The idea of building management is something companies have been involved in for years, even if they didn’t call it ‘building management’. When organisations try to control functionality in one or more buildings automatically, that is building management.
In today’s world of technology, global communications and the IoT (Internet of Things), we have almost endless options when it comes to managing a building, globally dispersed buildings or a campus. There are few electronic devices out there that have not been changed to allow new editions to communicate, even if the data being communicated is simply a temperature reading.
The result is the ability to control everything in your building or buildings from a central console. You can manage temperatures, lights, energy usage, and even go as far as managing parking, watering the plants, integrating all your fire prevention equipment (and other security systems) into the console.
Buying a service
Given all the technology at our disposal today, one can imagine all the things you can do in terms of building management, even going as far as incorporating mobile into the equation as we see in the security industry. The result of this, according to James Shirley, segment head for healthcare, hospitality and large commercial buildings at Schneider Electric, is that your building management system (BMS) today has little to do with hardware or the server equipment you use, and more to do with services and analytics.
Shirley uses our mobile devices as an example. We don’t buy a smartphone because of the hardware inside the device, we buy it because of the functions it can perform and how it performs them. When it come to the BMS, companies spend money on the functionality available in order to lower their overall costs. It’s all about the value that your BMS adds, value that can be measured in cold, hard cash.
Johnson Controls’ Neil Cameron echoes this sentiment, but adds that we can’t count out hardware as it is also changing. There is a move to creating hardware for specific applications that can be integrated into a broader infrastructure. An example he provides is the new GLAS smart thermostat from Johnson Controls and Microsoft. The thermostat controls your environment and can be managed via voice commands as well as via an app in which users can create schedules aimed at achieving optimal air quality and energy savings.
The GLAS is an example of new technology that is connected and almost plug-and-play in its simplicity, both for installation and management. More controllers in various fields are following this idea and offering easy installation and management simplicity, based on standards such as BACnet.
This standardisation is key to building management as is allows for more controllers and IoT devices to be connected, analysed and managed, which results in better control and lower costs. This is also the reason Cameron says more devices are also embracing the IP protocol for communications as it is the communications mechanism of the Internet.
Another example is Johnson Controls’ PEAK controller aimed at smaller buildings. It is easy to install and operate, with its own mobile access portal for Wi-Fi connectivity to various building management devices.
Openness and the edge
In order to improve the value that Schneider adds to its BMS clients, the company also understands that connectivity is key. The more electronic devices that can communicate with the BMS, the more value the system can add to the company. Therefore the days of proprietary lock-in are over as standard communications protocols are adopted across the board.
Another feature the company is promoting is edge computing. Just as many security cameras today have the processing and storage embedded in the camera to allow the camera to continue its operations when the network goes down, we see similar functionality in the BMS world. Electronic devices will manage themselves and continue functioning – which is not surprising if you consider that air conditioning, for example, doesn’t need to be attached to a server to do its job – but will report back to the central controlling system once connectivity is restored.
When it comes to energy savings and other IoT functions however, the central BMS wants to be in constant communications to effectively manage the systems, but if the network fails, operations continue as normal and the data is synchronised when communications are restored.
This allows companies to forgo installing BMS servers on site, using cloud services as a central platform. Schneider follows this approach, storing its customers BMS data in the cloud and running analytics on the data to determine how the client can save more money. The edge capabilities of the onsite equipment make sure everything runs smoothly if the connection is lost.
Shirley adds that Schneider does more than simply perform analytics on a single client’s data, its cloud platform compares the data between companies to assist everyone in gaining the optimal returns on their BMS investment.
One can’t talk about sending data to the cloud without considering security. While Cameron notes that the data sent is not sensitive since it includes information like temperatures and humidity, Johnson Controls nonetheless secures the information sent to the cloud with encryption and only compares anonymised information. Companies also have full control over what information they share.
Shirley also notes that the data is stored securely and that comparisons are done anonymously. They would, for example compare the performance around the globe of a product by collating data from a part number without identifiable information. For example, companies that run chillers from a specific supplier will know that a specific series will use between 9 A and 16 A while running normally.
Cloud-based analytics will allow the BMS to warn the right person that one chiller is using 18 A which indicates that it has a problem and needs a service or needs a part replaced based on data collected and analysed over time. The result is you save money by dealing with issues before they become serious problems.
There is another security issue to consider however. New legislation, such as PoPIA also deals with where sensitive information is stored. When it comes to where data is stored in the cloud, Shirley says there are three options.
The first is a global option where the data is stored anywhere, the second stores it within the country the customer operates in and the third reverts to storing data at the customer’s premises (although this can be more expensive as the client will need to invest in hardware). As an example, Shirley notes that a manufacturer in South Africa insists that its data is stored on site, however, when analytics is required, the data is anonymised and sent to a cloud server where it can be analysed along with non-identifiable data from similar companies around the world.
Avoiding information overload
The amount of building management data that can be collected, analysed and presented to the user is enormous and Cameron says there is always the challenge of information overload that will result in the insights given being overwhelming and ultimately useless. To avoid this, Johnson Controls has put a lot of effort into the front end of its BMS, in other words, the user interface.
The goal is to present useful and usable information to clients in a way that is easy to understand, no matter the screen being used. Cameron says the company is also focused on delivering an intuitive interface that offers predictive functions rather than simply graphics of what is working as normal.
Through Johnson Controls’ analysis of large amounts of data from its clients, it can predict when a product or a component of a product is about to fail, giving the client notice and allowing them to resolve the issue before it becomes a problem. So the BMS does not simply say something is broken or about to break, the information provides the root cause of the problem, allowing for proactive action.
This not only saves money by avoiding breakages (it’s cheaper to change the oil than wait for a breakdown), it also provides useful information in terms of preventative maintenance. Cameron says that servicing certain products too early can also lead to higher failure rates and a shortened lifespan. By monitoring the condition of these systems, Johnson Controls is also able to advise clients when they should be serviced to ensure the best return on investment for each product.
And when it comes to building management today, return on investment is where the rubber meets the road. Large corporations are willing to spend the required money as long as they see a return, and these returns come in the form of energy savings, less downtime though proactive maintenance.
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