Integration Front and Center

Facility automation systems are becoming more reliant on open protocols, enabling one infrastructure to send and receive information from previously separate and disparate systems, such as security; metering; asset tracking; heating, ventilating and air conditioning (HVAC); and others. All these systems have one thing in common—according to Ron Bernstein, chief ambassador of open standards organization LonMark—they are getting smarter.

“No longer are we seeing all the islands of dumb automation,” Bernstein said. “They have to interact.”

“There is a continued laying over of systems and building automation systems need to integrate with them,” said Andy McMillan, president and CEO of Teletrol Lighting Systems and Controls and president of standards group BACnet International.

Those specifiers and installers working with the systems and implementing the technology need skills and knowledge that go beyond a single proprietary system.

The two major communications protocols, BACnet and LonMark, break the mold of locked systems from building control manufacturers. Both are providing more education to help contractors bring systems together. BACnet is developing more educational material to fill a previous vacuum of formal education programs, while LonMark offers training in control systems, how to write specifications, and the building networking environment and basic fundamentals about building controls, Bernstein said.

This knowledge is going to be critical as the industry moves further toward open protocols.

“Having someone (on staff) that understands LonMark, BACnet, ZigBee, web services, etc., is going to get you a long way in a short amount of time,” said Mike Bielby, director of buildings laboratory offer management at Schneider Electric, Palatine, Ill.

For trendwatchers, the shift to open protocols doesn’t come as a surprise.

“While the IT world has gone about its business of developing, deploying and securing its systems, those responsible for installing systems have been involved in a similar, parallel endeavor for building automation systems,” McMillan said.

The interaction is led by programs such as Energy Star and Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, which require monitoring of systems from the user side. As a result, the systems must be something a building director can manage with web services and a single IT infrastructure.

“I think the most critical piece of awareness for contractors is that their offering has to include this concept [of integration],” McMillan said, adding that, instead, many of the systems they offer still tend to be silos. “Facility managers are no longer dependent on the manufacturers of primary control products as the sole source of bidders on their projects. New products, which are more cost-effective and offer better performance and more features, will take the place of those of the traditional suppliers. As the market opens, competition will follow, and innovation will become paramount.”

Today, data from disparate systems can be gathered, and analytics can be applied to assist building owners and operators in making more informed decisions about their buildings, Bielby said. Additionally, wireless systems such as ZigBee, commercial building automations (CBA) and home automation (HA), are “finally getting to the point that placing interoperable systems in buildings doesn’t require complex wiring, so electricians will need to learn new skills. Roles will change as these trends become the mode de jour.”

One driver for change is that the owners themselves are getting smarter and want the open standards.

“They can say, ‘this is the performance we need, and we want multiple bidders’.” In that case, Bernstein said, a contractor who is not locked into a single vendor has the advantage. Facility owners know that the locked-in vendor can hold them hostage with a proprietary system. Although the vendor may initially undercut the price, a year later, the service contract rises higher.

With this opening of systems, there are tremendous opportunities for integration contractors, Bernstein said.

“For example, if they’re selling a building owner an open lighting system, they simply offer other systems—maybe a cogeneration monitoring system—that uses the same graphical interface,” he said.

The biggest motivation for owners is the need for energy conservation and the subsequent need to manage energy consumption. For example, buildings with multiple tenants require a system that not only meters the power consumption on the building itself (the utility company can provide that) but also a breakdown of consumption on each floor or section of building, enabling billing according to usage. This submetering also allows for analysis of energy waste and where the building could shed load.

Bernstein speculated that the industry is on the cusp of tremendous opportunity for electrical contractors. One shift in the system integration model is the initialization of a new role: the master system integrator. This individual’s task is to take a holistic approach to integrated systems and develop a direct relationship with the end-user. The old way of writing specs is no longer relevant, Bernstein said, since it was built around the traditional model of architect, engineers and general contractor. Today, the master system integrator needs a chair at the table, as well.

“The owner needs to have someone on the team to be responsible for ensuring integration over the long term,” Bernstein said.

This role is still emerging and falls under different titles, as well, such as master solutions architect or IT architect and building technology architect, said Melissa O’Mara, vice president of office, education, government solutions and high performance buildings at Schneider Electric.

“There are many different possible titles and flavors of required expertise,” O’Mara said, adding that, for these individuals, design or performance skills will be required, including advanced energy modeling during the concept and design phases of a building. She added that building information modeling (BIM) experts and building energy modeling (BEM) experts will become more prevalent, especially in an integrated project design (IPD) process that will help achieve these high-performance buildings in the retrofit and the new construction markets.

But the integration process and focus on open controls continues through commissions. The ultimate goal for a commissioning effort is, to deliver to the owner a project that is on schedule and under budget and to deliver a building with fully operational and optimized systems on the first day that will continue to function as a single seamless integrated solution in the future.

To maintain the savings and benefits of high-performance design, smart facilities and financial stakeholders will request monitoring and continuous commissioning, O’Mara said. A good system includes automated fault detection and diagnostics built in.

“The best systems will provide deep, actionable insights and integrate with facilities maintenance and asset management systems. Providing the right information to the right end-users at the right time is another way of enabling high performance,” O’Mara said.

Some technology vendors are assisting in the transition for contractors. Schneider Electric, for example, has an integration architecture, EcoStruxure, and a suite of building and energy technology products and systems based on open standards.

“We are also preintegrating our systems and key third-party systems around specific industry needs. We clearly see the market changing, and are enablers of the shift to high performance buildings, on the path to net-zero and smart efficient cities, enterprises, campuses and homes,” O’Mara said.

For integrators and contractors, the process may require a shift in outlook.

“It’s less about the product and more about the business model and how you approach the customer,” McMillan said. “Contractors that have knowledge can move upstream” to provide entire building systems and the integration with other systems. For contractors interested in providing that kind of service, McMillan said, “This is a fun time for the industry. It’s not going to be your dad’s business, but I think if a company’s energetic and open to change, there’s loads of information to get them started.”

SWEDBERG is a freelance writer based in western Washington. She can be reached at

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