The rise of the automated building

As building automation systems (BAS) that control heat, air conditioning, lighting and other building systems get smarter, they’re converging with traditional IT infrastructures.

At Panasonic Corporation of North America’s headquarters, a project is under way to replace wall-mounted thermostats with individual, virtual thermostats controlled by PCs. IT folk are entering an era where virtually everything is converging in their direction, and it broadens their horizons tremendously.

Real estate management firm Kenmark Group in San Francisco created an operations centre to save energy by centrally monitoring and controlling the multiple office buildings it manages. The system includes a common Web portal and uses XML and an IP backbone network to “talk” to components within individual buildings.

Toronto Pearson International Airport is tying a flight information database to heating, lighting and air conditioning systems at each gate in order to restrict energy use to periods when gate areas are occupied.

Emerging standards are enabling data sharing between building systems as well as with other business applications, improving efficiency and real-time control over building operating costs. Information security concerns, immature standards, the reluctance of vendors to give up proprietary technologies, as well as ignorance among IT professionals of the convergence trend are all slowing the pace of this transformation, but it’s gathering momentum.

Facilities managers are driving the change by demanding more-open systems. They’re pushing building automation systems (BAS) vendors to transform today’s closed technologies into Web-enabled applications running over industry-standard IP networks. And the management of BAS is likely to increasingly fall to IT.

“IT folks are entering an era where virtually everything is converging in their direction, and it broadens their horizons tremendously,” says Rick LeBlanc, president of HVAC products at Siemens Building Technologies in Buffalo Grove, Ill. IT won’t operate BAS, but it will serve the facilities staff as a customer in much the same way it does other departments.

Many large companies already have centralized BAS that monitor and control the environment throughout large buildings and across campuses. These systems have begun to migrate to more open IT infrastructures in much the same way that telephone systems and IT networks have converged.

“Right now, there is a clamour to integrate control systems into IT networks,” says Tom Hartman, principal at The Hartman Co., a consultancy in Georgetown, Tex. But the trend is likely to go well beyond that.

Today’s BAS typically include a network of sensors and other devices connected to controllers on each floor, a master controller for a building or campus, a Web server front end for monitoring building systems, and a back-end database for storing historical data. But as intelligence continues to move into actuators, chillers, security cameras, sensors and other elements of building systems, these devices will increasingly communicate as peers via Web services, allowing BAS to be more flexible and integrate better with other systems.

“Next-generation buildings will be much more [integrated] than simply having the building automation system use the IT network,” says LeBlanc.

“The long-term vision is that you’ll be able to physically control everything based on preferences, criteria and business rules,” says Joshua Aaron, president of Business Technology Partners Inc., a New York-based consultancy that helps companies physically move their IT infrastructures and data centres.

But, he adds, “I don’t see a lot of companies springing for it yet.”

Open standards are just beginning to evolve and will likely break down the silos between building systems ranging from physical security to elevator controls. And the data from those systems is likely to be shared with other business applications such as the accounting system.


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