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November 2018
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EDGE-YOU-CATION: The Never Ending Story (Part 2)

Teach a student ‘about one thing’ and they will learn it. Teach a student ‘how to learn’ and they will teach you. - Leo


Leo SaLemi
Leo SaLemi
Professor and Program Coordinator
Building Automation,
George Brown College
Toronto

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When we said goodbye to the graduating class from the Building Automation program at George Brown College last spring (2018) I connected with some of the companies that were hiring our grads and asked them what they were looking for when filling these positions. Many of them were interested in the student’s soft skills like attendance, punctuality, supervision and ability to work with others, not many asked about their grade point average; but one thing that stood out when it came to technical abilities was that they wanted students with programming and networking skills capable of working with the latest building control systems, specifically Niagara based platforms.

Well, I thought to myself, we do have a lab filled with MachPro DDC controllers by Reliable Controls (www.reliablecontrols.com) and in my opinion it’s one of the best platforms out there to teach the foundations of DDC, BACnet and networking; and we get great support and donations from Reliable Controls itself as well as their local distributor, SetPoint Automation who has already hired several of our grads. But when it came to Niagara the closest we had to offer was the Sedona Framework using CPT Tools running on a virtual machine, which was better than nothing, but falls short when it came to hands-on applications.

So how could we add Niagara to our Building Automation curriculum and have it ready for September? Simple answer we couldn’t, mainly due to the fact that in order to teach Niagara you must be trained and certified by one of Tridium’s registered trainers and the costs and licensing fees for that was more than what we wanted to spend. Furthermore, it could never be done in time for September. But if we focused on teaching a practical version of Sedona, the free and open platform created by Tridium, then our students would have a better shot at learning Niagara by taking one of the certified courses after graduation … if they needed to.

The message was clear, we needed to find an inexpensive hands-on method of teaching Sedona, we also needed to teach the students ‘how to learn’ by letting them figure out the programming aspects of Sedona at their own pace using online tutorials and videos and then use the classroom time to apply that knowledge on practical applications. So we decided to purchase the EasyIO FG+ series Sedona based controller and add them to the existing 12 DDC lab stations we had in the lab, but these were fixed in place and accessing them outside of classroom time would be a challenge, and we certainly didn’t have the budget to buy one DDC for each of the 40 students’s coming in September. 

BASpi to the rescue

Reliable Controls As it turned out a couple of weeks after we purchased the EasyIO controllers, a company called Contemporary Controls (www.ccontrols.com) had just released the BASpi, an add-on to the Raspberry Pi3 that could turn it into a Sedona controller and since we were already using the Raspberry Pi’s in some of our other courses we decided to purchase 40 BASpi’s at $69 each and give one to each student. I also convinced one of my top students from the graduating class, Glen Bacolong to stick around for the summer and help us develop the curriculum before he headed out the job he was offered by Johnson Controls.

After 5 weeks into the semester, and only 2 of those working with Sedona, the outcome was better than expected. Not only did the students figure out how to program the BASpi to read the sensor inputs (thermistors, switches, 0-5V) and control the relay outputs using the Sedona platform in one sitting, they were able to apply these programming skills to the EasyIO FG+ to control a real PID liquid level and temperature process using analog level transmitters, VFD, modulating valves and temperature sensors. In addition to this, a few of the students managed to use the BASpi as a BACnet sensor node that was integrated with the EasyIO PID process as well as the Reliable Control PID process.

In a nutshell, the BASpi from Contemporary Controls is probably one of the best tools around for teaching the Sedona Framework in a price range no others can match. The full potential of this controller is yet to be realized as we look at how to use it in other applications such as making it into an IoT sensor with Edge Analytics and cloud services, using it as a BACnet node to integrate with other building systems (card access, lighting, security), setting up wireless nodes with ESP32 controllers and my favourite making it work with Alexa voice commands. "Alexa, close the window blinds and say good night … OK."

Teach a student ‘about one thing’ and they will learn it. Teach a student ‘how to learn’ and they will teach you. - Leo

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