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August 2017
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The Edge of VOLTTRON’s Sword


The pillars of this new platform are flexibility - for a varied set of solution spaces, and usability - easily accessible to both users and developers. The software stack is available free on GitHub to put onto a small form factor computer and create your very own “edge device.”

Brad White

Brad White,
P.Eng, MASc
Principal,
SES Consulting Inc.

Contributing Editor

Nigel David


Nigel David,
BSc, MSc, PhD,
Lead Researcher
SES Consulting Inc.

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Back in 2010, as part of the “Future Power Grid Initiative” project, a team from The Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) set out to develop a software platform for the Smart Grid. Specifically, the platform would enable transactions between electric vehicle chargers and the grid so the homeowner and the utility could benefit from the energy stored in a parked car battery. At the time, no existing platform was available that met the security or resource management requirements for such a use case.

In 2013, version 1.0 of the platform was demonstrated in an instrumented house with an EV. It was at around this time that the team broadened the goals of the software project, made it open source, and gave it a name: VOLTTRON. “VOLTTRON [would now] independently manage a wide range of applications, such as HVAC systems, electric vehicles, distributed energy or entire building loads, leading to improved operational efficiency.” Any good robot would do the same, of course.

Fast forward to 2017; version 4.1 has just been released. Many wide-ranging application concepts have indeed been proven with the platform. One might even say that it is becoming a veritable IoT platform built on a secure cyber foundation; a legacy from the original grid connected use case and the core strengths of the PNNL team. The pillars of this new platform are flexibility - meeting the requirements for a varied set of solution spaces, and usability - easily accessible to both users and developers. The software stack is available free on GitHub to put onto a small form factor computer and create your very own “edge device.”

For the building and HVAC space, the platform speaks BACnet and MODBUS. Out of the box and on a mini pc it can be used as a data collection device. On a central server, it becomes a management platform, allowing you to visualize the data and the performance of your field devices. The beauty of the platform lies in where you can take it from here. Rule-based AFDD, machine learning algorithms, and any other data driven applications you can imagine can all be pushed to the edge.

Volttron
Overview of the VOLTTRON Platform

The DOE has a mandate that it cannot develop an open source tool that competes directly with a commercial product. One of the many metaphors that describes what they can do and have done though is this: they have presented a cake without icing, on a silver platter.

Several commercial service providers, consultants and integrators alike (ourselves included), have started to use VOLTTRON to support our service offerings, the icing if you will. In our case, as building optimization consultants, this data is giving us greater insights into the opportunities that exist to make buildings work better. The ability to plot, manipulate and visualize large data sets extracted from the BMS are bringing to light issues that were previously hidden from view. In other cases, the data allows us to understand better underlying issues that we always knew were there but were difficult to quantify in terms of their impact.

For example, we know that we want to try and maximize our VAV damper positions with a supply air pressure reset program. But determining how well this is actually working in practice can be difficult. Previously, we’d be relying on small amounts of data or snapshots of system operation to try and figure this out. But with large data sets stretching from months to years, it becomes almost trivial to analyze average, min and max VAV positions compared to fan speed and pressure in order to see exactly how much room for improvement there is. This same sort of analysis can be done on hydronic heating and cooling systems, comparing supply water temperatures, pump speeds, and valve positions.

We’ve only started scratching the surface of interesting things to find. One could imagine using this kind of data for zone level virtual metering to map energy flows within a building over time to quickly identify the areas of your building that are energy hogs. Combining that kind of analysis with information on hot/cold complaints could yield some extremely valuable insights that could reduce not only energy consumption but also improve occupant comfort and satisfaction. Beyond our home-grown analysis, VOLTTRON can help make the data accessible to 3rd parties who will provide their own software solutions, whether it be AFDD, optimization, or something else yet to be invented. The possibilities are limitless.

Reliable ControlsVOLTTRON certainly isn’t the only way to access this kind of data. Most building automation systems have long had proprietary solutions for long term data archiving. However, these solutions can be relatively expensive to implement and don’t have a standard way of storing data, which poses a significant challenge to anyone trying to analyze it. Comparatively inexpensive 3rd party solutions for data archiving do exist. However, they too don’t necessarily have a common way to store or format data and run the risk of leaving you stranded if the product is suddenly discontinued (we learned this lesson the hard way). This is where the open source nature of VOLTTRON is a real advantage, by providing a low-cost non-proprietary solution that service providers can standardize on, with assurances that it isn’t going to disappear overnight. Even in the worst case if development stopped tomorrow, the existing source code would remain freely available for anyone to continue to use.
  

True open source communities have been relatively rare in the building automation industry; Haystack and Sedona are the two others that immediately come to mind.  It is our hope that VOLTTRON can become a robust and well-supported platform with an active community of individuals and organizations dedicated to further development. Secure and open access to data is fundamental in realizing the future potential of the building automation industry.  
 
For more information on VOLTTRON visit VOLTTRON.org

Further reading available at the following links:

http://www.automatedbuildings.com/news/may17/interviews/170426110404david.html

http://www.contractormag.com/iot/volttron-two-ts

http://www.automatedbuildings.com/news/jun17/reviews/170523044401volttron.html

http://www.automatedbuildings.com/news/may17/interviews/170424121808hernadez.html


About the Authors

Brad White, P.Eng is a principal at SES Consulting Inc.  SES, a Certified B Corporation, is a Vancouver based firm that helps building owners reduce energy use and GHG emissions through their expertise in mechanical systems, building automation, and occupant engagement.

Nigel David, BSc, MSc, PhD, Lead Researcher SES Consulting Inc. Nigel enjoys building data pipelines across BC and Canada that allow SES’s engineers to quickly and continuously deliver energy efficiency solutions. He leads the research and development activities that complement SES’s core engineering services. Nigel comes from a background of experimental physics and hydrogen fuel cell research. His current research interests include the “internet of things”, integrated energy systems, and the Passive House and WELL building design standards. When not wrangling data, he can be found wandering the BC trails and beaches with his family.

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