Apples and Oranges

Comparing VDV and IBS

The term “integrated building systems” (IBS) has almost completely supplanted the term “voice/data/video” (VDV) in the electrical contracting industry. In both conversation and writing, no one seems to refer to VDV anymore. IBS is used almost exclusively when referring to today’s building communications and control systems. But, are these two terms synonymous?

Building communications and control systems began to emerge as a market for the electrical contracting firm in the early 1990s. Prior to this, building communications and control systems in most commercial buildings were limited to the telephone system for communications, fire alarm and security systems for the protection of occupants and property, and HVAC controls for building comfort, which still were pneumatic in many instances. Businesses were just beginning to see the value of networking stand-alone personal computers and peripherals, local area networks (LANs) that used nonproprietary structured cabling systems were just starting to emerge, and building communications and control systems were starting to go digital.

As a result, electrical contracting firms were faced with a whole new market almost overnight that needed to be understood and profitably entered.

VDV origins

The industry needed a term to describe this new market. It was referred to by a variety of names, which included low-voltage, electronic and information technology (IT) systems, among others. Each of these names seemed to have its own special limitation. Low-voltage systems seemed to conflict with the National Electrical Code’s (NEC) terminology used to describe power distribution systems 600V and below, not to mention low-voltage lighting systems covered in NEC Article 411. Electronic systems also seemed too broad and all encompassing for the building market and IT implied communications systems only and excluded control systems. A task force composed of a number of electrical contracting firms already working on these systems selected the term “limited-energy systems” (LES) to describe this market in the mid 1990s.

As the market evolved and matured in the late 1990s, the term “voice/data/video” systems supplanted LES because these systems could be categorized as voice, data or video, and most electrical contracting firms were marketing themselves using these terms.

IBS enters the scene

The increasing sophistication of building communications and control systems, along with decreasing size and cost of components and the proliferation of wired and wireless building networks suddenly made building system integration and interoperability a real possibility.

The intelligent building concept had been around for decades, but it wasn’t until recently that the ability to interconnect building power, communications and control (PC2) systems became practical and economical for commercial buildings. The ability of IBS coupled with the owners’ need to conserve energy through more efficient building operation, improve building life safety and security for occupants, and protect the environment has resulted in the next step in building evolution and another new market for electrical contracting firms.

The use of open-architecture control systems based on industry standards such as Echelon Corp.’s LonWorks’ communications protocol LonTalk or the American Society of Heating Refrigeration and Air-Conditioning Engineers’ (ASHRAE) building automation and control network, referred to simply as BACnet, are further paving the way for building system integration in a multivendor environment and providing new opportunities for electrical contractors.

Same or different?

Are VDV and IBS the same? No. VDV refers to the individual communications and control systems that have become common in commercial buildings over the past two decades and still represent a viable market for electrical contracting firms. IBS, on the other hand, refers to the integration of these communication and control systems in addition to power distribution and on-site distributed generation in order to optimize overall building performance. IBS is an emerging market, whereas the installation of individual building communications and control systems is a maturing market.

The electrical contracting firm needs to be aware of the difference between VDV and IBS in order to develop an effective strategy for entering the emerging IBS market, gain the skills needed to participate and effectively market its capabilities as an IBS contractor to building owners. EC

This article is the result of a research project that is being sponsored ELECTRI International (EI). The author would like to thank EI for its support.

GLAVINICH is an associate professor of the Department of Civil, Environmental & Architectural Engineering at The University of Kansas. He can be reached at 785.864.3435 or




About the Author

Thomas E. Glavinich

Freelance Writer
Thomas E. Glavinich was an associate professor in the Department of Civil, Environmental and Architectural Engineering at the University of Kansas. His tenure as one of Electrical Contractor's most trusted and reliable source of industry research end...

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