We Need A Smarter Process for Building Automation


Commercial buildings are huge energy consumers that pollute the environment. The good news is that smart building technology exists to provide a solution to this problem for over 5.4 million US commercial buildings. Yet most buildings under 100,000 sqft do not have smart building technologies that reduce energy consumption, and make occupants more comfortable, safe and productive.

The problem is that smart building technologies, such as building automation, have been too costly to deploy in small buildings. Consider a two story, 20,000 sqft office building with two pieces of packaged equipment on the roof and a couple thermostats on the wall. Using the current methods, the cost of installing building automation would include a workstation, hardware, graphics, programming, electrical installation and commissioning. The workstation and hardware will cost $4,000-$6,000 for starters. The programming, engineering, project management and graphics another $10,000 – $12,000. The electrical installation, depending on local codes, will cost $4,000 – $7,000. The estimated cost of building automation would be $18,000 to $25,000. The high-cost makes it challenging for real estate operators and owners to get the return-on-investment to move projects forward. Even with utility incentives. Today’s reality is disconnected buildings with simple thermostats or networked thermostats that are not capable of leveraging the full energy efficiency potential. Not to mention the absence of analytics and network access that is available from building automation.

So how do more buildings benefit from building automation? The quick answer is to get the labor out of projects. Easy to say, but the industry has found it difficult to do. It begins with a fundamental shift in perceived value and product marketability. Building automation contractors in recent years have gravitated to more customization and complication in order to differentiate themselves. Second, building automation contractors create unique programs generated by a single individual without quality control you would expect from a software development environment. Therefore the programming is often trial and error; and programs are created based on the preferences of the individual programmer. This approach inflates the programming labor costs and often creates quality problems (hence the $1.8 billion commissioning industry). The last labor issue is the engineering process. Many contractors lack engineering standards and engineering efficiency tools. Engineering may start with copying another project design to save labor, but most projects are engineered as one-off designs that keeps labor costs high.

The solution to driving down labor costs for small buildings begins with the engineering process. Software tools that automatically engineer building automation projects can save 8-10% on project labor costs. Engineering can facilitate more efficient installations through rigid standards that ensure predictability and quality. The engineered documents should always look the same, the input and output locations should be consistent for equipment control, and communication signals should be standard for sensors.

Next, take programming out of the field bring into the factory. Standard programs can be created to address major equipment types with options. This would require more flexibility than the application specific devices in the market, but with the same economy. If building automation was deployed using a factory process where the program was loaded and field devices tested before leaving the factory there would be an improvement in quality and reduction in labor cost. In addition, the need for extensive commissioning would be eliminated, which would further reduce project cost.

If the building automation industry simplified engineering and programming that would make projects more affordable, we would see far more sustainable small buildings with the benefits of energy efficiency, operating analytics and IoT connectivity. After all, if you can’t measure building performance, you can’t improve it. It is time for the building automation industry to move forward.

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  1. Thanks for the timely post. You are quite correct that traditional building automation systems are too expensive for smaller facilities. Moreover, they are often unnecessarily complex for these environments.

    The real opportunity is to bypass traditional building automation systems entirely in smaller facilities and use a newer generation of products that are better designed for these locations. These “Energy Management 2.0 Systems (EMS 2.0)” leverage wireless controls and sensors, cloud-based analytics & software, and mobile applications to drive down the cost of hardware and installation, eliminate the need for local servers and programming, and deliver a simpler, less expensive solution that is cost-effective in the smaller environments.

  2. I am a controls engineer and have worked a bit in building automation. You seem to have a good understanding of the process. Big problem I’ve had with the automation industry as a whole is they’re always behind in technology. I get a brand new “state of the art” several thousand dollar PLC and know in terms of what we are currently capable of, that PLC is already over a decade out of date and way overpriced.

    @Martin – Hit the nail on the head, wireless controls and use cloud based automated algorithms to figure out the correct settings. While a machine that makes automotive parts may need custom programming, I’m not sure I understand why a building does. I think we will see more and more intelligent cheaper hardware solutions in the near future that will really drive costs down on building automation.

    We can keep making building automation smarter and cheaper but it can only do so much when many buildings really need to be retrofitted and designed for high efficiency in mind, of course every bit helps.


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