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Building automation utopia

The age of the open protocol is knocking at the door

December 01, 2001 |

The quest for open, integrated building systems has occupied the collective consciousness of the design and construction world for some time now. Leading the charge have been bold owners and designers, private consortia and public associations — as well as understandably self-interested controls manufacturers and vendors. The goal is to create a building network system that permits complete interoperability between different manufacturers' building automation control products, instead of utilizing proprietary a system that locks building owners and managers into using just one vendor.

In spite of a decades-long push, A/E/C professionals, especially electrical and mechanical (M/E) engineers, still only dream of an automation utopia. What their clients need for a renaissance in building controls, they say, is a healthy offering of off-the-shelf, plug-and-play products that can be integrated over today's popular data networks. The big question: Is the eternal paradise of competitive controls on the horizon?

Based on comments by engineers, such a utopia is around the corner. In fact, depending on who is asked, the dawn of a new era in building controls may already be here.

"There are two open/standard protocols that have the best shot at being successful in the market: BACnet and LonWorks," says Ira Goldschmidt, senior associate with RNL Design, Denver. "BACnet is an ANSI standard, while LonWorks is an open technology."

Some specifiers are leaning toward one open protocol. "BACnet has many more capabilities than one sees in the first generation of products," says H. Michael Newman, manager of the computer group at Cornell University's utilities department, Ithaca, N.Y.

Others counter that the same is true of BACnet's chief rival, standardized by the private Echelon Corp., Palo Alto, Calif.

"LonWorks is beyond its infancy, and has matured to the point that the list of manufacturers and products for intelligent buildings has grown exponentially," says John Huston, systems-integration project manager with Chicago-based Teng & Associates Inc. "If it hadn't, we'd have nothing to talk about."

Still others are slightly less sanguine. "Open protocols are beyond their infancy," observes Kim Shinn, P.E., division director for the Jacksonville, Fla., office of Tilden Lobnitz Cooper.

Practical matters

Many of the pressing obstacles in the move toward open protocols are closer to being resolved, however. The biggest constraints are:

  • Legacy systems. For owners interested in open-system benefits for a given building or campus, their biggest challenge is likely to be retrofitting existing equipment.

"There are a lot of installed systems that are proprietary and require the installation of gateways," says Shinn, referring to the devices designed to do bidirectional, simultaneous translations from proprietary to open protocols. "In many cases, the owner is reluctant to make the investment associated with those gateways. If they're not available, it can be prohibitive and practically impossible due to cost. Also, it's rare to find third-party gateways, so controls vendors can charge whatever they want for them."

  • Multiple, competing manufacturers. While more makers of building automation products are complying with BACnet or LonWorks, many have staked their turf in one camp.

"We need third-party testing and approval of products in a way that guarantees some known level of interoperability regardless of the mixing and matching of manufacturers," says RNL's Goldschmidt. "BACnet and LonWorks have to improve their testing process."

  • Availability and cost. Still, in that scarce realm where devices and controllers actually do share the same language and data—and are proven to work—the pickings remain slim.

The relatively small number of vendors with fully open product lines is more likely a result of manufacturer inertia than acceptance of the marketplace imperative, says Newman. "The largest companies in the industry are far behind in this respect. The larger the company, the more difficult it is to make significant changes in product rapidly," he believes.

Also, while Goldschmidt contends that there is not necessarily a premium for open systems, they can be expensive in modest retrofits. The perception among end-users, at least, is that they are likely to be higher in cost.

Despite these and other challenges, open-protocol installations are breaking ground and topping off in record numbers. The types of projects and their ownership say a lot about both the nature and challenges of system integration.

Long-term benefits

"Some clients are in better positions than others to move toward open-protocol installations," says Kenton Hammond, president of Silber & Associates, San Antonio. "A university or long-term owner can take advantage of benefits such as competitive products for future projects and the efficiencies inherent in integrated systems."

Ofer Pittel, controls specialist with Toronto-based RosTe agrees, "The advantage of open protocols is the ability to interconnect large systems, such as a university campus with different buildings and different manufacturers' equipment."

For example, Hammond cites the move by San Antonio's Trinity University toward a campus-wide open BACnet installation. While the decision arose due to a confluence of fortunate circumstances — favorable legacy systems, a supportive controls vendor and the need for plant upgrades — there was also an underlying belief that the long-term returns would be dramatically better. The university had no inherent predisposition toward an open protocol, says Hammond. It simply made sense at the time.

The major plant upgrades, however, hinged on the flexibility and interoperability inherent in an open system. "Every panel uses the open protocol, so if we wanted to use a new controls system in the future, we could do that," explains Jim Counce, assistant director of utilities for the university. "It gives us more security that we are not locked into the same controls vendor."

Trinity University is by no means an isolated case. In fact, educational institutions have been quickest to embrace the open protocol.

Cornell University, says Newman, insists on BACnet compliance for major new construction at their facility, although retrofit projects have relied on their existing "house-brand" proprietary system. "We do have a couple of new, fairly large projects that are in the design phase that are specified to be BACnet compliant," he explains. "One is a student union called our North Campus Residential Initiative."

The same is true of LonWorks aficionados. For example, Malmö University's new Gaddän 8 building in Sweden stands as proof of the universal appeal of open systems.

While only the second building on the school's new campus, the facility's systems are specified as interoperable for better resource conservation — a core value espoused by administrators and students.

A range of systems from HVAC to lighting, security and wall clocks is integrated. Access-control devices, air-quality monitors and occupancy sensors communicate data to a head-end system to optimize such operational variables as scheduling and equipment sequencing.

Another benefit of open protocol is the integration of novel environmental systems at the university. Solar energy is utilized to heat domestic water as well as to heat and cool interior spaces. The highly integrated controls scheme ensures that these "green" features remain efficient and functional.

Barriers to entry

What will it take to bring BACnet and LonWorks even broader acceptance and interest?

"One difficulty has been the learning curve for specifiers that any new technology, including BACnet, brings," says Newman.

"Owners may want open-protocol systems," says Shinn. "But they say, 'Can you guarantee this will work?' And we're not the ones who build or install systems. Or, 'Where else has this been done?' and we don't have a huge installed base for clients to draw comfort from."

One last barrier: owners may not see the need, says Huston. "Truthfully, the majority of our clients are happy with proprietary systems."

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