BuilConn 2006 Brings Value of Connectivity to Light
The focus for BuilConn 2006 was the convergence of building controls systems. Ideas about the connectivity of embedded intelligence are starting to jell. A holistic view of a building's networks may be the next big step toward energy savings. In this view, thousands of devices start talking to each other. Can they turn the whole building into a unified energy management application that can respond to price signals from a utility? It's already being done. With rising demand charges, and real-time pricing, the possibilities are intriguing. Even tenants are looking more closely at energy as part of the cost of a lease.
June 14, 2006
The value of a network increases with the number of connections. Whether you believe the mathematical relationship is arithmetic, geometric or, as Ethernet co-inventor Robert Metcalfe said, exponential, there is enduring truth to the concept. And it's extending wholly into building automation and the electric grid.
This message was clear at BuilConn 2006, a three-day conference and expo for those involved in building automation and related information technology.
I came away from BuilConn with a sense that there is a firming-up of ideas about the potential for automated energy management in buildings.
The concept goes like this: Advanced devices are used today to control lighting, comfort, safety and many other systems in a building. Those devices are intelligent; now the greatest value opportunity will come from connecting them and increasing their power as a network.
"Web Services Show & Tell" was a popular session at BuilConn. Speakers took the podium in turn, surrounded by tangles of wires, blinking black boxes and PCs, to demonstrate their technologies. Rob Guzikowski, Senior Applications Engineer for Echelon, demonstrates a proof-of-concept washateria application that dials a customer's cell phone when their laundry is finished. On a more serious note, Guzikowski helped design a model control network of 1,000 devices at Echelon's headquarters office.
I interviewed Echelon's Steve Nguyen at BuilConn, and he summed up well this holistic vision of connectivity in buildings.
Connectivity increases a building's collective intelligence
"A building's energy application is actually the network itself," Nguyen said. "If you think about the value proposition of any data network, the more points you add, the greater the power of the network."
Echelon is one of several innovators of control network components used for building automation, among other applications. Building automation systems are the brains of commercial and industrial buildings that control their own environments. The main benefits of building automation are energy savings, improved occupant comfort, added security and safety, and reduced maintenance costs.
Today, builders install separate systems to control and monitor each aspect of the building: lighting, temperature, access, and so on. The focus for BuilConn in 2006 was the connectivity of these systems, which could lead to a convergence of building systems with IT.
One interesting aspect of the conference was how to develop a pervasive approach to embedding intelligence, so the whole building can be treated as an energy application.
If this were as simple as sharing a wire or protocol, it would have been done long ago. Pervasive intelligence is a synergy of applications and the physical space. How much synergy depends on how much of the environment has intelligence embedded in it. But it also depends on also on how aware those intelligent components are of each other.
Adding intelligent controls and sensors is a start. In the next step the building starts acting as a unified energy management application. The intelligence in each device works as part of the larger application, and disparate systems -- lighting, security, HVAC and others -- start working together.
"Erase the notion of a building from your mind for a moment," suggests Echelon's Nguyen. "There are thousands of energy consuming devices in a building that can be directly controlled, and thousands more that can be indirectly controlled. If every device, every sensor, were capable of reacting to a Web service from utility, wouldn't that be more beneficial to an energy application?"
An example is automated demand response, which the Berkeley National Laboratory recently field tested with five buildings.
With a Web service (which is like a structured text message) from the utility signaling a jump in the cost of energy for the next few hours, systems within the five test buildings respond by reducing energy demand. Automated systems work together, using parameters preset by the building occupants -- energy price triggers, load shedding schedules, comfort and light preferences -- all without human intervention.
Connectivity enables integration
Connecting networks -- a mix of proprietary and competing open standard protocols -- leads to the question of which network to use. This question is far from being answered. In the meantime, vendors are moving toward tying their control networks into the data network, which has several implications.
First, it makes it possible to give occupants some control over their environments, using browser-based interfaces to set comfort and light level parameters. Dimming lights affects retail tenants differently than it affects office workers. That level of control is difficult using centralized control consoles on isolated networks, but can be user-friendly when presented on a Web page.
Second, sharing a network allows the systems to talk to each other. For example, the lighting control system can interrogate sensors on the security network about which spaces are unoccupied; the life safety system can take control of the lights in an emergency.
"It's not just the building," Nguyen explains, "it's everything in a building that can contribute to saving energy. And it has to be done in a way that doesn't impact the tenant. You don't want to dim the lights in occupied areas just because energy is expensive at the time. Instead you want to only dim lights in the areas that get enough daylight so the tenant stays happy, yet saves money."
Change driven by energy costs
Lighting and temperature control represent about 70 percent of a building's energy consumption, according to studies on advanced buildings at the National Renewable Energy Lab. Demand charges have motivated building owners to look for ways to reduce lighting and HVAC loads. Real-time energy pricing, if adopted widely, would encourage owners to conserve at times of day when energy costs are at their highest.
Says Nguyen: "If every electronic device were capable of reacting to a Web service from the utility, you would get a lot more benefit. When you put intelligence into networked devices you get more levels of control, with less impact on tenants, and the building owner saves money."
While renewable energy still depends to some extent on financial incentives, the incentive to deploy building energy applications come down to operating cost savings. In an owner-occupied building, the payback can be rapid.
For a mixed-tenancy building where energy cost are apportioned, the motivation might not seem as strong. Owners who invest in building automation do not benefit directly from the savings.
In fact, building managers might want to protect revenue from their markup on energy bills. But tenants are looking more closely at energy as part of the cost of a lease. Nguyen explains:
"If a property manager has an inefficient building, they can't absorb the rising energy cost or take advantage of utility incentives. Instead they have to pass the cost of energy inefficiency directly to tenants. In a competitive environment, the less energy a space uses, the better the leasing terms, and the more attractive the property becomes."