With Wireless and Handheld Technology Changing the Building-automation Game, Opportunities and Challenges Abound for Upgrading Existing Facilities

Written By Robert Nieminen Home,Trend Alert

SmartEdge is a proud member of the InsideIQ Building Automation Alliance, an international alliance of Building Automation companies. Numerous InsideIQ members contributed to this article.

Welcome to the new era of building automation. Never before have building owners and facility managers had such sophisticated and integrated systems to keep their buildings operating at peak performance—thanks to ever-evolving digital tools that enable real-time monitoring and control of building systems. The automation of HVAC, lighting, fire and life safety, and security and access controls—particularly when combined with wireless technology—promises to improve energy efficiency and optimization and provide new levels of functionality. And the trend has real traction in the market.

In fact, according to a report from Boulder, Colo.-based Navigant Research, annual revenue from commercial Building Automation Systems worldwide will grow from $56.9 billion in 2013 to $100.8 billion by 2021. But the existing building stock is still rife with legacy equipment, outdated thinking, and budget constraints that prevent owners and facility managers from fully capitalizing on the efficiencies these new technologies afford them. Further, inherent challenges with wireless applications exist in retrofitting scenarios that can complicate matters.

Nevertheless, the demand for mobile building-automation controls is high as facilities management professionals seek to capitalize on greater access to real-time data, and opportunities for improving efficiencies abound with these emerging digital solutions. retrofit spoke to several industry experts from the InsideIQ Building Automation Alliance, an international association of independent building automation contractors, to find out what they had to say about this emerging trend.

Cutting the Cord

As wireless and mobile technology continues to develop at an increasingly rapid pace, building owners and facility managers expect those advancements to extend to building automation, as well. In fact, 43 percent of respondents to a 2013 Building Efficiency Panel IT Mobility Survey by Milwaukee-based Johnson Controls said their operations currently use mobile tools with their Building Automation System (BAS) or Building Management System (BMS), and another 30 percent said such systems would be very important in the future.

Additionally, the survey revealed mobile devices are already being used to access a wide variety of building-related data, including BAS/BMS (43 percent); HVAC equipment/controls (42 percent); work order scheduling/management (40 percent); energy usage/consumption (26 percent); lighting (23 percent); security (23 percent); utility costs (12 percent); and fire (11 percent). In fact, less than one-third (27 percent) of respondents said mobile devices are not being used for any of the above categories in their facilities.

“There’s a great deal of interest in the market with regard to wireless technologies and mobile access technologies,” explains Shad Buhlig, president of Automatic Controls Engineering, Hayward, Calif. “Building operators do not want to be tied to the aging computer nobody wants to touch down in the boiler room that isn’t even necessarily on the network. They want to leapfrog to 2015 and get their existing, aging DDC system—no matter whose brand it is—up to the current standard, and it needs to be accessible via the web. So, whether using an Apple iOS or an Android or even just an Internet platform, that’s the expectation.”

Buhlig points out while the popularity of and demand for mobile applications for building automation are on the rise, he notes handheld technology is most commonly used for monitoring purposes and data collecting rather than for controls. Wireless solutions, he says, carry with them the added benefit of lower installation costs as opposed to hard-wiring. However, when it comes to controls, Buhlig says most customers still request browser-based hardwire systems that boast a higher degree of security (more on this later).

Among the reasons for the wireless trend in building automation is a strong push for data analytics as it relates to facilities management, according to Brian Oswald, executive vice president of Brookfield, Wis.-based Environmental Systems Inc. “I think that’s going to be a growing trend—being able to see [building-automation] data on your mobile device, so that you can walk into a building or walk into a retail location and pull up the analysis of that store, and you can see how it’s performing over a period of time. Or what possible faults occurred you would want to look at or start to investigate from a maintenance repair standpoint.”

Integrating with IT

In the past, Building Automation Systems and IT infrastructure were housed on separate servers likely located in different rooms and controlled by their respective departments. This disconnect is now being bridged by increased integration between these previously independent networks.

“I believe you will see over the next five to 10 years that Building Automation Systems will reside on the building’s primary IT infrastructure rather than having their own subordinate network,” says Scott Papay, sales manager at LONG Building Technologies, Littleton, Colo. “You will see each and every one of those controllers becoming WiFi-enabled, meaning LAN-based or wireless LAN-based IP-type controllers rather than being some old RS45 communications protocol, which is what we use today. I think that’s where the industry is trending us toward.”

Oswald agrees there is a greater convergence between IT and facilities and notes manufacturers of BAS programs are increasingly designing user interfaces that are HTML5-compliant and pushing for mesh network technology in wireless applications. “It’s the ability for these wireless devices, instead of talking one-to-one or peer-to-peer, they can talk in a mesh-type network so you can bounce off of other wireless devices to extend their range. It’s something that’s very common in the IT infrastructure space,” he explains. “It wasn’t as common in the building-automation technologies, but it’s definitely growing in that direction.”

Six Obstacles to Upgrading

In spite of the promise that wireless and mobile applications hold for increasing building efficiencies, there are a number of challenges that hinder widespread adoption of these technologies, especially as they relate to retrofitting existing structures. Oftentimes, the most obstinate hurdle to overcome has nothing to do with technology:

1. Old School Mentality. “The biggest challenge on existing buildings is there’s usually existing people in the facility that not only run and manage it, but also occupy the facility,” Buhlig says. “To implement strategies, there’s a whole different mindset on how the building should operate, so the biggest challenge is to convey there’s a better way. ‘This is how we were taught and this is how it used to work, so why do we need to do it different now?’” is the mentality, he explains.

Skepticism and resistance to change are understandable given these technologies aren’t yet foolproof. There’s also a lot to be said for reliability, particularly for critical systems. But as technology improves, so will people’s comfort levels, according to Oswald. “I think you still have some clients out there who just want a traditional BAS application that is dependable and scalable and everything that goes along with what they’ve always been used to,” he observes. “As people grow with technology, whether it’s with their smartphones or with tablets, I think it becomes easier for them to accept these changes to the BAS base.”

2. Legacy Equipment Works. Adding to the hesitancy to adopt new technologies is the fact that many of the existing BAS products still work very well, so facility managers are reluctant to fix something that isn’t broken, suggests Richard McCulley, IT manager at C&C Group, Kansas City, Kan. “You have legacy systems from all the major manufacturers and everybody makes really good systems out there. So we deal with facility people who are like, ‘It’s working fine. Why do I need to replace it?’”

Fortunately, McCulley notes there are a number of third-party manufacturers that offer products that can integrate with existing platforms to eliminate the need to dismantle infrastructure and enable facility managers to upgrade legacy equipment over time.

3. Security and Reliability Concerns. Exposing building data and system controls via wireless networks poses obvious security concerns. Papay points out hardwired solutions have a much higher degree of fidelity and less problems with interference—a pervasive problem with wireless technology in existing buildings.

But it’s important to note facility managers now have the choice of how much information is available via the web. “Reporting and alarm management—they don’t necessarily have to be on an exposed server. Now we’ve got more options for outputting display data and not necessarily controls if they don’t want it,” McCulley says. He also highly recommends customers utilize VPNs for automation solutions, even if the security policies are somewhat cumbersome, rather than just dumping automation data onto the web.

4. Costs. Papay suggests the perception of wireless technology in the market is that it’s still significantly limited from a cost-benefit analysis. “The technology has yet to get to a point where it is less costly to purchase the wireless [system] to avoid that initial installation cost along with ongoing maintenance and potential problems with a wireless solution so that it’s feasible,” he says. Not everyone agrees on this point, however.

According to Oswald, from a cost standpoint, wireless products have come down in price and are more competitive than ever. He also points out “instead of being limited to a complete retrofit or an overhaul that would cost 10 times what customers want to spend, some of these devices are more easily implemented. And being that they can now sit on an existing infrastructure, it will reduce some of the install costs.”

5. Limited Graphics. With BAS, graphic user interfaces typically feature a schematic for an air handler, a chilled-water plant or a heating plant, which are most often displayed on a large monitor in a building engineer’s office. Graphics get compromised and are far more difficult to view on mobile devices. “At one time, we were all excited about graphics on our phones, and then came to realize that doesn’t work very well on the BAS side of it,” McCulley says. “The graphics are cool but don’t always translate well. They translate well on an iPad, they don’t do too bad on a big iPhone 6 Plus, but there’s a limit to how much real estate you can put on a screen.”

6. Keeping Up-to-Date. “It’s challenging for an operations team to stay consistent with technology because it’s ever-changing,” Oswald says. “It’s not impossible but you have to adapt as this technology grows, and you’re talking about an industry where things wouldn’t change for 10 years at a time and now every six months something new is coming out.” He adds trying to adopt too much too quickly can create confusion for many building owners and, as a result, it can hinder the upgrade process.

Silver Linings

In spite of the many challenges to wireless technology and mobile applications that are emerging in the building-automation space, the trend still holds a great deal of promise in terms of helping owners and facility managers optimize building performance and energy efficiency.

“For what it’s trying to solve, wireless technology gives building owners more options,” Oswald explains. “The ability to pull up a VAV box or pull up an air-handling unit through a user interface that’s now HTML5 compatible and then you have full controllability of that piece of equipment, I think that is something that if I’m a building owner and I now have that ability to walk around with my tablet or my smartphone and make changes to devices, it not only facilitates my troubleshooting but it also helps in my overall efficiency of my daily tasks.”

Many manufacturers now offer integrated software and mobile apps (see “Trend Products”) that can be downloaded (some of them free of charge) and will tie-in seamlessly with existing building-control systems, as well, making the transition a much more attractive and cost-effective proposition.

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