Building automation steps forward

In commercial building automation and control, major technology evolutions generally lag adoption in industry. The transition from costly pneumatics to printed circuits was such an evolution.

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Terry K. McMahonBy Terry K. McMahon, CONTROL Columnist

BUILDING CONTROL has traditionally been the “poor country cousin” to process or industrial control. Its tools, instruments and controls were pale reflections of industrial-level devices’ durability and reliability. The building maintenance staff also has been, rightly or wrongly, considered several notches below industrial engineers in training and proficiency.

The economics driving the two sectors aren’t difficult to distinguish. On the industrial side, the process owner realizes an immediate return from improved operating efficiency, as well as higher productivity and superior product quality coming from strengthened customer demand and the potential for premium pricing. The incentives for investing in automation are clear and measurable. On the building, the owner sees an immediate return from increased energy efficiency, although utilities’ pass-through costs often blunt this impact. However, “environmental quality” improvements are a long-term benefit, and usually lack the visceral impact of a quantifiable return. Consequently, the incentives for investing in building automation are cloudy with great temptations for false economies and cutting corners.

The annual AHR (AirConditioning Heating Refrigeration) Show is a key North American exhibit for building automation and controls manufacturers. AHR 2006 on Jan. 23-25 in Chicago attracted record attendance with almost 2,000 exhibiting companies and 35,000 attendees, excluding exhibitor personnel. Dallas will host this event next year, and it will move to New York in January 2008. AHR is co-sponsored by ASHRAE, the building/mechanical systems field’s leading professional organization, and by ARI, its leading trade group.

Ron Caffrey, of BCS Partners, was a major player in the building automation field during his more than 40-year career at Johnson Controls. He retired as marketing VP in 1992. Caffrey witnessed the field’s growth from the specialized, mini-computer based systems of the 1960s, to the microprocessor-based control systems in the 1970s, to the distributed-DDC systems in the 1980s, and on to today’s web-based, increasingly wireless, enterprise-wide systems.

Caffrey’s comments on technological changes in building automation are particularly insightful. He says in commercial building automation and control, major technology evolutions generally lag adoption in industry. The transition from costly, brass-hardware pneumatics to printed circuits that could be built in garages was such an evolution. New providers with imaginative software solutions took market share from established manufacturers. Controller costs dropped precipitously, while their accuracy and repeatability increased just as rapidly.

Meanwhile, another technological evolution is on the near horizon—wireless transmission. Hardwired sensors in conditioned spaces in commercial buildings restrict flexibility needed by today’s buildings owners. Building use and occupancy shift frequently with changes in business, and office partitioning and work-unit divisions beg for easily relocated sensors and controls. The cost and disruption of running wires in finished spaces often prevents implementing needed changes. Finally, there never has been an acceptable way to install sensing and control points where needed in finished marble and exotic-wood locations.

However, these limits can be rolled back dramatically by using relatively low-cost, spread-spectrum radio transmission modules now available. Improved power management in these devices allows a sensor’s transmitter to operate for as long as five years on two AA batteries. However, this performance probably isn’t transferable to process industries, where the need to operate continuously wouldn’t allow the one-minute sampling acceptable for comfort control. The two leading, commercial-building automation manufacturers simultaneously introduced these devices at AHR 2006. The units reportedly have performed well in field trials, and significant market penetration appears inevitable.

In addition, a respected research firm recently projected the penetration of wireless measurements in industrial settings at less than 5% by 2009. Building automation could be at the leading edge of wireless measurements in contrast to its traditional role. In his new book on wireless industrial networks (see “ISA Sets the Standard in Wireless,” Around the Loop, Dec. ’05, p. 66), Dick Caro cites battery-life as a key impediment facing the widespread deployment of this technology.

On another front, a leading building automation firm has partnered with Cybosoft, Inc. to incorporate its model-free adaptive (MFA) control algorithm in its latest control system (see “Advanced Process Control in Practice,” Around the Loop, Feb. ’06, p. 90, for more on advanced regulatory control). Unit shipments of MFA controllers could approach 100,000 within a few years.

BCS Partners recently announced its fifth comprehensive market study (BCS/2006) to analyze and quantify these developments. Building automation may be emerging from the shadow of industrial automation as a full partner in the race to harness technology.


  About the Author
Terrence K. McMahon of McMahon Technology Associates, Leonia, NJ is the "Around the Loop" columnist for CONTROL magazine and ControlGlobal.com. He can be reached at Mcmahontec135@aol.com.
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