As a former designer, builder, owner, and operator of commercial real estate (more specifically, data centers), I’ve had a lot of experience with Building Automation Systems/Building Management Systems (BAS/BMS). And I can tell you, there have always been many different opinions out there about the best ways to spend your BAS/BMS budget, with no clear consensus.
In the data center industry, most vendors tried to create an industry-specific, all-in-one solution called Data Center Infrastructure Management (DCIM), which promised the complete integration IT asset management, change management, power and environmental monitoring, capacity planning and energy management. And while DCIMs do certain things well, more often than not, they fall well short of their promise.
So, as a business owner, where should you be spending your BAS/BMS budget? We’ve broken it down into the 5 components that automation systems rely on: sensors, controllers, output devices, user interface, and communication protocols.
Let’s go through them one by one:
- 1. Sensors - Measuring value
Adding sensors to your system is cheap and easy. Over the past decade we’ve seen great progress in sensor technology. They’ve become smaller, use less power, can be linked wirelessly, and can measure, record and send data extremely quickly, allowing smart systems to become even smarter.
- 2. Controllers – The brains of the system
Controllers are, arguably, the least evolved of the automation components. Industrial controllers are expensive (usually over $3K), slow, low memory (8MB FLASH, 16 MB SDRAM), and offer low processing power (up to 20 MHz). Consumer-grade microcontrollers, on the other hand, cost under $100, communicate via wireless or ethernet, have 16 MB FLASH and 64 MB SDRAM, and have processor speeds of up to 400Mhz. Granted, these are not meant for industrial conditions, but an upgraded housing will not cost $2,900. Because a controller replacement would be extremely invasive to any BAS environment, this is one area that should be looked at for new builds, retrofit projects or lifecycle replacements.
- 3. Output devices – Carrying out actions
Like the evolution of sensors, output devices have benefited from advances in technology to make them cheaper and more efficient. However, changing older output devices for new ones will not likely provide enough savings to justify the manpower to complete a project. It’s better to complete these projects over time as lifecycle replacements occur.
- 4. User interface – Where people communicate with the systems
User interface or dashboards have evolved over time from CRT to flat screen to mobile. With higher resolution monitors, more data can be shown with better graphics, and with advances in mobile technology these screens are now able to be placed remotely or be taken into the field, helping to increase engagement and productivity.
- 5. Network protocol – The language that all components speak
Network protocol is, perhaps, the true gating factor for future proofing your BAS/BMS or DCIM system. To explore this further, you need to understand how the systems inside of a building communicate. Below is a table of the most used ethernet communications protocols:
As you can see, there’s a combination of both closed and open protocols still in use today. Prior to 1995, building automation was dominated by proprietary systems and some open standards borrowed from industrial automation (ModBus). ModBus gained wide use because it was open and free to use, but a few others emerged - BACnet was largely compiled by the ASHRAE group and LonWorks which was originated by Echelon Corporation. Since the mid-90’s many manufacturers have aligned with one of a few standards as seen above.
The existence of these multiple communication protocols is anchoring these automation systems to the past, and in order to protect your BAS system from becoming obsolete, you need to fix this problem. But how? Answer: with network protocols that can connect thousands of computers from different manufacturers with different operating systems. That’s what makes the internet such a powerful tool - the ability for all users to agree on and use a standard set of protocols.
Like internet protocols, your network protocols must be:
- well defined
- widely accepted
- continuously improved by all industry and research teams
- able to cross industry boundaries and interface with any system
- allow multiple systems to share communications over the same wire
Some of these have been incorporated into existing BAS networks, usually as an option, but up until now, cost has been a prohibitive factor. Recently, that has begun to change, and with the size, power, and communication capabilities of today’s processors, it’s easy to see the day when true TCP/IP will be the standard protocol of all machines and building components, enabling systems and sensors to share data and enhance our ability to manage our buildings.
So, to summarize: There are several steps that need to be made to upgrade your BAS/BMS. Some are easy (installing new cheap sensors), while some are invasive (replacing existing controllers), but the one thing that must be done is to move communications to a protocol that is both universal and secure. After all, protocols are the glue that connect our industrial points, controllers, sensors and user interfaces. And if we take the lessons we learned and the technologies we developed for the internet, we can make our commercial and industrial applications more efficient, secure, and reliable.