Channel partners see a growing opportunity in deploying integrated building automation systems and bringing the Internet of Things into the realm of facilities management.
Systems that control such building functions as heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC); security; refrigeration; and lighting have historically operated as standalone entities. They have also, for the most part, occupied a proprietary niche, separated from mainstream IT systems and standards. This isolation, however, is beginning to give way to a more cohesive environment. Integrators and resellers focusing on building automation now look to bridge the gaps among their customers' systems.
The skills and practices amongst providers must be further refined before 'smart systems' will see widespread adoption.
industry analyst for the energy and environment market, Frost & Sullivan
New-building construction as well as retrofit projects provide opportunities for companies in the building automation space. Building managers find motivation in a number of factors. For one, they view a more integrated approach to automation as way to save energy costs. Integration also saves administrative dollars, since it is more efficient to manage systems with one console as opposed to several.
Concerns over obsolescence also play a role in encouraging building owners to take a fresh look at automation. Aging, proprietary controllers -- computers that receive data on the building's environment and issue commands to devices -- will eventually outlive vendor support.
"They are open to exploring parts of their infrastructure they typically just left alone," said Dave Klee, director of Optimized Building Solutions at Johnson Controls Inc., a Milwaukee-based company that builds and integrates building management systems. "They are going after these ... traditionally untouchable areas," he added.
Channel companies moving into this space will find a growing confluence of IT and building-systems firms. Google Inc.'s agreement earlier this month to acquire Nest Labs Inc. for $3.2 billion is a case in point. Nest, based in Palo Alto, Calif., makes thermostats and smoke detectors accessible through mobile devices.
Cost pressure encourages building owners and facility managers to look into integrated building automation systems.
"I think a lot of the managers ... have a lot more pressure today to look for a way to try to reduce energy," said Brad Royal, account executive at Building System Solutions Inc., an Omaha, Neb.-based company that specializes in integrating building systems. "That is something that moves the needle."
In addition, managers seek the ability to manage multiple systems through one website portal. Royal cited one company he encountered that runs three different security systems and a like number of HVAC systems across different locations.
The complexity of managing disparate systems -- and the potential to realize operational efficiency through consolidation -- may get enterprises to spring for integration.
Personnel issues offer another incentive. A company is left in the lurch if the person trained to operate a half dozen building systems leaves the organization, Royal said.
Royal said his company's building automation business primarily involves retrofit work, where the company upgrades legacy proprietary systems or pursues integration projects. He said he has come across some legacy systems 15 to 20 years old.
In the case of new construction, building managers are planning for integration from the start. The interest, Klee said, doesn't just surface during the installation phase, but at the inception and planning stage. Owners who get the jump on integration can optimize the design of the facility.
Building owners "want to engage us earlier in the cycle," Klee said.
But that doesn't necessarily mean that every building owner and manager is scrambling to integrate building systems.
Pramod Dibble, industry analyst for the energy and environment market at Frost & Sullivan, a consulting and market research company based in Mountain View, Calif., said "smart systems," as the natural extension to traditional building automation systems, are far better equipped to optimize the building environment. Adoption, however, isn't automatic.
Dibble noted that "the incentives for many commercial applications to adopt smart systems may not yet be sufficient to compel adoption, and even if they are, the business population needs more education to understand the value proposition."
Solutions providers, meanwhile, need to get up to speed as well.
"The skills and practices amongst providers must be further refined before 'smart systems' will see widespread adoption," Dibble explained.
The commercial sector represents perhaps two in 10 installations of smart systems, according to Dibble, who said the government and education sectors represent a larger share of the deployments.
Klee suggested that questions on whether to invest in integration stem from a broader debate, one that pits "first costs" -- the initial price tag of putting up a building -- against ongoing, operating costs. Building owners have historically managed capital and operating budgets as separate entities. But an attempt to reconcile the two could encourage an owner to spend more on first costs to reduce operating expenses over the long haul, Klee explained.
For example, a case could be made that incorporating integrated building automation into a structure's design will reduce energy consumption and cut operating cost over the long haul.
A solution provider's integration approach could make the transition to smarter building systems somewhat easier. Few building owners will opt to completely change out disparate automation systems for an integrated solution.
"Due to internal cost concerns, it is unusual for a facility to make sweeping changes and replace all of their legacy systems at once," Dibble said.
Royal said his company uses NiagaraAX as its integration mechanism. Tridium, a software and services company based in Richmond, Va., developed the NiagaraAX software framework, which pulls together diverse building systems and provides a unified view of device data. Managers can administer systems via the Internet using a Web browser. According to Tridium, the framework can integrate systems regardless of the communications protocols they use.
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Since NiagaraAX only replaces legacy systems' front-end interfaces, there's no immediate need to discard whole systems.
"We can leave the ... underlying systems in place," Royal said.
As the older technology fails, building managers can replace proprietary controllers with new ones that employ open communications protocols. Both the legacy and the open-protocol building automation systems can exist simultaneously on the same network.
"NiagaraAX provides a very good migration path for legacy systems," Royal said.
Dibble, meanwhile, pointed to the BACnet data communications protocol as another integration step. BACnet lets organizations create multi-vendor building automation networks.
"The adoption of BACnet as the de facto standard is progress towards greater unification of smart systems," Dibble said.
The melding of IT and building control systems will likely shape future developments in this sector. With the Internet of Things concept, a range of devices, sensors and people are given IP addresses to communicate wirelessly over the Internet.
"The Internet of Things will play heavily into the true value of smart-building systems," Dibble predicted. "By having a comprehensive catalogue of all objects and people contained within and around it, the building can optimize its role to suit the best purposes of its state at the time."
Royal also believes the Internet of Things will influence building automation. He said the technology will let facility managers put smart meters on building control networks, for instance. Smart meters connect to the electric grid, permitting greater insight into energy consumption.
Klee said the Internet of Things trend will, over a period of years, redistribute the intelligence within a building. Traditionally, the building automation system held the smarts. But the current direction will eventually take much of the smarts out of the building automation system, placing intelligence instead at the device level and in the cloud, Klee said.
Smart devices will be more self-governing and intelligent in how they share data with building automation systems and, ultimately, the cloud. The cloud will provide the administrative user interface and the data analytics function. The latter will analyze building, weather forecast and utility data as well as data on historical heating and cooling loads, Klee said. The data crunching will help management make informed decisions on how best to reduce energy consumption and operating costs.
Klee said building automation systems will remain in place, but will primarily serve to coordinate the functions of devices in a building -- flicking switches on an off and adjusting dials.
That vision is probably a decade or more out. In the meantime, channel partners can go after building system integration and upgrade initiatives.
This was first published in January 2014