It seems that the building controls world never sleeps. Every day, manufacturers are sending out press releases detailing their latest products and services that are designed to make building automation systems (bas) be faster, better, smoother, and yes, more interoperable.

Internet connectivity is now very much the focus of most building controls manufacturers. Many are claiming that the new Internet technologies will change the way facilities are managed. Basically they say that the Internet could help data flow more easily from one point to another, so the appropriate personnel could retrieve meaningful data no matter where they might happen to be. And not only that, they may be able to do some overrides and commands that could alleviate a problem - or at least minimize it until someone can take care of it on site.

Those still in the building can benefit, too, by using the Internet to pull down important weather information, or to access manufacturer websites to download data sheets. While it sounds terrific, there is something else to consider: If you're going to make the most of an Internet connection to a bas, the building products have to be interoperable. That's fundamental. If interoperability hasn't been achieved, it could be a fundamental problem.

Figure 1. Once a bas is connected to the Internet, a building owner can see what the system is doing from a laptop in a coffee shop, such as this one showing a typical screen you could see using Alerton's Web browser.

The Internet Experience

As previously noted, one of the main benefits to Internet connectivity is helping the data flow more easily from one point to another. Simon English, product manager, Honeywell Home and Building Control (Phoenix), says that the Internet will provide more of an "experience" for the customer by coordinating all that data into an individual work space. "You'll be able to have your building data from your LonMarkR devices and project it up on a webpage. Then you can join that together with other data to give you a coordinated picture."

English believes that besides being able to access important information such as weather data and manufacturer specification sheets online, facilities engineers will benefit from being able to request maintenance online as well. With a few clicks of a mouse, the equipment operator would be able to request service from the manufacturer without ever leaving the office.

Alerton is another company that is touting the benefits of being able to view information over the Internet. "We're working toward having actual web solutions where you would use just a browser to look at what's going on - you wouldn't actually need custom software to look at information for a project," says Larry Haakenstad, director of sales, Alerton, (Redmond, WA).

Alerton's "WEBtalk," a BACnet technology, as well as Echelon's recently introduced i.LonT Internet server, allow access to building systems and data using standard web browser technology. Haakenstad notes that this could be of particular benefit to those individuals who monitor multiple campuses - whether it's a school maintenance department or a developer with many different buildings scattered across the country. "From almost anyone's computer they'd be able to access a site with the proper security and see what's going on," he notes.

Those with an older bas or legacy system are probably wondering how an Internet connection could benefit them, since these are usually proprietary systems. Just because you have a legacy system doesn't mean that there is no possibility to communicate with it, though, says Paula Skokowski, executive director, LonMark Interoperability Association, (Palo Alto, CA). "Obviously the newer open interoperable systems going in have a much higher degree of integration, and you have a lot more access to data. But there are products available, such as Echelon's LonPointT modules, that are specifically designed to provide network interface to legacy devices. Then you can build up from that and add more LonMark products," she notes.

This allows some degree of connectivity for legacy systems, but it's not necessarily ideal. As English explains, "The hard part is that the functionality will be extremely limited, because you're never going to get the richness of that closed legacy system. That was the benefit of a proprietary system. They had a lot of rich functionality because each manufacturer made it their competitive advantage to offer very well-integrated systems."

Jeff Wills, product manager, Siemens Building Technologies, (Buffalo Grove, IL), adds, "Our customers are very pleased with their experiences, which have shown that installed systems can easily leverage emerging technologies, such as standard protocols, OPC, and Internet access, to provide additional value for existing customer sites."

Connecting Isn't Difficult

For those who back away from any new technology, Steve Thompson, director of product marketing for Johnson Controls (Milwaukee), says to consider some of the advantages to connecting to the Internet:

* Connecting systems from buildings spread over a wide geography;

* Providing the user with access to building management data and features from anywhere in the world; and

* Integrating information and services from a variety of providers and locations.

And making the connection isn't that difficult. To connect geographically dispersed building systems, communication messages must use the standard IP (Internet Protocol) format. If the bas does not use IP for its message structure, there is a class of products called "tunneling routers," which encapsulate proprietary messages into an IP packet for transmission and delivery. This is most frequently used with older systems, or with specialized communciation protocols such as LonMark.

For user access to real-time building data and control, a web server is most often used. "The more advanced building automation web servers, such as the Johnson Controls 'M-Web' server, actually read the configuration and graphics from the automation system and deliver them over the Internet without having to design and format each webpage," says Thompson.

The cost to provide Internet access is generally not significant for large buildings. Instead, the limiting factor is often concern for data security. "Few people want to challenge every 16-year-old on the planet to turn the lights on and off in remote buildings. For that reason, most automation web servers reside inside the building network's firewall and use the building owner's protected intranet, rather than the public Internet," notes Thompson.

Figure 2. Echelon Corp. recently launched a new Internet product called the i.LONT 1000 IP Server, which is designed to bring everyday devices into the Internet Protocol (IP) based intranet LAN, or WAN. The i.LON 1000 IP enables everyday devices networked worldwide with Echelon's LonWorksR technology in homes, factories, buildings and transportation systems to become part of the Web and paving the way for many new applications for industry.

Who Will Benefit?

Once the connection is made between Internet and bas, there are a number of different entities that could benefit. One of those entities is the consulting engineer. Haakenstad notes that if engineers get the approval from the building owners, they can use a web browser from their office to access buildings as they come up and are commissioned. "This can allow them to service their customers better," he notes.

English says that facility engineers will also benefit, because Internet connectivity will change the way the marketplace works. Instead of having to go out and look at many different products and solutions, it may soon be possible for an engineer to go online, state the size of the building in question, describe the application and needs, and list the current problems. "You'll have people actually come to you and say, 'Look, here is a solution we've worked for people just like you.'"

Others who could benefit include third-party service providers. Many building owners don't want to be worrying about day-to-day facilities management, they want to focus on their core business. Therefore, many are outsourcing their facility engineering and maintenance departments to other companies that will provide those services for them. English notes that when this occurs, it's a real hassle for a building to have dedicated resources available to monitor what's going on in the building.

"What we're saying is we can provide you a way across the Internet to collect data on your sites, and we'll manage those sites remotely for you. And then we can give you information like monthly reports through a web browser interface," says English. "This is more of an ongoing subscription service, like cable TV. The customer isn't buying any infrastructure, they're simply paying a fee. Basically, they're paying for a subscription service to provide that data to them."

Those in the energy services market are also looking at this capability. By hooking up a bas to the Internet, they would be able to find out the aggregate total of a building's energy usage, as well as what the building is paying for its current service. Obviously, they'd be looking to use the data to try and lure away buildings from their current service providers by offering either cheaper rates or value-added services.

There are also those who could benefit by just having access to a vast amount of data. There are many similarly sized buildings with similar applications. If they sign up for a subscription service, it would be possible for a third-party service company to collect their data and strip out the customer information. Then it's just generic data, which could be very beneficial to consulting engineers, as they could look and see how a "real world" building operates. Many companies and trade organizations could also benefit from this vast amount of data. "Others will want to buy that data from us to say this consolidated data shows the patterns of how facilities work," says English.

Wills notes that one of the most exciting aspects of Internet technology is that it enables facility information to be optimally delivered to the point of use. "Many facilities today are multifaceted, and web technology allows endusers - including researchers, scientists, energy managers, the accounting department, property managers, etc. - to access facility-related data. In effect, the technology enables the bas to support the business of the building owner."

And finally, Skokowski notes that another possible usage for Internet connectivity could be found in an office building. "Here, everybody has a desktop computer, so it may be possible that you can tailor the environment in your office from a webpage."

Could it be that the Internet could stop a favorite office pastime - grumbling over how hot or cold it is? This definitely is a technological breakthrough. ES

Sidebar: Internet Isn't the Only New Technology

While this article has focused primarily on how manufacturers are extolling the virtues of Internet connectivity, there are other new technologies being developed as well. In addition to offering Internet applications, Johnson Controls has a number of new technologies.

One of the things they've done is to revisit the whole idea of digital control. Historically, digital control was basically an emulation of pneumatic controls. "We implemented PID controls, provided more accessed information, and did a number of things that were better than PID but didn't really change the fundamental way we do control," says Steve Thompson, Johnson Controls.

In recent years the company has spent a great deal of time and money to create new control algorithms that they say have dramatically improved results over the traditional PID. One of those algorithms is called "P-Adaptive," which basically stands for proportional adaptive. "With P-Adaptive we're replacing the traditional PID loop and improving the trade-off that we've always had to deal with in the past, where if you wanted to have a system that was very responsive, you had to tune the gain to be very aggressive, and you ran the risk of becoming unstable. If you wanted to have something that was very stable, you could tune the gain to be less aggressive, but it would be less responsive," says Thompson.

Through their research, the company found out one of the reasons there was so much trouble with that trade-off is because there is so much noise in the process, particularly with the flow loop. The company found a way of measuring the amount of noise that is in the system, and as a result of that knowledge, were able to improve that trade-off. In other words, it's now possible to get much more responsive control while at the same time providing a high level of stability.

Another new algorithm is called "PRAC," or patterned recognition adaptive control. That algorithm basically performs as a control engineer - standing back and watching the control loop respond. In other words, any time PRAC sees a response to a setpoint change or a load disturbance, it will watch that response and then make fine adjustments to the tuning coefficients in order to get closer to optimal tuning. "It does that in a conservative manner, so that we don't necessarily tune to every abnormality that might occur in the space but rather over time, we'll approach the optimum control tuning parameters," says Thompson.

This technology can save time and cost in two areas, according to Clay Nesler, director of product development. "One is when the control system is first installed, it can define the best tuning parameters. It can also adjust the tuning of the controller over time, so rather than being called back to recommission or tune the control system in say, the spring and the fall seasons, the control system will continuously adjust," says Nesler.

Another new technology the company has developed is called "State Machine Control." The State Machine provides a sequence of definitions for the system to move from one steady-state function to another. That allows a much more robust, reliable, and well-known set of applications that will be at a particularly defined state given certain conditions.

"We can go back and look and find out what those conditions were that put it in that state, and we eliminate a whole bunch of potential application problems in terms of how the thing works. That's really more of a sequencing logic- type function which, when used in combination with PRAC and P-Adaptive, provide really superior digital control," says Thompson.

Data visualization is another area in which Johnson Controls has spent a great deal on research and development. Data visualization gives the operator the opportunity to improve productivity by being able to look at facility data. The biggest problem with building operators is they're having to manage more square feet of space with less staff. The information overload that can occur with a bas can be overwhelming, so Johnson Controls decided to research how people process data and how facility managers use data.

The result is some new and innovative ways to represent that data in order to help facilities managers. "First of all we identify a particular problem or pending problems that might be in their facilities. That helps us get some sense for what the cause of those problems are. Then we help them understand what the priorities would be for going and rectifying the problems, so they spend their time on the highest priority items and don't spend time chasing down data and abnormalities that would be of lower priority in terms of managing the facility," notes Thompson.

And what do customers think of this new way of looking at data? "They were ripping this stuff out of our hands during the initial beta testing," says Thompson.