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EMAIL INTERVIEW - Steve Tom & Ken Sinclair
Steve Tom, PE, PhD, is the Director of Technical Information at Automated Logic Corporation, Kennesaw Georgia and has more than 30 years experience working with HVAC systems. At ALC Steve has coordinated the training, documentation, and technical support programs, and frequently works with the R&D engineers on product requirements and usability. Currently Steve is directing the development of www.CtrlSpecBuilder.com, a free web-based tool for preparing HVAC control system specifications.
Prior to joining Automated Logic, Steve was an officer in the U.S. Air Force where he worked on the design, construction, and operation of facilities (including HVAC systems) around the world. He also taught graduate level courses in HVAC Design and HVAC Controls at the Air Force Institute of Technology.
CtrlSpecBuilder - Answers from the developers
Sinclair: Why did Automated Logic create this site?
Tom: We realized there was a need for this service in our industry. Building owners and design engineers frequently asked our dealers to help prepare specifications on building automation systems. This technology has changed dramatically within the past few years, and there are even more changes coming. Open protocols, web-based systems, cell phone access, XML, Web services – it’s tough enough for those of us who work with this every day to keep up with the new buzz words. End users and design engineers have thousands of other things to worry about, and staying on top of the latest BAS technology may not be at the top of their list. Most vendors will gladly give you a sample specification, but this spec will lock you into their product and won’t provide any sequences, point lists, or other information on the control algorithms to be used. One of our dealers, DVL Automation, realized there was a need for a tool to help engineers create a non-proprietary specification that included these details. They brought the idea to us, and we created CtrlSpecBuilder.
Sinclair: How open are the specs it creates?
Tom: They’re as open as we can make them. We use ASHRAE Guideline 13-2000 as the basic framework for the specs we create. We have deviated from the guideline and made changes where we felt it was appropriate, but we haven’t done anything to make it more restrictive. For example, the ASHRAE guideline was written around a conventional workstation-based control system, but there has been rapid growth in the use of web-based systems since the guideline was written. We have therefore added verbiage to allow the use of either conventional or web-based systems. We’ve also added options that allow the user to specify other new technologies, such as cell phone access or Web services data exchange. In some cases, we’ve actually modified the spec to make it more open. For instance, the sample text in the guideline specifies a native BACnet system. I personally feel that’s an excellent choice, but since not every manufacturer makes BACnet systems we rewrote the baseline spec to make it protocol neutral. We then made the BACnet requirement an option, so users who want the BACnet specs can still create them.
We’ve created similar options in the Equipment section. Like most vendors, we have a preference for certain types of control algorithms. These are not the algorithms that everyone uses, however, so we have devoted considerable effort to researching control algorithms and providing options that cover the most popular alternatives, even if they’re not the algorithms we would recommend. We’ve actually gotten several feedback e-mails from our competitors praising CtrlSpecBuilder, so I think we’ve succeeded in creating an open specification.
Some people have asked why ALC would want to create a specification that didn’t lock users into our product. The answer is that we want engineers to use this tool. If we could put a sole source spec on the Internet and have thousands of engineers use it to specify their projects we would, but the simple fact is that if it locked users into our products it wouldn’t get used. I sometimes use this as an “attention step” when I give talks on CtrlSpecBuilder. I ask the audience how many people are interested in another proprietary control system specification. No one has ever raised their hand. Unfortunately, if CtrlSpecBuilder didn’t exist many engineers would wind up using a proprietary spec out of necessity. There are a lot of proprietary specs to choose from, and if they chose one from our competitors we’d be locked out of the bidding For this reason it’s in our own best interest to keep CtrlSpecBuilder open.
Sinclair: Are privacy issues a big concern?
Tom: They are with me! I used to work for the Federal Government, and I know if any vendor ever got a copy of a spec I was writing before it was officially released I would have been in big trouble. I know this is important to other engineers as well, so we take privacy very seriously. We use Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) encryption to protect the information you send to or receive from our web site. This is the same security tool used to safeguard credit card transactions at most commercial web sites. Within the CtrlSpecBuilder database itself, the information on which projects belong to which users is encrypted. Even the programmers who created the system cannot see who wrote a particular specification. When we help users troubleshoot a problem with one of their specifications, we have to ask them to log into CtrlSpecBuilder, point their browser to the problem spec, and send us a long cryptic identification key so our programmers can find the specification in question.
There’s another privacy issue that’s almost as important, and that’s protecting the user against unwanted e-mail and sales calls. There are times when we want to contact our users to inform them of upcoming downtime or inform them of changes to the site, so we give our users the option of signing up for a CtrlSpecBuilder newsletter. This user database obviously has significant marketing potential, but we realize that if we ever used it for anything other than “official CtrlSpecBuilder business” we’d lose our customers in droves. That’s why we promise never to use this contact list for sales or marketing purposes. Even our own Director of Marketing, who’s as dedicated and devious as anyone in the business, knows it’s in her own best interest to safeguard this database.
Sinclair: How has the site been received?
Tom: It’s been very well received. In a little over a year we’ve had over 16,000 visits to the CtrlSpecBuilder web site. That may not sound like a lot compared to, say, Amazon.com, but CtrlSpecBuilder is a very specialized site. Even the most hard-core HVAC geeks don’t spend their Saturday nights surfing the web to see if there’s anything new on HVAC Controls. Our web log software can’t tell us how many repeat visits are included in that 16,000 total, but we do know that over 1,800 visitors have registered with the site, and they must have visited it many times because they’ve used CtrlSpecBuilder to create more than 10,000 specifications.
At least as important as the sheer number of users is the fact that the user feedback we’ve received has been overwhelmingly positive. Users have described the site as everything from “kinda cool” to “the greatest thing since the invention of the computer.” The feedback also indicates the site is being used by some very prestigious engineering firms, and they’re using it to write real-world specifications that are being put out for bid. I’ve seen positive reviews of CtrlSpecBuilder on web sites and in journal articles, and our sequences and schematics are being used in several HVAC Controls training programs. All in all, the site has succeeded far beyond my expectations.
Sinclair: What are your plans for CtrlSpecBuilder’s future?
Tom: Our users have given us a lot of good ideas through their feedback e-mails. There are many different types of equipment or equipment options they’d like us to add, and we’re working on those. Adding new equipment is actually a fairly laborious task. Our recent database upgrade has made the job of adding a new points list, sequence, and schematic fairly simple, but before we can do that we need to do a lot of homework to make certain our options match the most popular features offered by the equipment manufacturers. More importantly, we need to make certain our sequences are correct for this equipment.
Several users have asked us to include lighting specifications and commissioning instructions. These are good ideas, but we’ll have to do a lot of homework before we’re ready to add them to CtrlSpecBuilder. These features are not covered in the ASHRAE Guideline, so we’ll be breaking new ground if we add them to CtrlSpecBuilder. We’re also working with the ASHRAE committee that is developing sample point lists, sequences, and schematics for common HVAC equipment. CtrlSpecBuilder offers many more options than the ASHRAE samples, but we need to make certain that where we do match we’re compatible with ASHRAE. The ASHRAE samples also include a mode table that summarizes how the equipment behaves when operating in various modes, like “occupied” or “unoccupied.” These tables help explain the sequence of operation, but it’s going to take a significant amount of work to incorporate them into CtrlSpecBuilder. Of course, the 500-pound gorilla in the specification world is the new CSI MasterFormat 04. Just unveiled this summer, the new MasterFormat significantly changes the way specifications are organized. We want to bring CtrlSpecBuilder into compliance with this new format, but that’s going to be a lot of work.
All in all, I think the coming year is going to be at least as exciting – and challenging – as CtrlSpecBuilder’s first year.
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