March 2013

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It’s elementary!

Andy McMillanAndy McMillan
President and GM
Philips Teletrol
BACnet International
Contributing Editor 

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Wandering through controls, automation and software booths at the ASHRAE show this year could lead a person to think that analytics is the “next big thing” in BAS.  Large screens with colorful data displays and multi-dimensional graphs proclaimed that we are entering a new age of BAS information analysis.  And, in some sense this might be true but, if you look under the covers at much of what is being called “analytics” you might conclude we still have a long way to go.

Analytics Defined

I checked the Merriam-Webster definition of analytics and found it defined as “the science of analysis.”  Feeling not quite satisfied by that I thought I would take a look at Wikepedia where I found analytics defined as “the discovery and communication of meaningful patterns in data.”  Together these definitions convey the sense that analytics involves substantive scrutiny of data to tease out non-obvious information.  Many companies apply analytics to support business decision-making.  For example, retailers apply analytics to sales and inventory data in an effort to inform product mix and pricing decisions.  So, how does that compare to what many people are calling analytics in BAS? 

Data Display

On the surface, products and solutions that pass for analytics in BAS incorporate one or both of two elements.  The first is enhanced data display with integral navigation and the second is simple condition analysis.  The provision of more robust data displays with better user interaction is certainly a positive thing in our industry.  Everything else in the world is moving to better displays oriented around graphical presentation.  Just look at the iPhone, Windows 8, eReaders and the new Blackberry -- or closer to our world, the NEST home thermostat.  And it makes sense.  The world is full of colorful graphic displays because visual presentation is engaging and for most people seeing really is believing.  So enhanced data displays with dynamic user interaction for BAS tools are great … but fall short of true analytics.

Condition Monitoring

The second element included in many BAS products and solutions that pass for analytics is simple condition monitoring.  It turns out that there are a lot of conditions that are easy to detect and yield useful information.  Some are merely threshold monitoring.  For example, if the space temperature is much higher (or lower) than the setpoint you can conclude that an HVAC unit is not functioning correctly.  Or, if you monitor the power consumption of the lighting panel of a building and find the usage does not substantially decline overnight, you can conclude that the lighting controls are not scheduled correctly, or are malfunctioning.  This kind of threshold monitoring can be taken to a slightly higher level by adding in conditional thresholds.  For example, you could monitor flow rate in a cooling water pipe looking for minimal flow but, only consider the threshold relevant when the pump has been on for more than two minutes and the system is calling for cooling.  Simple threshold monitoring can be powerful in situations where there is follow up on the issues it identifies … but it also falls short of true analytics.

[an error occurred while processing this directive] Summary

True analytics in the BAS context certainly includes robust graphical display of data as well as simple condition monitoring, but it needs to go beyond that.  True analytics should also yield non-obvious optimization or diagnostic recommendations through meaningful examination of building automation datasets.  Some of that capability exists today in the area of predictive diagnostics but we have only scratched the surface of what can be done.  With the routine application of standard communications (like BACnet) and common data definitions, the opportunities to apply real analytics is rapidly increasing.  Judging by products on display at the ASHRAE show we are making progress in the right direction, but, we will have to wait a little longer to see widespread availability of true analytics tools for BAS. 

As always, the views expressed in this column are mine and do not necessarily reflect the position of BACnet International, Philips Lighting, ASHRAE, or any other organization.  If you want to send comments to me directly, feel free to email me at


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