Building Automation Integration Depends On Communication

Resolving the challenges of facility systems integration requires a clear look at how building automation protocols interact.
Resolving the challenges of facility systems integration requires a clear look at how building automation protocols interact.

FM Issue: When Open Isn’t So Open

Building Automation Integration Depends On Communication

Overview of building complex.

By Frank Rotello
From the November/December 2014 issue

As facility managers (fms) strive to reduce energy consumption in their buildings and improve operational efficiency through integrating facility systems, the demand for open systems escalates. Over the past 20 years, open systems have become increasingly the norm through the wide adoption of open protocols, which allow a variety of components of a facility to communicate with each other through its building automation system (BAS). With the expectation of openness all but universal, fms are sometimes surprised when they discover that their building systems are not as open as they assumed. Especially as buildings get “smarter”—which is to say more complex, weak links in the protocols can cause breakdowns in communications between the many parts of a facility (and major headaches for facility operators).

While interoperability and openness are touted by the automation industry and are highly desirable for fms, open protocols are not a magic bullet to provide it. The protocols themselves are merely sets of rules for governing communications within a computer network. They define everything from how to make connections between devices to how the message is formatted. It is through widespread adoption of these protocols, especially BACnet, LonMark, and Modbus, that the industry is able to have open systems.

How Open Is That Protocol?

For fms, choosing to go with an open protocol is easy. The challenge comes in the details of applying the protocol. For those who are not experts in building automation, the way open protocols are applied within equipment and components in an actual building may be confusing. While the protocol is the foundation of the open system, there are many layers within the network architecture, and this is where a system may or may not meet the requirements of the open protocol.

For example, sometimes manufacturers expose only certain points within a product to the open protocol and enable other points to communicate via a private proprietary protocol unless specifically exposed to the open protocol. This creates problems in a building, such as when attempting to integrate to an enterprise solution or trying to access setpoints or control parameters to run analytics or fault detection algorithms.

Another similar challenge is when manufacturers use programming tools to make a system completely proprietary even though the communication protocol is open. This means the fm must purchase a specific software in order to connect various open products used within the building, such as the variable air volume (VAV) boxes and the air handler. In this situation it is also likely that the fm will have little choice in the future for upgrades or long-term service.

The BAS in a smart building will manage a variety of devices controlling facility systems. A dashboard like the one shown here assists in managing the VAV boxes in a LEED Gold certified facility.
The BAS in a smart building will manage a variety of devices controlling facility systems. A dashboard like the one shown here assists in managing the VAV boxes in a LEED Gold certified facility. (Photo: courtesy of LONG Building Technologies.)

These problems are frequently exacerbated when packaged systems, such as rooftop units, air handlers, and terminal devices, are specified for a project and are not reviewed properly via the submittal process to vet any potential installation and performance issues that may be identified during the commissioning phase of the project.

Fortunately, these open system problems can be prevented by taking a few steps at the beginning of the construction process. Open communications between the parties involved is the first step to creating an open building. To begin, fms must decide how much integration is desired for the building. Because of the variables between the types of integration available and what different levels of integration cost, this decision is best made in consultation with a BAS installer and other key stakeholders. Fms must have a clear understanding of their objectives and the requirements they need for the BAS and then articulate these to the contractor. This will ensure they garner the best results for a control system, especially since it may last 20 years or more.

Next, the fm should bring together all the constituents on the project (e.g., mechanical and electrical consulting engineers and BAS, mechanical, and electrical contractors) as early as possible in the design phase. This will ensure that the equipment specified for the project is consistent with the design specifications and that it meets the facility’s integration requirements. For example, if the requirement is that every field device must support BACnet schedules and trends, equipment that does not support those functions would not be included in the project plans.

Fms should consult with their mechanical consulting engineer and their BAS contractor regarding the type of protocol to be used in their facilities because there are merits and advantages to each of the main protocols that should be understood. Once a protocol is selected, one should choose equipment from the manufacturers that offer either BACnet BTL certified or LonMark certified equipment options. 

Smart Building Challenge

All of these challenges are exacerbated as a building becomes “smarter.” An example of a smart building is a facility where the access and security, HVAC, elevators, lighting, and energy management systems are all linked and work as one efficient whole to manage the facility and its energy use seamlessly.

These buildings can, and do, exist and while the smart building concept may be an fm’s ideal, such a facility comes at high cost. A major part of the cost comes in the effort required to accomplish the integration of so many distinct components and systems within the building. To create a smart building requires detailed planning and coordination upfront to specify all the pieces and ensure these are open enough to communicate with each other. The more complex the project, the more important it is for the fm to consider the question: “Do I have the budget to support the cost of ownership of a smart building—both upfront and over time?”

While challenges integrating open system technologies are common, this should not influence fms to defer retrofits to their facilities for fear of encountering an expensive problem. This is especially true in the case of energy efficiency improvements. BAS contractors can usually integrate new temperature or occupancy sensors and equipment such as VAV boxes into an existing BAS without encountering a conflict with the HVAC equipment. If a facility does not have direct digital controls (DDC), an energy efficiency retrofit is the ideal time to add these because the savings on energy costs combined with rebates available from most utilities will usually cover the cost.

The way a facility’s staff expects to interact with the various systems within a building has changed dramatically over the years. While once buildings were saddled with multiple machines dedicated to the disparate systems in the building, such as the BAS or lighting controls, now operators can view this information via a common web browser using one or more types of devices. These interfaces provide fms with a single point of entry to building controls using TCP/IP transport protocol, the same one used by the Internet, usually through a multi-function dashboard.

As more and more manufacturers provide this type of access to the BAS, it will certainly become increasingly common going forward.

What is particularly significant about this new approach is that it allows the BAS to be available to facility staff through multiple channels. No longer will the system be accessed solely within a central control room; rather remote access via tablets and smart phones in the field is becoming the new norm for facility operations staff in many organizations. This approach typically relies on scalable architecture that can support any protocol, from BACnet to Modbus, so it can break down the information silos created by traditional BAS configurations. These solutions should also be able to adapt to new technologies that emerge in the future, though only time will tell.

Frank Rotello.

A thorough understanding of open systems and the protocols that make them work is essential for fms who want an integrated building and to obtain the benefits of reduced energy use, operational efficiency, and increased building intelligence that integrated, open systems are meant to provide. Advances in technology make it easier to collect and store large amounts of facility data while products that optimize operations through systems integration and data analytics are emerging. So it is even more important that facility operators adopt open systems, not only for these benefits but to make it possible in the future to experience a fully integrated “smart building” as this type of facility becomes a goal—and a reality—for more organizations. 

Rotello is a past president and a member of the executive board of the InsideIQ Building Automation Alliance, an international alliance of independent building automation contractors representing common automation and security system platforms. A 30 year veteran of the industry, Rotello is also the CEO of Alpha Controls & Services in Rockford, IL, a company that delivers advanced technologies designed to make buildings comfortable, secure, and efficient.

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