Operating Online: A Real-Time System Integration Update
There are a wealth of new control products, technologies, and buzzwords, yet there is a simple evolution underway toward the Internet. No, it isn't likely that the Internet will ever control buildings at the equipment level, but it is the ultimate vehicle to enhance control and to expand dramatically the information management capabilities of automation systems.
Automation and ControlIt is important to start by predicting that the future of automation systems will not be determined by a small group of control manufacturers. The industry now includes companies offering many types of software and hardware, including controller interfaces and equally importantly those that offer Internet technology to expand the power of these systems.
Industry leaders seem to agree that automation and information technology (IT) are converging. As a result, many different players, not just "name brand" control companies, may introduce new advances in automation. Therefore, it is important to consider each industry participant in examining the state of the automation business.
The primary industry participants are control manufacturers that develop products, which have evolved from simple mechanical and electrical devices to sophisticated electronic networked systems. It is easy to identify important milestones in the migration of DDC from process control to HVAC systems. The movement from standalone controllers to distributed DDC was spurred by user demand for energy management, along with cost reduction and comfort.
The next major milestone was the evolution to open systems or communication standards. DDC open systems were "the price of admission" to leverage off-the-shelf technology and the Internet in integrated system projects, like one on the Albuquerque Academy campus shown in Photo 1 and the Heidelberg Web systems plant.
The question remains, what new innovation will have the most far-reaching impact on the control discipline? Ten years ago, answers to that question might have been: BACnet(tm), other communication standards, preintegrated microprocessor-based HVAC controls or new controller platforms. Yet automation architecture, including hardware and software, remains fairly stable, though there have been ongoing advances to simplify engineering and programming of control sequences.
The second set of automation industry participants includes companies that develop independent software and hardware devices including Internet tools. This includes routers that interface between BACnet(tm), LON(tm), other automation local area networks (LANs), and facility Ethernet LANs. Common in data communication networks, routers are hardware devices that accomplish this transition between networks. There is merit to clarifying the role of routers compared to other network components that are referenced in the control industry, particularly servers and gateways.
The first area of confusion is that these functions may be built into a single device. Communication standards break up the process of data interchange into a series of discrete steps, which define requirements for everything from the wire to the application or job being done by a computer.
At the highest level are servers, sophisticated computer-based devices concerned with everything from control, and even office applications, to managing access to the network.
The gateway is implemented when two devices on a network must communicate but do not speak the same language or protocol. Routers are devices that allow two dissimilar networks, (e.g., BACnet and Ethernet) to be connected. A router is only concerned with the transportation of data via a network of devices, but converting to an Ethernet network provides the added benefit of making data available from the LAN to TCP/IP, the Internet protocol.
TAC Americas uses a device called the NetPlus Router to connect commercial LAN/WAN Ethernet networks and control system networks. Using independent routers in automation is beneficial because they are dedicated data communication devices, which eliminates overhead on the control network. Routers look like any other node on the LAN and can provide simple, fast Ethernet communication.
TAC's router was applied at the Albuquerque Academy project discussed here to achieve campus-wide communications for the TAC automation system using the schools' Ethernet LAN. Another example is the Delta System Manager module, a modular communication unit that is able to integrate all the networking requirements for an automation system.
At the Heidelberg plant, Jim Evers of ibcontrols, inc., completed an integrated system for HVAC, lighting, access control, and CCTV using the Delta system. There are also generic routers available from a number of sources that can integrate any piece of equipment with a serial port or an Ethernet LAN and allow interface to the Internet.
At last month's AHR Expo, four free automation sessions were offered, and the dominant themes were integration and the Internet. Other developments were discussed such as wireless sensors and communication buses and self-configuring controls, but the real excitement is the integration that is possible outside of the controllers themselves.
This comes as no surprise to Anto Budiarjo, creator of BuilConn, the first industry conference and trade show targeted specifically at system integration, which, according to Budiarjo, is all about the systems found in buildings.
Beyond traditional automation, Budiarjo said the scope includes security, specifically access control, CCTV, intrusion, and fire. BuilConn's target audience is management and technical staff with integration and contracting organizations, and conference tracks will cover IT, open systems, Internet, integration, energy, facility management, and contracting issues. Integration is clearly where the leading edge in automation may to be found.
System IntegrationThe term "system integration" has evolved in definition over time, much like DDC. Early definitions of system integration actually referred to what we now call building automation. Integrated systems combined HVAC control with fire/life safety and security systems. Actual integration of control sequences ranged from extremely limited to complex approaches for smoke evacuation and after-hours access to selected areas of a building.
Over the years, a new breed of controls contractor, or system integrator, has evolved. A new study published in Security Distributing And Marketing (SDM) magazine identified the "Top 100 System Integrators" and presented system integration as a business not a BAS feature. SDM targets security system integrators, but many of the companies listed are clearly in the building automation business. The study reported that the Top 100 generated $2.4 billion in integration during 2001. This is a dramatic piece of information, especially when the article also points out 33% growth from 2000 to 2001.
Of particular interest here is analyzing what type of business is being done by system integrators. There are actually three different types of integrator:
- Companies that specialize in combining legacy DDC systems together or with new standards-based systems;
- Companies that combine HVAC control with fire/life safety and security systems; and
- A very small number of companies that have started implementing real-time system integration.
Combining legacy or standard-based DDC systems is not the focus here. This form of integration has been common for over a decade, and there is software and hardware available to implement such systems. This is a well-defined market, but interestingly it made up little, if any, of the revenue reported in the SDM study.
The vast majority of the revenue reported appears to have been generated from companies that combine fire and security systems with some potential for HVAC control. It is possible that some of this income could have been derived from integrating legacy systems, but that is not clear. Of significance is that integrators saw a major increase in CCTV security and access control, and that those surveyed attributed 42% of their revenue to integrated systems.
The third type of integrator specializes in real-time system integration, which is of greater interest for building automation. Real-time system integration is more sophisticated than interfacing fire and security with HVAC control for energy management.
The simplest level of this technology combines the systems above while expanding their benefit by integrating the Internet, offering a completely new type of integration, in real time. This is clearly the future of building automation and it takes system integration to its logical conclusion. It also demands that system integrators become network integrators.
An excellent example is a project at Albuquerque Academy that includes central plant retrofits, 19 campus-wide building automation systems with interface to an Ethernet LAN, access control, and Web-based video surveillance system for security and fire annunciation.
This $2 million capital project won a 2002 Energy User News Efficient Buildings Award for "Best Education Project." The project integrated HVAC control with security systems for access control, Web-based CCTV video surveillance, and fire annunciation to optimize overall system performance.
This was a rare opportunity to implement full-scale integration as part of a campus central plant upgrade with five new pulse boilers, a new chiller, and replacement of existing automation systems from several manufacturers. This integration centralizes interface for all campus systems through an Internet-based Real-time Energy Dashboard(tm) (RED(tm)). This approach to facility automation interface expands the scope of control to the enterprise level, using the Internet to convert a control system into a management information system.
RED(tm) and Internet ToolsRED expands Web browsers for automation interface to the next level. RED opens the door for true energy Web services companies to offer DDC, fire and security, with an interface to an Ethernet LAN, and maybe even become facility Internet service providers.
Access to real-time information anywhere, anytime through an Internet-enabled automation system is the value of "real-time system integration." Please note that showing ECI RED is not intended to be an advertisement, but this concept is so new that it is easiest to describe it by showing a real example.
The dashboard concept has been growing in popularity for several years in the IT business, and now with RED, an energy dashboard becomes a campus home page. In most organizations, data is trapped, and sometimes hoarded, in various departments. Facility managers have data that is normally only available to them, and the same situation exists for accounting, finance, purchasing, etc.
In most cases, these groups are happy to share their information, but this requires someone to become proficient with special software and to usually go to someone's office. The dashboard concept is based on the idea of Web services, which uses the Internet to share information between many different software and hardware systems that had previously not shared information or the information was not available.
Combining the concepts of Web services and dashboards leads to the genesis of a truly valuable tool. RED is even more exciting when it is designed to make information available via the Internet in real time. The dashboard becomes a tool that brings together information so that managers can make effective decisions.
So what is a RED? It is a portal that allows the manager to get access to real-time information about building operations, and to link out to other systems like building automation or access security, for interrogation and update. The distinction between a traditional "front end" and RED is that the homepage allows the manager to link to other sites like the local utility or to internal software like the budget.
On the left-hand side of the RED homepage, the screen provides energy costing data from the local utility and Internet energy resellers, as well as a break-even calculation to trigger onsite generation. Also on the left is a link to the system integrators support site to e-mail a workorder and to see a service history database showing the status of workorders currently in process and completed.
This section also shows data from one of the Web-based video surveillance cameras integrated with the system. Below the banner are hypertext hot links to launch from RED to building automation and other systems, as well as a link to the customers operating budget.
On the right-hand side of the screen, there is current local weather and links to the customer's website including a message from the headmaster. Finally in the center, there is a quick snapshot of key events on campus and the user can link to a webpage for more information and a real-time measurement and verification report.
Other new Internet tools are also being introduced. Automation companies no longer dominate the industry, and developments will originate from many sources. For example, consider the wealth of LON-based products available for every application from HVAC to lighting and access control. These products make it possible to integrate functions that in the past would have required completely dissimilar systems.
Another example is the development of Web appliances, often called "embedded devices," which are Internet-enabled and perform a variety of functions. Computrols has also introduced a suite of Internet-ready controllers.
According to Mike Dolan, Computrols analyzed automation trends to design a product with the best possible "headroom into the future." The Computrols team concluded that TCP/IP was clearly the future for controller communication. So they decided to develop Internet-ready controllers that speak "Native TCP/IP," and have a range of point-density options. The controllers offer preprogrammed routines for standard HVAC applications or integrators can write custom routines.
Of course, the real story is the Internet capability, plus built-in Ethernet connections, and an onboard Web server. Web service features are under development to allow controllers to access Internet data in XML for use in control sequences. Devices can be programmed at commissioning with a zip code, and the controller pulls weather data for that location from the Web instead of an outside air sensor.
This technology is exciting, but it also requires integrators to learn new technology. Just in time, a number of options are presenting themselves for professionals who need to be trained.
Real-time System Integration TrainingThe expanding technologies that comprise integrated systems require industry participants to revisit training needs. Knowledge necessary to be successful in building automation starts with an understanding of DDC and HVAC control, and that now includes fire/life safety and security integration. That sentence covers a tremendous amount of ground and, in a world that demands specialization, there are two or three areas to which a person could devote an entire career.
In the real world, however, the industry demands more, so after mastering building automation, the integrator must understand data communication. The dramatic industry effort to develop standards for networking and communication has resulted in a host of BACnet- and LON-compatible products, but it has also been the price of entry to embrace the Internet. So, the third key area of knowledge for real-time system integration is to understand the Internet including the underlying technology and software that make it possible.
Sources for this training are the next question, and there are some exciting opportunities. For those who are just starting in the industry and need core-level training, Penn State's Penn College of Technology, offers a Bachelor of Science Degree in Building Automation Technology. Most students begin with some experience and possibly an associate degree in HVAC, electrical technology, electronics, or architectural technology.
The program includes courses in DDC equipment control, legacy systems and control theory, building automation programming, control networks, chiller and boiler control, interoperability, energy management, and building commissioning. Two valuable elements of the program, said Professor Phil Henning, are that students complete a building automation summer internship between their junior and senior year, and a senior project that requires solving a real-world problem or opportunity in building automation. Penn College is also planning a new building automation lab to support the program. More information is available from Henning at Phil Henning.
There are also industry sources for seminars and short courses covering specific topics in integration and Internet-based control. Automatedbuildings.com has launched several online courses and offers these in an asynchronous training environment, which allows students to learn at their own pace, while accessing real-time information from other participants via virtual seminar meetings.
The Association of Energy Engineers (AEE) offers similar programs and is launching an Online University, which will offer synchronous seminars using the Internet. These seminars meet at a specific time, and the instructor broadcasts audio and video images while offering real-time information.
The FutureThe major industry effort to standardize automation system data communication provided the foundation for real-time system integration and Web services for buildings. Web-based technologies now make it possible for systems to integrate information from internal hardwired points and Internet sources. Accomplishing this in real time is the next generation for building automation.
This opportunity is not without challenges, however, and there are risks that must be managed. Data security is an ongoing concern, but the benefit of combining automation and information systems is that integrators can leverage existing firewalls and other security equipment.
Data reliability is another question, particularly if the control information is completely reliant on the Web. These obstacles can be overcome as they have been in other industries like online banking. If customers trust the Internet with money, how much of a leap of faith is it to trust it with data?
There is little question that building automation online is the future, and to accomplish that goal, real-time system integration is required. The key is to track the developments and trends in automation hardware and data communications technology, as well as Internet-enabled building services. Without question, integrators and astute owners will succeed in creating cost-effective building environments by synthesizing industry information to leverage technology and optimize system control and facility management.ES
EDITOR'S NOTE: Some images associated with this article do not transfer to the Internet. To review the figures, please refer to the print version of this issue.
To learn more about RED and see a screen shot of the software mentioned in this article, please visit www.energyctrl.com and click on the Real-Time Energy Dashboard.