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Beware of Trojan Horses Bearing BACnet Logos

From the perspective of a Commissioning Engineer

Matt Schwartz
Matt Schwartz, PE
Senior Associate, Altura Associates

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One of the most commonly overlooked documents in the new construction process is the building automation specification. Most often, MEP engineers are charged with creating it, yet most don’t have the operational experience required to really dig into the details. So, we typically end up with messy templates of specs recycled from previous jobs that leave plenty of room for interpretation to the bidding vendors. Meanwhile, automation service providers often seek influence over the spec, adding requirements that can only be fulfilled by the building automation equipment manufacturer that they represent. This can lead to the spec being biased in favor of the incumbent, with no room to truly compare “apples-to-apples.” A service provider not challenged by the market’s natural competitive forces eventually becomes lazy and bloated. Owners pay too much, projects fail, and the cycle of poor service continues.

The industry can no longer afford this dynamic.  While many in the industry are moving away from this pattern, changes aren’t happening fast enough! The evolution of open standards such as ASHRAE’s BACnet are certainly helping push the industry forward, but BACnet has also created a new and dangerous type of con game. Unknowing owners and MEP engineers believe they are getting truly open systems simply by specifying BACnet compliance and interoperability. However, of course, the devil is in the details, and so much depends on one’s definition of “open.” An automation control platform is only “open” when more than one service provider has equivalent access to the products, tools, and training needed to bid on and service the automation system. A level-field competition for on-going service and maintenance contracts is essential to incentivize good service and fair pricing.

As a commissioning engineer, my job is to get buildings to operate to the high energy performance and occupant comfort goals they were designed to achieve. The firm I work for, Altura, has pioneered the Connected Building Commissioning (CBCx) approach whereby we integrate and normalize the data streaming from building equipment and sensors, and apply analytics and visualization software to make visible the performance of subsystems and the building as a whole. As an open standard with wide industry support and a strong organization backing certification of all products that carry the logo, the BACnet protocol has gone a long way to improve information sharing among equipment from different manufacturers. However, while the standard is open-source, equipment manufacturers have the option to add proprietary functions on top which means they retain exclusive control over the tools needed to work on their BACnet-certified systems.

You know that the game is rigged and normal market forces are no longer in play when bids come in for automation work with vast differences in pricing. “Vertical” vendors – those with market monopolies that sell only proprietary, back-end controls products – often low ball the projects with the intent to “lock em and loot em”, a phrase all too familiar with many building owners. Once in, the incumbent provider often price-gouges, acting as if the reputation they’ve earned for delivering problematic or shoddy work in the past has no bearing on the future work. The new lowest bid is always from the other vertical provider that has been previously locked-out. They bid low to get in the door, often with the intention of soon manufacturing their own monopoly and recovering their investment through high maintenance contracts and overpriced future work.

WarningMy warning to building owner/operators: don’t fall for the ‘BACnet Equals Open’ con! If the service-provider-influenced spec fast-tracks “Brand X” equipment into your building, and that service provider has a long-term contracted agreement to be the exclusive source of “Brand X” parts and service in your region (a “vertical” market monopoly as defined above), you have given away your leverage in managing building operations and in financially managing that service provider. This is true whether “Brand X” is BACnet-certified or not. You may have forged a trusting relationship with the rep, but people come and go in this business. Providing consistently good service is the hard part. Most importantly, make sure there are at least two competing service providers that can work on your building automation system without the need for any license, software or hardware modifications – this is ultimately the true test of an open and competitive market.

The one platform designed for openness—from the hardware and software to licensing and other business practices—is Tridium’s Niagara JACE. It has become the standard platform for integrating legacy projects, earning the allegiance of a community of development partners and a formidably strong and influential customer base. Legacy systems now strain to appear similarly open by adopting the BACnet tag; but, it is a thin veneer over the same old closed systems and business practices. As a commissioning agent who works on many BAS systems, I see what’s hiding inside the Trojan Horse. One of the ways Brand-X keeps its implementation of BACnet proprietary is by arranging files so other vendors cannot easily locate key operating components. I’ve also seen them lock system files to USB license keys that only the BAS vendors possess. These tactics can make their own technicians look incompetent, bumbling around upon arrival trying to figure out what license or software tool to install before they can start any work.

More and more building owners and property managers are getting specific about what they mean by ‘open.’ Now some specifications call for not just BACnet-certified devices, but also require that any system included in a solution be certified according to the NiagaraAX Compatibility Statement (NiCS) ( . This is a step forward in the drive for greater openness and transparency in data management. But, anachronistic practices remain. Why would an integrator use a Niagara JACE to port data into a 3rd-layer Brand-X front-end, as opposed to using the JACE’s to their full potential? Conversely, why use proprietary field controllers behind a truly open Niagara supervisory controller and front end? The answer lies more with the vagaries of long-standing business relationships than with technological necessity.

contemporary Getting to an ‘open’ automation platform starts with updating processes to focus on evolving the automation spec in step with the new construction and major renovation cycles. Project teams should have their design drawings, specifications, and sequence of operation definitions reviewed by all the stakeholders — owner, architect, engineering peers and commissioning authority, as well as by the automation controls providers and equipment manufacturers bidding on the project. Data-driven processes like CBCx exist to provide visibility into what a building is doing as construction progresses. With cloud-hosted applications, we can bring together your design docs with dynamic data featuring trend logs, power meter data, alerts, alarms, etc. You can run analytics against this data to gain insight as to how control sequences can evolve for better energy and comfort performance. All this information can aid market forces in delivering better buildings at lower cost. However, this only works if market forces are being allowed to function in the first place.

This is a topic we’re immersed in on a daily basis, and I’m happy to discuss it in greater detail. I'll be at Haystack Connect in May along with others from the Altura Associates team. Reach out to me at mschwartz(at)alturaassociates(dot)com. Alternatively, add any thoughts, comments, or questions using this address.

The topics discussed here are timely as they relate closely to the changing landscape of the building automation industry.  These topics and other “open” concepts will be covered in depth at the upcoming Haystack Connect Conference in Colorado Springs.  Haystack Connect is sponsored by a community of open minded data-driven vendors and service providers that have a strong grasp on what is yet to come in this market.  I will be speaking about the work Altura has done to date using BAS connected data analytics platforms to drive deep value from our enhanced retro-commissioning process. See you there.

Thanks for reading.

About the Author

Matt Schwartz, P.E., CBCP – Matt is a Senior Associate at Altura. He is a mechanical engineer with diverse energy management experience encompassing new construction commissioning, energy modeling, retro-commissioning, and energy auditing.  He has led the integration of data analytics platforms to support new construction and renovation project commissioning on multiple projects. He is a recognized leader in analytics system deployment, having spoken at the industry conference Haystack in TN on project case studies and implementation to drive real value from data systems.


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