November 2010
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Control System Upgrades

Determine your best path to a total system overhaul

Steven R. Calabrese


Steven R. Calabrese

Control Engineering Corp.

Contributing Editor



The company that I work for installs and services several lines of automatic building controls. In the twenty years that we’ve been in business, we’re into our third generation of Direct Digital Controls (DDC) with at least one of the manufacturers that we rep. What exactly does that mean? It means this. Building Automation Systems (BAS) utilizing DDC products have been around for as long as I’ve been in this business, and then some. These systems have a useful lifespan, just like any other product or system of products. And at the end of that lifespan, it’s time to depart with the old system and procure a new system. 

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Control Solutions, Inc


Seemingly for many of us, we tend to ignore the mortality of our products and systems until they completely konk out on us. While that may be acceptable practice for items such as dishwashers and television sets, unfortunately for Building Automation Systems this can lead to some major problems! Failure of an obsolete unitary or equipment level controller will virtually place said equipment out of commission until another controller can be installed in its place, whereas failure of a network level controller can cause much more heartache in terms of global operating parameters, scheduling, monitoring, and so on.

So why do we wait until the last minute to upgrade or replace a BAS, something so important to the operation of the facility? Human nature? Could be. Budgetary constraints? Very likely. Whatever the reason, the following will attempt to shed some light on the path to upgrade, and hopefully help those of you who are in need of an upgrade overcome your reluctance to move forward, and understand the importance of proceeding in the right direction.

General Apprehensions

A stated above, human nature dictates that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” We tend to become comfortable with what’s in place, even knowing deep down that what’s in place may be one day away from breaking down on us. Still, we take it day by day and keep our fingers crossed to get through “just one more day, one more week, one more month”, and so on. We put off the inevitable until it happens, and then we’re in a mad rush to get a new system or product in place, whether it’s a TV set, cell phone, washing machine, you name it.

A notion just as common is that many of us either don’t believe or don’t want to believe that something has indeed reached the end of its useful life. So true is this for the common home computer, that we tend to hang on to our trusty old PC long after its useful functionality has been supplanted by the technological advances of new state-of-the-art products, both hardware and software.

Lastly, budgetary constraints typically steer us toward expenditures that are, in appearance, more important and more of a priority. Physical items, things that can be seen, for example, stick in our minds more than systems that run “behind the scenes” and are out of sight, out of mind. The building needs a new façade, the interior spaces are in dire need of a paint job. Things like these tend to take precedence over the need for a new or upgraded HVAC control system, unfortunately pushing a BAS upgrade out of this year’s (and next year’s) budget.

Software Upgrade

A software upgrade can be an easy “first step” toward a full system upgrade, and may be all that’s needed at the given point in your BAS’s lifespan. The upgrade consists of loading the latest version of software and replacing the software dongle, if that’s the required means of software license protection. The existing computer workstation may need to be upgraded as well, as the new software will tend to have a larger requirement for memory, both hard disk and RAM.

Purchasing a software upgrade is a good idea if the upgrade will afford you some benefit over the software that you’re currently running. For example, an older version of software may not have the built-in capability to perform trending and alarming, and so this would be a justifiable reason to upgrade, if that’s something that’s important to you. A better graphics package may be a good reason to upgrade, however understand that if the new software comes with better graphics capabilities, there still needs to be time invested by a graphics designer to build new graphics to replace the older, outdated graphics.

A software upgrade is a must if your existing computer crashes and you need to purchase a new computer, if your existing version of software won’t run on the latest operating system. In this case, you’ll need to upgrade to the new software, like it or not.

Control Solutions, Inc Network Controller Upgrade

Some systems (including the product lines that my company reps) allow for a “partial upgrade”, meaning that you can leave most (if not all) of your controllers in place (at least for the time being), and simply replace your main network controller with the latest and greatest, typically utilizing a gateway to communicate with the existing “old school” controllers. So what does this get you?

Well, it gets you one step closer to the full upgrade, for starters. Web access is all the rage these days, and an upgrade can include the appropriate hardware to make your system web-accessible. This would allow for remote access of your system from anywhere in the world, as well as email notifications of alarms. Again, if this is something that would be important to you, then it’s something that should be considered.

Field Controller Upgrades

I see two categories of upgrades here: equipment level controller swapouts, and unit level controller swapouts. Following a network controller upgrade, it may be required that the field controllers need to be changed out. More typically, these controllers can remain in place, although changing them out would afford some benefits. As manufacturers develop newer product lines, the older ones tend to fade away from their production line and become obsolete. There is often a grace period for which the old controllers will still be available, but like anything, eventually they will no longer be made or able to be found. If it buys you some time by changing out the network controller (as discussed above), bear in mind that it’s also an indicator that you need to start working these controller swapouts into your upcoming budgets. For instance, if you operate a four-story office building, you may want to plan on doing a floor-by-floor sweep of controller swapouts for the next four years.

There are issues to consider when swapping out controllers. Can the existing thermistor temperature sensors be used with the new controllers, or did the manufacturer decide to design the next generation controllers to utilize a different type of sensor (why would they do that???). What about the network communication cabling? Can that be re-used? If not, what needs to be done in order for the new controllers to communicate? These are just a couple of the issues that need to addressed when considering controller upgrades.

In Summary

Like everything else, the BAS has a useful lifespan. It’s easy to compare the need for an upgrade in computer terms, stating that, as technology changes, the old stuff becomes obsolete, and the new stuff becomes the state-of-the-art. As with a personal computer, your BAS will eventually reach obsolescence, and while the life span of your system may well be two to even three times that of your typical pc, you still need to know when it’s time to start considering the path to total system upgrade. A phased upgrade, as discussed herein, may be an option, and could very much be your best plan. Just be mindful of the obstacles involved, and make sure you understand in no vague concepts what you’re up against and what to expect during the upgrade, and after all is said and done.

Tip of the Month: Don’t wait ‘til it’s too late! Get your control systems service provider in to evaluate your existing system and furnish a quotation for upgrade recommendations, and work it into your budget. Worst case, if you wait until your system finally does fail, you’ll already have the paperwork in hand and it’s just a matter of making a phone call to put the upgrade work in motion!

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