technical assistance to ensure an efficient installation. These types of systems may require negotiation, as most do. But, the wise electrician will realize that buying the systems based only on price will be a mistake.

The contractor may experience additional costs due to delivery delays. So, make sure you write your purchase order with specific guaranteed delivery schedules.

Early in the design and construction process, the contractor must address the addition of the communication structure for the building automation system. The contractor must address this issue from both a contractual and operations point of view. Once again, the contractor cannot approach this kind of project like just another electrical project.

Numerous challenges face the electrical contractor who intends to enter this sophisticated market. These challenges include the understanding of the systems interface with the common infrastructure, and the infrastructure testing, acceptance and commissioning. After the contractor tests and commissions the infrastructure, he or she must test and commission the individual systems. The contractor also must verify these systems to be sure that all systems will perform together as specified. To accomplish these goals, the contractor must have clear responsibilities for the implementation, in order to avoid the proverbial finger pointing for poor system performance.

With more parties involved in the construction process, the building owner will find it more difficult to assign responsibilities. Therefore, early in the process, the electrical contractor should make sure that the building owner has clearly defined the contractor’s responsibilities. This includes ensuring a definition for the requirements of the communications infrastructure, including the planned or required testing process.

As with any specialty market, your profits will depend on how well you understand the market and how well you plan the installation process. Avoid a BAS nightmare by having a complete understanding of what is expected of you and plan accordingly.   EC

MOORE, a licensed fire protection engineer, frequent speaker and an expert in the life safety field, is a co-editor of the current National Fire Alarm Code Handbook. Moore is a principal with Hughes Associates Inc. at the Warwick, R.I., office.



About the Author

Wayne D. Moore

Fire/Life Safety Columnist
Wayne D. Moore, a licensed fire protection engineer, frequent speaker and an expert in the life safety field, is a principal member and past chair of NFPA 72, Chapter 24. Moore is a vice president with JENSEN HUGHES at the Warwick, R.I., office. He c...

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