February 2014

Innovations in Comfort, Efficiency, and Safety Solutions.

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Integrated Automation Systems Improve Building Automation

How including advanced embedded HMI into BAS increases energy efficiency while improving worker productivity and safety.

Marcia Gadbois,
Vice President
 InduSoft, Invensys

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A monumental shift is occurring in building automation. The formerly separate silos of security, HVAC and lighting control are being replaced by a completely integrated building automation system (BAS) that maximizes energy efficiency while also providing greater comfort and safety for the people living and working inside these structures.

The initial transformation of what once were largely mechanically-driven systems into IT-based solutions was the result of the introduction of affordable controllers, PCs, Windows-based software and better communication networks, particularly Ethernet.

Today, the Internet and its related technologies are ushering in the next generation of building automation, which delivers efficiency gains through easier and more integrated control. From smart buildings to the smart grid, new solutions offering easier remote connectivity and interoperability among different machines and systems will drive the BAS market. 

Many building automation developers and integrators are reluctant to adapt to these changes because they are overwhelmed at the thought of integrating several systems, and fearful of the required time commitment.

However, they need to recognize the latest generation of BAS is being driven by businesses demanding greater control, better energy management and more automation. Fortunately, new technologies exist that can assist in creating a 21st century BAS. The slow adopters should also understand that the system providers who offer smart solutions that businesses want will have substantial competitive advantages over those who can’t. 

More Customized Control

The one-size-fits-all approach to building control is quickly disappearing. Today’s companies prioritize productivity improvement and the elimination of unnecessary costs. One of the ways they’re achieving these goals is by demanding more tailored control over lightning, temperature and energy usage.

Buildings are among the largest electricity consumers in the North America. Their HVAC and lighting systems typically use the most energy, which puts them at the top of the list for improvement. One of the problems is that HVAC systems typically run on fixed schedules, without any granular control based on detailed occupancy information, sunlight or external weather conditions.

Connectivity among systems can greatly reduce energy usage by providing this granular control. For example, security sensors that send information to a lighting control system to illuminate rooms when people enter are becoming commonplace. As more control systems silos are integrated and as devices become smarter, improvements and efficiencies will increase at both the individual level and for the system as a whole (Figure 1).

Figure 1

Figure 1: Staff reductions and increased need for efficiency are driving the demand for an integrated BAS that enables users to interact with data from multiple systems on one screen as well as drill down for more in-depth views.

System Integration Benefits

With fewer workers, companies require user-friendly, more automated control.  They can’t afford to have employees roaming buildings to change set points or determine where and why a problem is happening. In fact, most facilities don’t even have sufficient staff to monitor separate workstations for multiple, isolated systems.

Compounding the staffing problem, most of these automation islands have their own screen displays and commands, making it expensive and time consuming to train workers. The silo approach also forces maintenance to be more reactive than proactive. Without the ability to easily understand how the BAS is performing as a whole, it’s very difficult to see how problems that arise in one area can affect other systems, or how improvements in one system element can increase overall efficiency.

Through the interconnection of individual systems, facility workers have better control of the entire building and can respond to possible events before they escalate, often by executing only a few commands from a PC that is monitoring all of the control systems in the building. Moreover, smart systems can modify set points to respond to conditions without the need for an operator, further reducing required staffing levels.

In addition to maximizing labor productivity within the building, highly automated integrated systems can also provide new opportunities to save money, such as by using pricing information from utilities to take advantage of energy reduction incentives. For example, an integrated lighting system can adjust according to information from other internal systems, such as security showing empty offices. An integrated HVAC system can temporarily cut its power consumption to decrease energy use during peak periods as communicated by their utility.

An integrated BAS increases worker productivity by creating a more comfortable environment. Perhaps most importantly, it can also improve worker safety.

Better Safety

When considering safety, there’s little doubt that integrated BAS provides many advantages as compared to a system of separate silos. This can be easily seen with a fire protection system which is integrated with other automated systems such as HVAC, lighting, elevator control, security, and others—all to ensure people, equipment and systems respond faster in emergencies when every second counts.

Consider a scenario where a fire starts in a facility with an integrated BAS. The smoke detectors alert operators to a potential problem in an office on the third floor.  Since the door control, sprinklers and video surveillance are monitored from a single point, the facility crew can make sure people are being evacuated, as well as zero in on exactly what is occurring in the third floor office.

This BAS also includes embedded human machine interfaces (HMIs), which allow information to be communicated throughout the facility to any worker with a properly configured smartphone or tablet. The concept of embedded HMIs, as opposed to traditional PC-based HMIs, will be covered in detail in the next section.

Smoke detectors would immediately send an alarm to the intercom system to instruct workers as to the path each should take to exit the building safely, without any human involvement needed. The smoke detectors would also send messages to security systems to recall all elevators to the first floor, to open all doors in unaffected areas, and to close doors near the fire after the sensors indicate that occupants have left the area.

Fans would start and stop depending on their proximity to the fire. The integrated, smart BAS would ensure that the proper sequence was followed to protect lives and property, so fans would only start after the dampers opens to avoid compounding damage from the fire.

In summary, an integrated BAS provides a host of benefits as explained above, and as listed in Table 1.

Many of the actions performed by an integrated BAS happen automatically, with monitoring and any manual overrides performed via either a PC-based HMI, or by one of several embedded HMI platforms.

The Growth of Embedded HMI

While a central PC-based monitoring and control system will continue to play an important role in an integrated BAS, embedded HMIs will increasingly take on a larger role. An embedded HMI is simply a device other than a full-featured PC that runs HMI software. Typical examples are CE-based devices, tablets and smartphones. The advantage of an embedded HMI is lower cost, and freedom of movement for tablets and smartphones (Figure 2).

Although embedded HMI software must be designed for small footprint operating systems with limited memory such as Windows CE, these platforms are expected to deliver nearly the same functionality as a PC-based supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) application. The embedded HMI software must therefore include an object-oriented database, math functions, archiving and alarm capabilities and more. Furthermore, it must provide all this functionality scaled for acceptable performance on the chip set of a device with much less power than a PC.

Figure 2 

Figure 2: Embedded HMIs with user-friendly graphical interfaces and SCADA-like functionality cuts costs of providing operator interfaces throughout a facility.

These types of advanced features sets, however, are almost useless without the ability to communicate with the wide array of hardware and software typically found in an integrated BAS. Therefore, the ability to easily interact with other networks and hardware types will soon be essential for both PC-based and embedded HMIs, and closed proprietary systems will become relicts of the past. In response, modern embedded HMI software has multiple native drivers, OPC connectivity and other features for seamless integration.

Demand for Remote Access

Today’s business world demands wireless communication, advanced functionality and remote connectivity. Smaller facility staffing levels means workers must monitor more areas at the same time. Fortunately, relatively low cost tablets and smartphones coupled with the right embedded HMI software have enabled a highly mobile workforce to achieve the required monitoring and control.

Many companies are going a step further to cut costs by adopting “bring your own device” (BYOD) policies. While this significantly lowers IT purchasing and maintenance expenses, it can be difficult to implement if the HMI software only supports certain operating systems, such as Apple’s iOS.
Although Androids and tablets have a wider user base than Apple products, traditionally creating apps for iPhones and iPads has been easier because vendors don’t have to develop for the wide array of operating systems and screen sizes in the Android and tablet market.

Fortunately, a small number of HMI software suppliers have solutions developed in platforms that offer HTML5 support for their embedded HMI software. This means that all devices with an HMTL5 browser have the same visualization and interaction capabilities, regardless of the operating system (Figure 3).

Figure 3

Figure 3: Develop once, immediately view anywhere by using HMI software with HTML5 support.

No longer will users have to wait months for an app to be developed for their particular device, or be forced to use slow browser-based applications that don’t size correctly for their screens.  These new HMI software packages enable projects to be created once then deployed instantly for multiple devices, providing a unified experience across an entire system: PC-based HMIs, Windows CE HMIs, smartphones, iPhones, tablets and iPads.

Smart Buildings Require Smarter Embedded HMI

An integrated BAS requires the embedded HMI on devices to deliver more advanced performance than simply turning on a light by pressing an on-screen button. The embedded HMI device will need to receive and provide data to and from other systems, so that the operator can see that the control system has dimmed the light when the window shade was automatically raised.

Embedded HMIs will be required to communicate directly with other devices and systems, and some will be directly linked to external systems as the traditional one-way power stream turns into the smart grid. Not only will the smart grid communicate with individual buildings, but also with embedded HMI devices inside the building.

In order to achieve optimal building automation performance, embedded HMI devices will be required to provide real-time data to systems and operators. Even devices with no local operator interface will need to have trending, reporting, archiving and other diagnostics that can be easily accessed by authorized users via a smartphone or a tablet.

Workers will need to debug, test and troubleshoot embedded applications remotely as well as locally to save time and money, especially for systems managing multiple locations. Users will come to expect the ability to trigger screen changes, set values and drill down from wherever they happen to be located.

For building automation system suppliers and integrators, this need for advanced functionality can seem daunting at first. They will have to create systems where real-time data must be presented in user-friendly graphical interfaces with charts, diagrams and even video displays. They will also need to deliver embedded HMI functionality that closely matches that of PC-based SCADA systems, including the ability to send emails and alarms messages. They also realize they must do this for the different screen sizes and operating systems found on smartphones and tablets.

Fortunately, there are affordable HMI software solutions that can help them overcome these challenges. These software packages offer comprehensive feature sets that enable developers to easily create highly customized user interfaces from extensive symbol libraries, and the ability to import graphics of various formats.

These advanced HMI software packages provide the ability to develop once and deploy on any supported Microsoft Windows-based operating system. These latest software solutions also solve the problem of delivering remote accessibility to devices ranging from tablets to smartphones by offering HMTL5 support, which provides correctly sized screens and similar functionality to almost any device. Table 2 list features that users should demand from their embedded HMI software.

Integrated automation and advanced embedded HMI may seem like they’re simply complicating building automation systems to provide a “wow” factor for users. However, the development of the smart grid along with companies placing more emphasis on improving energy efficiency and safety is the impetus for the smart BAS.

Thus, building automation system developers who can’t provide commercial business owners with the systems they demand will see their sales volume drop sharply, especially when new technologies are making it easier than ever for them to satisfy customers’ demand.

Table 1: Benefits of Integrated BAS
•    Comprehensive monitoring and control systems
•    Improved energy efficiency
•    Reduced facility staffing requirements
•    Better worker comfort and safety
•    Easier troubleshooting  and system improvements
•    Greater ability to benefit from utility and government incentives

Table 2: What to look for in Embedded HMI Software
•    Designed specifically for embedded OS
•    Seamless integration with multiple systems and hardware
•    Full, SCADA-like functionality
•    User-friendly graphical displays
•    Extensive symbol libraries and templates
•    Develop once, deploy anywhere configuration tools
•    Easy remote connectivity from myriad devices


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