December 2016

Innovations in Comfort, Efficiency, and Safety Solutions.

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Kevin CallahanEMAIL INTERVIEWKevin Callahan and Ken Sinclair

Kevin Callahan is a product owner and evangelist for Alerton, a Honeywell business. He has 40 years of experience in the building control technologies field, including control systems design and commissioning, facilities management, user training and product development..

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Building automation – The cloud, robots and IoS

Rapidly evolving technologies promise further benefits from building management systems (BMS)

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SinclairComputer systems are changing more quickly than ever – what are some of the hot new technologies you think will benefit building management systems (BMS) in the coming years?

Callahan:  Three key technologies we’re mindful of at Alerton are cloud computing, artificial intelligence and the internet of things (IoT), or as I think of it for building automation, the internet of systems (IoS). While these technologies are often promoted as panaceas for any number of the world’s problems, they do hold promise for further enhancing BMS.

SinclairCloud computing is certainly a hot topic in tech circles – what role does it play in building automation?

Callahan:  To start, let’s clarify what the “cloud” is. Simply put, it’s other people’s computers that you rent space to store data on or run software from. Because it makes use of massive data centers rather than a desktop computer, the cloud is sometimes promoted for its ability to store gargantuan amounts of data.  It can certainly do that, but for building owners and operators, I think the cloud’s adaptability is more important than its ability to store unimaginably large amounts of data. The cloud enables building pros to expand (or reduce) their computing resources to meet their needs at any moment. In essence, the cloud affords the opportunity to use (and pay for) a “Goldilocks amount” of computing power – neither too much, nor too little, but just the right amount. This saves building professionals from the hassles and expenses of having to expand their on-site computer systems.

Another key benefit of the cloud is it lets building pros move management responsibility for ensuring computer up-time, to someone else that specializes in that service. The cloud provider oversees keeping the computers humming, not an army of internal IT professionals.

SinclairWhat are some of the specific BMS functions that the cloud is especially useful for?

Callahan:  One key function that more building owners are looking to the cloud for, is automated, continuous building commissioning. It takes a substantial amount of computing power and data storage to run the performance algorithms needed for continuous commissioning. Operating in the cloud, your BMS can frequently evaluate if various building systems – HVAC, lighting, etc. – are still performing at optimal conditions as they did when they were installed and commissioned. For example, say a chiller begins to operate out of spec, the facility managers can see that performance reduction immediately and take corrective action.

SinclairIn what ways do you see BMS use in the cloud evolving over the next few years.

Callahan:  Now, the cloud is mainly used for “bolt-on” services to the on-premise BMS. This includes the continuous commissioning I mentioned before, fault detection and diagnostics and analytics. Within the next three to five years, though, the entire BMS will be in the cloud. A key benefit of this to users is that the maintenance of the software becomes invisible. The BMS software provider will install security patches and efficiency updates, which will then be immediately accessible to users, without having to download and configure those updates themselves.

Reliable Controls Sinclair:  Let’s turn to the second emerging technology you mentioned: artificial intelligence. Where do you see BMS going with AI?

Callahan:  I foresee BMS becoming more fully automated. So, while today’s BMS will tell you something’s wrong in the building, a human has to notice that alarm and take action, whether it’s turning off a failing unit or calling a service tech to fix it. Much of that will eventually be automated – yes, I’m talking about robots, here! Not necessarily roving crews of maintenance robots, but a BMS that can take action without human intervention. For example, assume a chiller goes out of spec, the “robot” BMS could adjust the set points to ensure continued comfort for the building occupants, and send a service request to make the fix.

Sinclair:  How far off is that capability?

Callahan:  I estimate that level of automation is three to five years out. Getting there will involve baby steps, such as the BMS noticing nobody ever uses a room after 3:00 p.m., so turns down the heat automatically, even if the schedule and set points call for the heat to be on.

Sinclair:  It sounds like all of that system monitoring and automated action will be part of the so-called internet of things (IoT).

Callahan:  I tend to think of IoT as a bit of a marketing term for residential products – such as the internet-connected toothbrush, smart TVs, and the like. In commercial and industrial buildings, we have what I call the internet of systems – IoS. BMS manufacturers have been putting building systems and components online for nearly 20 years – HVAC, lighting, security controls, etc. The automated building industry is already largely doing the types of things envisioned with the internet of things. What we’ll likely see, though, is even more equipment being folded into the BMS. Think of plug load monitoring and control devices linking the BMS to everything from walk-in freezers to the vending machine in the breakroom.


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