July 2010


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EMS and Traffic Jam Avoidance

A Systems-level Perspective on Energy Management


Andy McMillanAndy McMillan
President and CEO
Teletrol Systems Inc.

now a part of Phillips

BACnet International
Contributing Editor

I was driving into Boston the other day and like many areas of the country we have our share of road construction projects. In theory, I can avoid the traffic jams associated with construction zones by using the traffic alert function on my GPS. Traffic alerts give me real-time information on traffic jams so that I can plan an optimum route to get where I want to go faster, and more predictably. In much the same way, an Energy Management System should provide information that enables you to get where you want to go with energy savings and sustainability initiatives. In both cases, the key to success is combining detailed technical implementation with a broad, systems-level perspective.

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The Component Perspective

The traffic alert on my GPS is a rather remarkable function that highlights road segments where traffic is particularly slow. When you think about it, you realize that this functionality requires a whole sequence of components to work correctly and in concert. First, there has to be a source for traffic slowdown data. It could be sensors in the road, video cameras with clever recognition software, tracking of vehicles through mobile phone location monitoring or other, more esoteric mechanisms. In any case, once the information is acquired, it has to be uploaded from the road-specific system to a database or server where it can be aggregated with data from other road segments. From there it has to be communicated to my GPS device and finally it has to be correctly translated into the graphical highlights that tell me where traffic is slow. Clearly, traffic alerts are a great feature, but to make it all work requires expertise in both the details of each step in the sequence along with a strong focus on systems-level thinking and design. It is the exactly the same with today’s leading-edge energy management systems.

To effectively manage energy use in a building or a collection of buildings, you first need to accurately measure the relevant parameters ,,, for example, the space temperature. Seems simple, right? But I know some people who will tell you different. They came to us originally because they realized their system could not accurately capture space temperature. They had put in a system designed by folks who understood temperature measurement in the abstract sense, but had little experience with the real world of sensors and systems. So, their temperature sensors drifted over time, were not protected from local employee “spoofing” and suffered from repeated data value translation. Traditional players in building automation systems (BAS) understand these issues and are generally good at addressing them. On the other hand, some of the new entrants in energy management who come from domains that deal with data, but not with data acquisition, don’t quite get it. Sooner or later they probably will, but there are going to be some painful learning experiences along the way.

The System Perspective

Effective and reliable data measurement allows accurate control at the local level, but enterprise energy management requires data to be aggregated and analyzed. This is where traditional BAS players tend to fall short for two reasons. First, they tend to store acquired data in their building controllers where it is hard to access, and subject to loss in the event of hardware failure. Second, they tend to regard data aggregation and analysis as “adjacent” functionality rather then as “core” capability. In this part of the problem, new entrants in the energy management market with IT strengths have an advantage. They come with an understanding of information management and associated data risk management. They also come with strong, IT-friendly networking solutions.

[an error occurred while processing this directive] The final step in the process is getting timely, processed information to users in meaningful forms. To accomplish that requires expertise in user requirements, analytics and the underlying technical domains related to building and energy systems. The current solutions that provide “top 10” and “year-over-year comparisons” are good, but not good enough. I had an interesting conversation with a building engineer recently where he described how a supplier tried to persuade them that a graphic showing spinning fans in a cooling duct cutaway was a great value-added feature. The reality was that the building engineer actually wanted to know just three things:

1. is unit in working condition;
2. is the fan on when it is supposed to be on;
3. and is the fan off when it is supposed to be off?

A graphic that provided precisely that information was far more valuable to him than an image of a spinning fan, no matter how “realistic.”


Just like getting meaningful traffic alerts to appear on my GPS screen in time to help me avoid problems requires deep expertise in data acquisition, information management, communications and user interface design, coupled with a broad systems engineering perspective.  Effective energy management system implementations require both deep and broad expertise. Perhaps that explains the ongoing consolidation in our industry. We have information technology companies buying companies with building systems expertise and BAS suppliers buying companies with information technology expertise. It is clear that truly effective energy management systems require a good measure of both so it will be interesting to see how our industry evolves over the next five to ten years.

As always, the views expressed in this column are mine and do not necessarily reflect the position of BACnet International, Philips Teletrol, ASHRAE, or any other organization. If you want to send comments to me directly, feel free to email me at andysview@arborcoast.com .


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