Building Controls Beyond Protocol Wars

by Greg Shank, Principal, Altura Associates

Your next controls upgrade could be as painless as integrating a new smartphone app, if you seize the moment now to run your building as a network of people, sensors, and machines that all leverage a common database to analyze, inform, and automate.

Your next controls upgrade could be as painless as integrating a new smartphone app, if you seize the moment now to run your building as a network of people, sensors, and machines that all leverage a common database to analyze, inform, and automate.

Does the next phase in building controls have to take on the dynamic of Betamax vs. VHS or Android vs. iOS? First, let’s acknowledge that commercial buildings are a different beast than the consumer marketplace, so analogies to video equipment and smartphones are limited. The goal of this little exercise is to leverage our familiarity with consumer devices like smartphones to help understand the future of building controls, not to suggest that a smartphone can or should run a building.

Android, the Google smartphone operating system, is popularly considered to be a platform that values customization and flexibility; whereas, iOS, the Apple smartphone operating system, is considered to value consistency and tight control over matching software to hardware. And somehow our choice of smartphone platform has become a proxy for a chunk of our personality in certain social dynamics. Commercial building owners and energy managers may feel they face a similarly binary choice between flexibility and predictability as they consider upgrading their building controls:

  • Do I choose a fully integrated enterprise solution that is easy, but locks me into using a single vendor?
  • Or, do I choose a customized solution with multiple specialty systems that talk to a dashboard system via a common language or series of translators?

Fortunately, the market is evolving in a direction that offers a third choice: You can choose to run your building as a network of people, sensors, and machines that all leverage a common database to analyze, inform, and automate. Invest in a robust database to receive and tag data and build that into a foundation for continuous improvement.

You don’t have to pick the right racehorse today, you just need to build the type of platform that positions you to take advantage of the rapid pace of innovation. Create a low barrier to installing new Apps to analyze and improve your building operations. Enforce a framework for naming and tagging the data flowing from your building systems, so that it becomes usable for multiple purposes. Build functionality at a pace that is appropriate for your business and driven by occupant health, productivity, and prosperity. Ultimately, you are getting the best of both worlds. You achieve integration and flexibility over time without dumping a whole lot of money all at once into an enterprise solution.

Let’s examine how this changes the decision-making process in the case of an existing building that is performing below expectations and is believed to be a candidate for a controls upgrade. Instead of starting by pursuing bids for replacement of the controls hardware and software, consider defining the critical facilities metrics and benchmarks for your business and prioritizing the pieces with the highest potential to improve your business. Maybe components of your existing system can be retained and repurposed as part of a larger network of connected systems. Maybe you can deliver a new level of comfort and job satisfaction to your employees via a level of automation that is not feasible with a single vendor solution. In this way, you can build the new solution over time with the participation and engagement of O&M personnel, resulting in persistent performance improvement.

Let’s push the power of analogies a little further. Consider the software used in cars. Unlike laptops and smartphones, we have no tolerance for software causing our car to crash. It would be nice to envision buildings the same way; after all, a poorly functioning building can have major impacts on people’s health and safety. Unfortunately, buildings don’t come off a tightly controlled production line. You can’t write software for a single make/model of building because no two buildings are the same (especially once they are 10+ years old).

Instead, reliable, healthy, safe, and energy efficient buildings are achieved by constructing resilient infrastructure that can change with the building as systems are replaced, new technology comes along, and resource availability fluctuates.  Financial modeling and planning plays a critical role in making this happen. The traditional model is to evaluate a controls retrofit as a stand-alone project with a short-term capital investment justified by a certain payback period or rate of return. In contrast, this new model expands and re-invents the notion of annual service contracts and preventative maintenance. The service contract is now an asset O&M contract that is based on continuous analytics and optimization; investment in new hardware and software is driven by performance measurement instead of reactions to failures or new technologies.

Stepping back, it’s fun to think about how buildings can go through a technology transformation that rivals that of the smartphone. Even more fun than debating that the Android Nexus 6 is better than the iPhone 6plus is envisioning buildings that can take advantage of the latest thinking and innovation 5, 10, 15, 20 years from now by simply integrating a new App instead of having to replace an entire control system.

Part 1 – A New Energy Management System for the Next Era in Building Automation & Control

Altura Associates is a professional services firm based in Irvine, CA. Altura assists clients in meeting their goals for energy and environmental performance improvement and is focused on taking action, implementing energy retrofits, and innovation in smart building controls. The company services projects throughout the U.S. and internationally. Learn more at www.alturaassociates.com.

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