Seizing Opportunities to Install Open Systems

“In 1998, I saw a presentation about integrated systems at a [National Electrical Contractors Association] NECA seminar. This year we’re going to do close to $7 to $8 million on integrated systems, not including the additional sales generated for the electrical side of our company. When we started the information technology division, it consisted of one field technician and myself. Now we have 12 people inside and 40 working in the field,” said Bob Riel, vice president, Information Technologies, Dynalectric Information Technologies of San Diego.

Integrated systems and a system or network integrator’s role are part of a changing marketplace being prompted by the rapid technological changes in building systems automation and integration. “Today some of the specialty systems are under Section 13, 15, or 16, which means you end up with multiple contractors with minimal coordination and no integration. In the past, these systems were minor and didn’t have that big of an impact on the job. They were also proprietary and incapable of integration. Today, with the availability of open protocol technology and customer demand, they are a major consideration on all jobs,” said Riel.

The Consumer Specifications Institute’s (CSI’s) announcement in June 2000 of its intention to update the Master Format System prompted submission of proposals. NECA’s proposal would expand the electrical division, 16, to include all power, communications, and control systems used in today’s integrated buildings. Building Industry Consulting Service International (BICSI) and others have banded together to propose splitting off telecommunications, local area network, security, audio-video, and other types of low-voltage wiring into a new Division 17.

According to Riel, if it’s pulled out of Division 16 and put in 17, electrical contractors will either see a shrinking market for their services or will have to bid Division 17 as well as 16. If they bid under Division 16, they either hire more subcontractors or perform the work themselves. A system or network integrator configures the systems to work together, evaluating each product or system and its associated software for its ability to communicate via an open protocol. According to Ed Murphy, apprentice coordinator, Santa Clara Electrical Joint Apprenticeship Training Committee (JATC), “Instead of putting three devices in a room—to monitor lights, temperature and occupancy—we would just wire one but you need a computer to configure these. It’s a phenomenal growth area.”

One universal control-networking platform made up of intelligent devices that can sense, process, communicate, and control a multitude of applications ranging from handheld instruments to large process control systems is called LonWorks. The protocol is freely published and allows the contractor to inexpensively implement a reliable control network.

Echelon Corporation, a Palo Alto corporation, introduced LonWorks in 1991, and it is supported by more than 4,000 companies. Neuron chips form the heart of most LonWorks nodes and function as a micro-controller, but are also able to communicate with each other via LonTalk protocol (a registered IEEE protocol) and an external transceiver.

“Lots of protocols are open, but the question I ask is, ‘is it viable?’” said Riel. “The true test is how many manufacturers have adopted it into their products. With LonWorks, there are thousands of different manufacturers producing equipment.”

The General Services Administration (GSA) recently used an open LonWorks network in retrofitting the E.M. Dirksen Federal Courthouse in Chicago. The agency did not have to rely on proprietary products, which allowed for both standardization and a competitive bid environment.

“At a $1.4 million job we’re doing for a retirement community, we’re providing the security access, nurse call, CCTV, patient wandering and fire alarm systems,” said Riel. “Normally, these systems would be provided with very little integration. The expertise and value-added that we bring is that we don’t use subcontractors. We can program and maintain it ourselves. More to the point, we can make them work together. Instead of having five PCs, one for every system, we have one computer, one network, and one software. Not only does this result in construction savings to the owner, but it also reduces the cost of maintenance of the facility because the operations personnel won’t have to learn five different programs...

“There’ve been times when we haven’t been the low bidder electrically but because we have the systems all included in our price and all done by us, not by subcontractors, we got the job.” EC

CASEY is a freelance writer based in Venice, Calif. She is the author of Women Invent! and can be reached at

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