Innovations in Comfort, Efficiency, and Safety Solutions.
What Every Building Owner Should Know
About Open Systems and Smart Buildings
Building automation systems are one of the key ingredients to reducing
the energy consumption in building and facilities, yet they are
increasingly difficult to manage and program. There are many challenges
to maintaining these systems and there is growing pressure to integrate
these systems with other building systems to create a “smart building.”
The traditional building automation systems (BAS) business model consists of products and systems that are hamstrung with proprietary protocols and tools, forcing all service, support and upgrade work through a single authorized contractor in the local market. This results in artificially inflated costs to the building owner as there is no competitive market from which to procure these services. In addition, proprietary technology forces the owner to only purchase spares and replacements from the original vendor (typically) at inflated rates and prevents the owner from taking advantage of technological advances and integration to other products that may be available from different vendors. As a result, building owners have been forcing the market towards more and more “open systems”. Traditional BAS vendors however have been slow to give up their inflated profit margins under the traditional model, and as a result are obscuring the message of what it means to be truly open.
Building owners, not typically experts in automation systems, are
increasingly confused with the messaging around open systems for smart
buildings and Building Automation Systems. Unfortunately this confusing
messaging is often presented by the automation manufacturers
themselves, thus containing substantial credibility. The market largely
accepts open communication protocols as a substitute for open systems.
This can lead to a lot of frustration when owners are expecting their
new “open system” to integrate with other systems within the building
or other buildings within a campus or portfolio environment.
There are many ways to score systems relative to compatibility at the protocol level. BACnet, LonWorks, Modbus, OPC and other commonly used network protocols have documented standards that must be met in order to carry the label, but this is only 20% of the open system story. While it is the foundation of the story, and arguably the most important piece, focusing on the protocol alone can leave a building in the same position that proprietary systems did in the 1990’s. This is the exact problem that pushed the market to demand open protocols, and the sharp rise of integration platforms like the Niagara Framework™ by Tridium.
We believe that we have developed a simple mechanism for scoring whether a system is truly open or not. Our system assigns one point for achieving an “open” score in each of the following categories: Protocol, Programming Tools, Product Availability, Local Service Contractors, and User Interface Technology. The max possible score achieved is five points. Don’t get discouraged; most manufacturers will not score five points today.
As mentioned earlier, the protocol is the foundation of the open
system. There are, however, many layers within the network architecture
where the system may or may not meet the requirements of the open
protocol. Some products in the market expose certain points to the open
protocol, while others stay behind and communicate only via the private
proprietary protocol unless specifically exposed to the open protocol.
This can create many issues when attempting to integrate to an
enterprise solution or when attempting to access setpoints or control
parameters when running analytics or fault detection algorithms.
It is important to clearly understand and articulate the requirements of the building for the life of the control system; which can last 20 years or longer, specifically when selecting building automation system controls, lighting control systems, and access control systems. For example, if the requirement is that every field device must support BACnet schedules and BACnet trends, a system whose field devices do not support those functions would not get a point for this category.
1 Point if the system supports an open protocol at the level required.
0 Points if the system does not support an open protocol at the level required.
The programming tools are often used by manufacturers to make a system
100% proprietary even though the communication protocol is 100% open.
This is where the biggest challenge for the building owner starts. Many
of the manufacturers who fall into this category focus a lot of
attention on the protocol and are heavy supporters of open building
standards. They do this knowing full well their products are rarely, if
ever, part of a truly integrated solution. The market pressure to
commoditize products and make smart building products open conflicts
directly with the history of manufacturers whose primary goal is to
build product dependence in the building.
If the programming tool is not open and is not available for purchase on the open market, it is probable that the building will not have much choice for service, upgrades, or long term service.
1 Point if the programming tools are available for sale to the market and if factory training is offered to service contractors
0 Points if the tool is only available to Authorized Integrators and Building owners who have purchased a control system.
Manufacturers have several channels in the US market available to
deliver product. The most common channels are manufacturer branch
offices (direct), system integrators who purchase product direct from
the manufacturer (1-Step), and distributors (2-Step). With rare exception, manufacturer branch offices sell and support a
proprietary control system that is only available from the branch
office. Some of the devices sold may be sold in other channels, but
there is generally a product that excludes others from competing with
the branch office in the local market. There are many reasons for this,
meant for another category.
System integrators often resemble the branch offices in the way they go to market. Typically, there is only one per market and their charter is to build market share for the brand they represent. There is often an exclusive territory granted in exchange for brand loyalty. Unfortunately, this can have negative consequences for the owner in many ways. In some cases there are multiple system integrators representing the same brand in the same market, but this provides owners with false security since the integrators are not authorized to compete against one another.
Distributors who represent control systems are typically more
engineering and technology focused than the parts wholesaler that
immediately comes to mind. They represent one or more brands and work
with controls contractors, system integrators and mechanical
contractors to serve the market. This can be incredibly powerful when
the right mix exists in a market.
1 Point if there are multiple competing system integrators in the market or if there are one or more distributors in the market.
0 Points if the channel is branch office or exclusive system integrator
Local Service Contractors
The goal of this category is to determine the availability of service
contractor within a 30 mile radius of the desired end-user location(s).
This can often be confused with the last category since the presence of
multiple system integrators in the market should equal multiple service
providers. That is not necessarily the case, since many of the system
integrators focus on new construction and design build construction
markets. They can have little or no service departments.
1 Point if there are two or more competing service contractors in the local market.
0 Points if there are fewer than two competing service contractors in the local market.
Visualization / User Interface
The way people are expected to interact with the system is the final
point in the tally. It is common for systems to require a computer
whose primary purpose is to provide access to the building automation
system or lighting control system. Most of the time, buildings are
saddled with multiple machines dedicated to the disparate systems in
The best way for customers to visualize the information in a smart building is via a common web browser using one or more types of devices. The users of open systems should expect to access these systems using the same tools they access their banking information or purchase products. This should be out of the box functionality for systems claiming to be part of a smart building, but sadly, it is not for the majority of systems. All is not lost, however, since more manufacturers are hearing this message and are working toward a solution.
1 Point if a common web browser on any device is the user interface technology.
0 Points if java applet, flash client, or other proprietary technology is required.
Manufacturer Brand Identity
This category may or may not be important building owners. It is worthy
of considering, but not worth a point. Many building owners are looking
for long term brand identity. This category is extremely subjective,
but none-the-less can carry some weight when making the decision.
Perceived risk may also play a role here given that the larger more
established brands are likely to be supported for the life of the
building control system and beyond. There is little certainty, these
days, where technology advances so quickly.
Why should Building Owners Care?
The demand for cost savings from reduced energy use and operational
efficiency in conjunction with the need for more automated intelligence
in the building means there will be a demand for more fully integrated
“smart buildings.” As technological advances, it is easier to collect
and store more data than ever before. Products that optimize operations
through systems integration, machine to machine (M2M) communication,
and data analytics are now a reality. As it is exponentially more
difficult to integrate systems that score low on this scale, the
requirement for owners to truly adopt open systems is not only
important to immediately reduce operational costs through open
competition, but to future proof themselves as the integrated “smart
building” becomes the rule as opposed to the exception.
About the Author
Brian Turner is President at Controlco, an enterprise system integrator
and value added distributor headquartered in Oakland, CA. Brian has
passion for the integrated facilities business and looks forward to a
day when smart building systems achieve their potential in running
energy efficient and operationally efficient facilities.
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