September 2011

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The New Visibility & Interactions in the Building Automation Industry

What changes in the last few years have led to the “New Visibility & Interactions in the Building Automation Industry”? 

Article as submitted to
Control Engineering Asia
August 2011


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What changes in the last few years have led to the “New Visibility & Interactions in the Building Automation Industry”? 

Publisher/Editor of, Ken Sinclair outlines key changes that have forever changed the Building Automation Industry

Making the Invisible Visible

“Making the Invisible Visible” is about how do we as an industry depict our invisible cornerstones of comfort, energy, and environmental impact? How can we best show what cannot be seen: Temperature?, Comfort?, Electricity?, Performance?, and the necessary information to maintain all. We now have amazing anywhere graphics that can morph into real time digital signage to take our message to the world, but have we truly thought about what we will say? Our powerful far reaching real time network connections transport the invisible via the cloud but it is the graphics and their dashboards representations that convert the Invisible to Visible. This is the place where art, science, and communication meet while the world watches. As an industry we have never before had the opportunity to lead, but from our past obscurity we are becoming very visible everywhere.

Our powerful far reaching real time network connections transport the invisible via the internet cloud but it is the graphics and their dashboard representations that convert the Invisible to Visible.

Here are a few quotes from the industry;

Bill Parrish, Control Graphics - Implementation of Building Automation System (BAS) Graphical User Interface (GUI) is a unique challenge because every building’s GUI is required to be unique. The BAS GUI typically includes real-time interactive representations of building systems including HVAC, Life Safety, Access/Surveillance, Lighting, Utility Monitoring, etc. Most will include floor plans, and system schematics. By definition a facility’s BAS GUI is a custom GUI.

Designing and implementing an effective custom BAS GUI requires domain knowledge relevant to the systems being represented. It requires detailed knowledge of how GUI is implemented for the specific BAS platform. It also requires knowledge and skills across several other domains including graphic design, 3D modeling, usability/human factors, and GUI design.

Sarah Erdman, Marketing Director, QA Graphics - With today’s technologies, creative graphics can bring any intangible concept to life to accurately illustrate what generally can’t be seen. Great graphics offer the opportunity to explain the invisible, allowing you to see what’s going on behind the scenes. Graphics can improve sales and marketing tools, simplify training and education resources, and make technical concepts easier to understand. Ideas can be brought to reality, demonstrating even the smallest of details. Graphics are also relied on for day-to-day building operations, providing you with quick feedback for monitoring equipment functions, alarm statuses, resource consumption and other building operation tasks.

Alper Uzmezler, BAS Services & Graphics, LLC - One of the most intriguing advancements has been our web browsers. Today our web browsers can use the hardware resources of our graphics cards, and with the advancement of HTML5, our industry will see user interface advancements that most of us could not have imagined a decade ago. This has a huge benefit for BAS industry on the graphics side. There are only a handful of companies using the benefits of the latest generation browsers.

Nirosha Munasinghe, Open General - End users generally judge the BAS vendors' product through the capabilities of the graphics engine.

Solid graphical user interface generally leads to satisfied customers, which will benefit the BAS industry's value chain. Therefore, if an investment is made to properly design a graphical panel display for one customer with human perception and usability concepts applied during the design phase, the solution can be duplicated on other similar projects. It is becoming very important for BAS vendors to make sure their system integrators are designing attractive and user friendly graphical panels as they becomes the show case of the vendor’s entire product line.

Nino Kurtalj, Elma Kurtalj Ltd - After we measure, we need to draw a picture. It is an important general principle in explaining things. Most people will accept visual information much more quickly than information in other forms. Simple, visual perception is more immediate than a sequential scan of numbers and letters. Graphics data presents and shows relationships more clearly. Visual depictions of data are almost universally understood without requiring knowledge of language. The purpose of graphical data is to communicate information clearly and accurately.

Visible anywhere buildings integrations and the general anywhereness (yes that is now a word in Wikipedia) of our industry will be our challenge for 2011 and beyond.

Managing building systems all the time from anywhere with a continuously connected open web environment that allows the user to complete all tasks including engineering, commissioning and facility maintenance is the new reality. The role of evolving technologies such as smart phones and tablets for users and facility manager’s interface is changing everything while connecting everything and it’s this combination of changes that is dramatically changing our industry. The driver is not “Information Technology”, but the way forward is enabled by IT. We must prepare our building information for continuous connections.

We need a systematic approach to tracking energy utilization that detects problems early, long before they lead to tenant comfort complaints, high energy costs, or unexpected equipment failure. Today’s aggressive energy standards are greatly increasing the need to insure all technologies in place actually work. Once successful operation has been achieved continuous commissioning is the only way to maintain and improve our aggressive energy standards.

Connecting buildings to everything with connectivity and services now in the information cloud is the focus. New sensors, video analytics, wireless, Software as a Service, artificial intelligence, ownership of metering are all changing how we connect to the future. In addition building system analytic software, remote operations centers, micro video cameras, facial recognition security, plug load control and more add to the change. Our new found graphical technologies allow us to demonstrate and tell the world about our ability as an industry to reduce environmental impact.

Dashboards for Buildings

Dashboards are meant to convey essential information quickly and clearly on one screen.

In this article contributing editor Jim Sinopoli PE, RCDD, LEED AP Managing Principal, of Smart Buildings LLC provides this insight in his article

Dashboards can provide relevant and timely information to several organizational levels or groups involved with a building’s performance. These different users can be facility technicians, managers, C-level executives and even tenants, occupants or visitors through kiosks or a web page. The information provided may cover the specifics of particular building systems such as HVAC, electrical or specialty systems, but they tend to focus on energy usage, costs, KPIs, trends, alarm management, comparisons with similar buildings or building uses, etc. So the first and probably the most important steps are determining the right information for the intended viewer of the dashboard.

Facility technicians have different information needs than C-level executives or the general public. For example, a facility engineer may be interested in subsystem alarms and alarm management. In this case the dashboard needs to display alarm priority, escalation status, alarm acknowledgment, repetitive alarms, “out-of-service” alarms and sub-system communications or component failure, etc. C-level executives, such as Directors of Facilities, Sustainability or Procurement may want information on energy usage and cost. In this case the dashboard should display the usage and costs of a building’s comprehensive and individual utilities, budgeted versus actual utility costs, budget deviations, comparisons with other similar buildings, meter output for alternative energy sources such as photovoltaic and wind energy, etc.

In developing a series of dashboards, you need to identify what decisions or insight each user or group hopes to gain by using the dashboard and what information at what time interval is needed to support their decision process.

Dashboards will be fed from data and that data will probably need to be collected from several sources: building automation systems, specialty systems, business systems, etc. For example, if it’s an energy dashboard you’re creating, energy usage may be generated in a BAS, whereas the cost of the energy may be in a database in the company’s accounts payable system. If you’re a healthcare organization you may be interested in metrics such as energy use of an MRI machine per patient and need patient counts from business systems; or, if you are a retail company it may be energy use per customer or per sale and you need customer and sale data from the business systems.

To gather all the information needed for a dashboard you may need a middleware platform to normalize and standardize data generated from several sources in possibly different database formats. This would allow a flexible and consistent platform for the dashboard but also could potentially trigger additional data management with large amounts of data. Dashboards in general are typically used for high-level performance summaries with some dashboards such as analytical dashboards needing to “drill down” to specific data, so data management can depend on the specific use of the dashboards.

Industry Interactions

"Embedding information technology into the ambient social complexities of the physical world."

That is where we are in our evolution. Our Building Automation Industry has risen from the total obscurity of a boiler room and being installed by the sub trade of a sub trade to becoming a very visible industry. Now we must "Create Interactions" worthy of our visibility and strive to better understand how to interact with the powerful presentations of our information.

Should data be in or out of the cloud? The answer is yes. The cloud is a virtual conduit that can aggregate applications and analysis. We have moved from multiple independent web applications serving each building to independent single web applications serving multiple buildings.

At this year’s Connectivity Week I was leader of three separate sessions about our Buildings Data in the Cloud

The pdf's of these presentations have been posted take a look to gather greater insight. Just click on the article name. The importance and advantage of data in the cloud is now obvious. It is also important to understand the necessity to have actual input and output data that is necessary for building control grounded, as from time to time the cloud will not be present and continued control is required.

What kind of data can be valuable in the cloud?

Article - Real-time Data for Real-time Demand Management, Peter Sharer, Founder & CEO, Agilewaves

Peter provides this insight:

By combining new sensor technologies for real-time energy data collection, a data store and energy diagnostics reports, these new building energy management systems BEMs now make it economical to access and manage demand in real-time – in any building. How? With visibility into the overall energy footprint via energy profiling at the source – such as a lighting or power panel, down to the individual piece of equipment – these BEMs reveal a facility's energy profile and allow building staff to pinpoint energy-wasting systems or procedures.

Article - The Management of Building System Data (…or the absence of), Jim Sinopoli, PE, RCDD, LEED AP Smart Buildings LLC

Control Solutions, Inc Jim provides this commentary:

Building system data must be viewed as an asset: it has value, is necessary for properly operating and maintaining the building and it must be managed and treated as such. The question is how do we get accurate, validated and well organized data from our building systems that can be managed on an ongoing basis? What follows are some of the issues we face in managing building systems data:

•    Most building operations do not have a data management plan. What passes for the “data management plan” consists of a database associated with their Building Management System (BMS).

•    Start the plan on a wide-ranging scope. Identify the data and information that different people or groups involved with the building’s performance need to perform their work. Of course much of the data will be monitoring points on building systems but some data may be needed that’s in business systems or other systems outside of facility management or even outside the organization.

•    Identify where the data exists or how it will be generated and collected, how it will be accessed and estimate the scale or volume of data. Decide on a data format. Deal with the administrative aspects of the plan such as user access, dissemination of the data, how data will be integrated, how it will be archived, retention policies, how often the plan is reviewed, etc. Plan the organization of the data to assure the data is accurate and easily accessible.

•    Facility managers are missing opportunities if they don’t have the analytic tools to mine, predict and correlate building data. How many building owners are “harvesting” and analyzing data for the purpose of gaining insight into their building’s performance? Very few. However, when you look at other organizations and businesses they “mine” data from their users and customers and analyze the data in order to predict and guide their business and business processes. Data mining has been around for a while and is used extensively in web sites, retail purchases, financing, smartphones, to name a few. Look at a retailer like Wal-Mart which knows how many rolls of paper towels are sold daily at each store location, data that is part of a process to optimize their just-in-time supply chain process. Yet, how many large building owners can even tell you how many people entered their building on a daily basis or which building space is the least energy efficient? Which is the most used space? Which is the most and least secure?

I think as an industry we well understand how to collect and control building information data at a building level, but as the value of moving this data off site evolves and is demonstrated we need to re-examine what data needs to be in the offsite cloud and what needs to be out, remaining on site and of course what data needs to coexist in both domains, in and out of the offsite storage and action cloud.

From Finding the Needle

Project Haystack is an open source initiative to develop tag naming conventions and taxonomies for modeling of building equipment and operational data. The project is developing standardized data models and tag libraries for sites, equipment, and points related to energy, HVAC, lighting, refrigeration and other environmental systems. Substantial libraries of tag names and proposed taxonomy models are already in place.

From an interview with Brian Frank, Founder of SkyFoundry and a software architect of the SkySpark software platform. Previously, Brian was co-founder of Tridium and lead architect of the Niagara Framework. He is active in the development of open source initiatives for programming languages and protocols including: oBIX, Fantom, Sedona, and Project-Haystack.

Sinclair: Brian, why did you start Project-Haystack?

Frank: Project Haystack evolved from our experiences applying analytics to building automation and energy data. Most modern building automation systems have made it fairly easy to collect vast quantities of data from our buildings including environmental conditions, equipment operation, and energy usage. However, the reality today is that this data only exists in a low-level, unorganized format, which is difficult to analyze to find patterns, issues and opportunities for improved performance. The result is that we are now awash in large volumes of data, but we can’t easily derive value from it. To give an example, a building operator rarely cares about the raw sensor data – who has time to look through history logs of temperatures for every minute of the day? But if we could easily analyze all that sensor data, we can often find the issues that matter such as equipment and systems which aren't operating optimally or which need maintenance.

The first step to turning BAS data into actionable intelligence is to give the data "context" so that we know exactly how each piece of data fits into the overall system. For example, if an analytics routine needs to compare the discharge air temp of an AHU against the return air temp, how can we find this information? Today, often the only indication of what a point means is to decipher an arbitrary name the system integrator gave it during configuration such as "DA_TEMP". So one key aspect of Project Haystack is to establish a common vocabulary we can all use to give meaning to the information collected by the BAS.

But to really take analytics to the next step, we need to build more sophisticated models of our building and their environmental systems. For example, we might need to model the complete air distribution system so that software knows what AHUs feed which VAVs. Or we might need to know all the relationships between sub-meters and equipment in the electrical system. Modeling these relationships allows us to analyze operations at the systems level, building level, or even across an entire portfolio of buildings.

Project Haystack's mission is to define this common vocabulary so that we can begin to build these models of our buildings so that we can more efficiently derive value from all the data our building automation systems are collecting.

Project Haystack is run as an open source project, which makes it super easy for anyone to get involved.

All our collaboration is done on the forum at

I hope that above smattering of industry opinions and new directions helps you to better understand New Visibility & Interactions in the Building Automation Industry. Our free online magazine provides an ongoing resource of industry direction and opinion.



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