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Modern building automation systems promise to provide a healthy, comfortable environment while also slashing energy costs and streamlining operations. When those systems are based on BACnet, they offer the additional incentive of interoperability, which enables the components of a building automation system to communicate with each other and other computer systems, even if they don't share the same manufacturer. An interoperable system can reduce life-cycle costs by giving facility managers the freedom to obtain systems, components and service from a range of providers.
"On a purely technical level, there's nothing you can't integrate," says Andy McMillan, general manager, Philips Teletrol and president of BACnet International. "However, interoperability makes integration much easier and less expensive. Interoperability is really about lowering cost and lowering the marketplace friction. Because of that, you not only get more price options, you also get more players in the market."
But before the benefits of interoperability can be achieved, facility managers have many important decisions to make during the planning, design and installation stages so that a facility gets the optimal system for its needs now and into the future. That's why facility managers should do diligent homework to ensure they are taking full advantage of the capabilities of BACnet and that the system fully addresses facility requirements in such areas as energy, sustainability, flexibility and comfort.
"With most of the industry now having a BACnet option, the most important tasks are to define what your building automation needs are and then select the BACnet system that best meets those needs," says Steve Tom, director of technical information at Automated Logic Corp.
As Tom describes it, facility managers and building owners should think of BACnet as a system facilitator. "BACnet may facilitate many of the things you want to do with your system, but it doesn't define features any more than the choice to write a novel in French or English defines the plot," he says.
Add to that the fact that no two BACnet systems, nor any two buildings, are ever the same, and specification of a system truly comes down to a custom solution.
"Facility executives need to ask themselves what they're trying to accomplish by installing a BACnet-based control system to set clear expectations on the overall objective," says Jon L. Williamson, senior product manager, buildings business, Schneider Electric. "They should identify the most important areas of where and how they want their systems to interoperate and a timeframe in which they want to accomplish installation with their BACnet vendor."
Controls experts say that by asking the following questions, facility managers can meet their buildings' urgent objectives first, then address areas that might be a lesser priority.
What are the solution provider's qualifications? Finding the right solutions provider or contractor for your project is the first consideration in the planning process. "Proper vetting of the contractor can be a crucial step in ensuring risk and cost mitigation, not only upfront, as part of the initial installation, but also throughout the life cycle of the building automation system," says Levi Tully, DDC instructor and application engineer with Reliable Controls Corp. USA. "Choose system integrators with a proven track record with similar integrations in respect to the scope of the project and the devices to be used in the BACnet internetwork."
What are the short- and long-term goals? "Be sure the project plans and specifications are in keeping with the facility's goals and priorities and in accordance with the system support structure," says Chris Hollinger, senior product manager, building technologies, control products and systems, Siemens Industry, Inc.
To put it another way, ask yourself why BACnet is a requirement. "Is it because of future competition on a ‘Phase B' building?" says Todd Cowles, sales director — Americas at Trend Controls Systems. "Is it purely for ease of integration between subsystems? Is it for integration to a legacy control system? These are the absolute starting points, and all other questions build off of the answers to these."
What will the system control and how will it be used? Once the goals are established, move on to the discussion of how the system will function in the facility. Will the BAS primarily control HVAC equipment or will it also monitor other subsystems, such as lighting, security and ancillary devices? Or perhaps the system roadmap might include plans for subsystem integration to more easily and cost-effectively deploy control strategies for energy efficiency, demand response, and real-time and historical data collection for measurement and verification.
"Stating the objectives and ensuring that your integration consultant understands your intent for operating the system is critical in the early design phases," says Roy Kolasa, global market manager of open system integration, Honeywell. "That known, the consultant and suppliers can better meet the project specifications by proposing solutions and products that align with operational expectations."
Alongside of system design is the consideration of how the system will be used. Will operators work from a fixed workstation or will Web access be required? Additionally, will the system support energy analyses, dashboards and kiosks?
"BACnet provides excellent support for reading meters, gathering data and trending key energy information," Tom says. "If you want to use a third-party energy management system, BACnet provides widely supported integration interfaces, such as Web services (XML/SOAP) that enable the third-party system to collect data from the BAS for energy analysis. And, if you don't have a formal energy management system but intend to add one in the future, BACnet provides the flexibility to either support add-on programs from the control system vendor or integrate with a third-party energy management system in the future."
One of the main pitfalls of some BACnet installations has been situations where a facility manager cannot "drill down" into some of the BACnet devices and cannot adjust set points and see all available feedback, says Mike Olson, process control engineer at ABB Industrial Systems Inc.
"To avoid this pitfall, a detailed list of the objects the owner wishes to be able to read (see) and write to (change) must be included in the specification," Olson says. "This will force all bidders to include the cost of bringing the specified objects back to the operator's workstation."
Is it a fully native BACnet system or a hybrid? The term "native BACnet" refers to devices that can be connected to a BACnet system without requiring a gateway device or software driver to translate to and from any proprietary protocols, because these devices inherently communicate through specific BACnet messaging. A native BACnet system allows facility managers to select related products on a device-by-device basis.
"A native BACnet system can provide a truly sustainable building automation solution for facility owners that drastically decreases life-cycle costs by largely future-proofing the facility from becoming obsolete due to technical advancement in the industry," says Tully. "Owners and operators of a true BACnet system are able to choose the individual products, services and providers that best address their needs at any given time."
According to Richard A. Fellows, vice president of business development for KMC Controls, one of the main problems with proprietary systems, in addition to high expansion costs, is the question of what to do with a system that no longer is supported by its manufacturer. "The original promise of BACnet was to provide interoperability and interchangeability, freeing the customer from the manufacturer," he says. "However, one primary overlooked benefit is that the system is future-proofed against obsolescence, something that could occur to a proprietary system if a manufacturer or service provider goes out of business."
A native BACnet system is future-proofed because interoperability enables other manufacturers to cost effectively replace or expand the system, even if the original manufacturer no longer is in business. "Full native systems allow for easier expansion and future upgrades," Fellows says. "If the system is not BACnet at all levels, then there may be a hidden extra cost for future expansion and maintenance."
Is it BTL listed? BACnet Testing Laboratories (BTL) was established by BACnet International to support compliance and interoperability testing designed to improve BACnet interoperability between building automation products. BTL listing means that systems have undergone rigorous testing by an independent laboratory to comply with BACnet standards, providing added confidence that integration and interoperability will go smoothly.
This third-party testing is crucial. Once products have been tested and labeled, says Rocky Moore, director, business development, American Auto-Matrix, "facility professionals will have the peace of mind that their system will interoperate."
BACnet International offers an array of programs to support the successful implementation of BACnet systems. For example, the organization supports the BACnet Testing Laboratories (BTL), which tests and certifies interoperability. BACnet International also sponsors "plugfests," which provide opportunities for manufacturers to test their devices and address any problems. In addition, BACnet International provides a range of educational materials and events.
BACnet International members range from building owners and facility managers to manufacturers, engineers, integrators, consultants and others interested in advancing BACnet applications. For more information about the organization, go to www.bacnetinternational.com.