Smart buildings get smarter

Bringing this level of integration to smart buildings is still considered leading edge. "Analytics for fault detection are pretty new on the market, and Microsoft is the first to apply diagnostic and fault detection technology on a mass scale," says Russell Agrusa, president and CEO at Iconics, which develops and markets software for factory and building automation management. A building needs to be at least 100,000 square feet to make the investment pay off, and it should have metering at least on every floor to take full advantage of the technology, he says.

Several vendors, including IBM, Microsoft and Tridium, offer tools to help with integrated, data-driven designs that provide end-to-end views of building control systems. But achieving this level of integration in new construction isn't always easy, says Rawlson King, spokesman at the Continental Automated Buildings Association in Ottawa, Ontario. "You can still contract with integrators and not have the systems working to your specifications, despite the fact that they are experts," he says.

One reason is that traditional construction processes aren't optimized for this level of integration, and the participants -- the architects, engineers, general contractors and subcontractors -- tend to operate in silos. The architect, design engineer and general contractor aren't in communication with the people doing the actual work -- or with one another. Instead, each reports to the building owner, and each has different priorities, Hartman says.

"Almost every chilled water plant in the U.S. today has been designed, programmed, commissioned and operated by entirely different sets of individuals who rarely talk to each other," he says. As a result, most operate at double the energy consumption that's necessary. "Because of that, it's been impossible to raise the level of sophistication of controls. It's not better technology or products. It's the process," Hartman adds.

The SFPUC broke with that tradition and took more of a team approach. "We were fortunate to have a design team and a construction team that worked collaboratively. That was paramount in making this a success." Vafaei says. But, he acknowledges, "it took time for everyone to get to that stage."

Vafaei also recommends having vendors sign a compliance statement indicating that they support open communication and database protocols. This ensured that the commission could pull the data it needed from every system.

"When it comes to controls and automation, everything should be open. As we replace things, that's where we're going," Smith says.

Both Microsoft and the SFPUC also enforced the use of a naming convention for data points on all control systems so as to avoid a name conversion step when importing data into the IBMS. Microsoft had the foresight to require vendors to use its 32-decimal naming convention years ago; the public utilities commission required every vendor to use a convention it published.

Things aren't perfect, though. Microsoft still needs to automate reporting. For example, the process of reading more than 1,000 meters, normalizing that data and getting it into the database is still manual, and the tools for managing a smart building holistically are still evolving. But the industry may finally be at a turning point.

Ten years ago, building automation consisted of using dial-up connections into PCs, one for every system, Smith says. "But in the last couple of years, we've jumped the chasm," he says. "Leveraging IT to optimize smart buildings is here."

However, he adds, that level of "personal control" is still at least three to five years away from mainstream adoption.

This story, "Smart buildings get smarter" was originally published by Computerworld.

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