The Need for More IT Expertise Among BAS Personnel

The Building Automation System (BAS) is a fundamental component of the modern building. BASs are increasingly becoming a component in a building’s local area network (LAN). However, BAS manufacturers and installers have not become sufficiently fluent with IT structures, security requirements, protocols and integration to be able to work successfully with IT departments.  This needs to change.

 

For any facility to be called a ‘Smart Building’, a BAS that has been utilized for at least part of its capabilities is a necessity. The capabilities of a BAS include intelligent control of not just the HVAC equipment, but also control of lighting, fire alarm, security, and utility metering systems amongst other domains. Intelligent control implies that all these domains be controlled by the BAS according to the organization’s changing needs and business objectives. Although improved tenant comfort, increased equipment efficiency, reducing energy costs and consumption are examples of common business objectives, they might be on different levels of an organization’s priority list.

There was a time not too long ago when control systems and equipment were entirely pneumatic and electrical. Some of our clients still have HVAC equipment in their buildings operated by pneumatic controls. However, the industry has transitioned towards Direct Digital Control (DDC) and the pace has picked up in the last decade. The way different BAS devices communicate has progressed towards an accepted standard: the BACnet communication standard. BACnet has evolved since its inception into many different varieties with the most popular being BACnet/IP as network standards move increasingly towards IP-centric solutions. Nowadays, almost all major HVAC equipment like chillers, pumps, fans, sensors etc are available with the ability to communicate via BACnet and oftentimes it’s included at no additional charge.

Interestingly enough, there are many building and facilities that have a BAS which is hugely under-utilized. Among the reasons for this are systemic issues in the construction industry that has favoured the approach of accepting lowest contract bids, resulting in contractors eliminating control points and/or cutting corners to save on installation costs so they can “win” the project without it affecting their bottom line profit. Another reason for not maximizing the potential of a BAS is that installations increasingly require integration between the organization’s IT infrastructure and BACnet protocol is either completely foreign or only peripherally understood by most IT departments. The functionality and security standards of BACnet have historically been unacceptable with BACnet services like device discovery which propagate throughout the entire network causing unnecessary traffic. Similarly, BACnet routers are often not manageable by the IT department which is undesirable.

In 2016 the BACnet standard was revised to include an IT Layer in the BACnet protocol stack. This layer allowed the BACnet application layer to exchange service messages and discover devices in the field using standard IP protocols like the WebSocket protocol and DNS-SD. Given these additions to the BACnet standard, it is imperative that BAS contractors installing these systems be well-versed in IT protocols and principles. This applies to mechanical HVAC contractors too as major equipment nowadays comes with smart controls and BACnet/IP connectivity.

The other update to the BACnet standard was the addition of semantic tagging to BACnet objects. Tagging allows for points and equipment to be classified with tags. If all devices and points are tagged, queries regarding specifics on point data will become much easier. For example, a query to return all supply air temperature points in all Air Handling Units in a building would become very convenient. This can be extended to an entire portfolio of buildings. Imagine being able to view the average power consumption of cooling equipment throughout your entire portfolio with one query. The addition of tagging will enable analytics services to provide building owners and their operations team with valuable insight into equipment operation and recommendations to improve building performance. Dimax has been involved in collecting and analyzing data for almost a decade. We saw the value in data analytics long before anyone else and many companies have recently started to provide similar services.

In order for the feature of tagging to fulfill its potential, BAS and mechanical contractors need to understand the potential benefit of analytics and they need to work as part of a larger team that includes the building operations staff, property management and analytics service providers. Analytics service providers can provide valuable insight into equipment operation but cannot implement their recommendations without the endorsement of the building operations team or the contractors. In some instances, recommendations from analytics providers are rejected by the operations staff or the contractors, not because of the viability of the recommendations, but rather due to the notion that the work of the operations team and contractors will be in jeopardy if the analytics provider is correct. At times the reason is simply “there are no complaints so there is no need to change anything”. This kind of approach results in energy and/or money that could otherwise be saved if feasible recommendations are carefully assessed and implemented.

With the evolution of BACnet in BASs, the Internet of Things, Big Data and the need for analytics, building automation is intersecting more and more with IT. BASs have the ability for remote IP connectivity and various devices are accumulating data and need internet connectivity if this data is being stored in the cloud. Robust and secure internet connectivity needs to be ever-present in order to ensure data continuity and to minimize the risk of cyber threats. Understanding of IT topics such as networking, security protocols and integration strategies would be highly beneficial to building operators, BAS contractors and mechanical contractors to be more effective in maximising the full potential of Building Automation Systems.  If you are a building owner or manager, we would encourage you to expose your operations staff to related learning sessions as a means to broaden their understanding of IT.  If you are a mechanical or BAS service provider, we would encourage you to train some of your installers and project managers to be well-versed in IT so they can have an intelligent conversation with your client’s IT departments.  It is our opinion that the convergence of BAS with IT is inevitable.

 

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