Babel Buster Network Gateways: Big Features. Small Price.
I spent the last week of June in Honolulu - tough duty - at the ASHRAE Annual meeting where advertised focus was to be on how we can use technology more effectively to do what Bill Coad, our Society's President this past year, has called for - to do more (or at least the same) with less. In the background of this meeting like most others, engineers and manufacturers exchanged lighthearted barbs about whether ill conceived designs or poorly functioning products are the primary source of under performing comfort systems. Owners, scarce in ASHRAE circles, seemed more sedate than usual, a possible sign that the economy is really recovering and they are beginning once again to focus more on new challenges in the immediate future rather than dwell on past problems.
The thrust of the technical sessions did not seem to carry forward the enthusiasm for integrating to the Internet that I noticed in several of the last meetings. There was very little emphasis at all on new technologies. One seminar focused on California's demand response program that emerged out of the nightmare California called deregulation. That seminar was not an encouraging sign that our industry has come to grips with relevant control issues. Substantial resources were expended in that State to prepare for potential electrical shortfalls last year with an approach that hoped to automate a response to kW limit requests into individual facility controls. However, only one day of curtailment was requested and it seems the process was more successful in uncovering substantial problems with many building control systems rather than to automatically reducing demand.
I began thinking during this seminar that our HVAC controls industry cannot seem to bring itself to replace old technologies. Rather we seem inclined to patch newer control technologies on to the old in "layers." For example, we still use the basic control structure that was originally developed for analog control - operating equipment with independent control loops - that was developed long before digital control was envisioned. As modern digital systems have become available, we have adapted these new systems to emulate this older style of control, but realizing that such control is not energy efficient, we have in recent years been adding layers of "supervisory control" that are intended to optimize systems by continuously adjusting setpoints as conditions change in order to try to coordinate the operation of these otherwise independently operating controls. Now, the California model has added yet another layer called the "Energy Information System" layer that is intended to bring in additional outside information in order to optimize the operation of the system in response to certain electric grid constraints. Can this approach work? Well, sure. Just about any digital control is feasible if enough time and energy are applied. This can be ascertained by the results described in the seminar. But in light of new realities its probably time to question whether there may be more direct approaches to achieving comfort that is responsive to the myriad of external factors that have developed along with this era of digital controls. Modeling comfort systems after Internet technologies makes a lot of sense. Consider that the independent nature of present method of building controls does not ensure every zone in the building is satisfied even when substantial extra system capacity is available. Nor do present building controls provide effective coordination to minimize the inherent energy waste of heating and cooling concurrently. Rather than solve this problem with more effective controls, the industry has tried to reduce it by mandating certain equipment configurations that make it more difficult to apply concurrent heating and cooling, but can also reduce the system's flexibility to keep everyone comfortable. Finally, and most disappointing, is the fact that while an increasing number of the occupants served by our industry's comfort systems are connected to wide area networks, including the Internet, almost none of them can yet connect in any way to their local comfort system to request changes in thermal or lighting levels in the space they occupy.
This disparity between what general computing systems can accommodate and what is reasonably possible by building controls is increasing, and will at some time no longer be sustainable. Building occupants will demand connection to their comfort systems so that they can set thermal and lighting preferences just as they set preferences for much of the other equipment and systems with which they work every day. From a worker performance perspective it is extremely wasteful that we are not more aggressive in pursuing such individual comfort control connections. From an occupant satisfaction/retention perspective, it is inevitable that we will soon be required to do so.
So, my answer to the question of whether we will implement "connected" HVAC systems is an emphatic "Yes!" But such an answer begs answers to the questions "When?" and "How?"
I predict a very strong movement to "occupant integrated" HVAC controls within the next decade. My prediction is that by the second decade of this century, most class "A" office spaces will be required to offer individual control of thermal and lighting levels. This integration will most likely be Internet based. Also in the same time span, I see much building operations and maintenance will also become Internet based with fewer operations personnel in individual buildings. Such personnel will be come more specialized and perform a smaller scope of services in many more buildings.
The final question is "How?" This is perhaps the most perplexing. Although for years building owners and occupants have been pushing for a higher level of building comfort, the industry has been, and continues to be, very slow to respond. The manufacturers in this industry are very risk adverse and the engineering community is not only extremely fragmented, but also tends to be "heavy equipment" oriented, more interested in chillers and boilers than human comfort. It seems increasingly clear that a major impetus for these predicted changes will come from outside our industry. Individual comfort delivery and accounting may become another application for the Internet that is provided by a revived dot.com industry. If so, it's a good place to start since one thing we have learned over the last few years (and we all hope California is relearning now), operating building comfort systems effectively in the 21st century has at least as much to do with communicating timely information over a network as it does the transmission of energy!
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