March 2021

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The End of the BAS Era


By Scott Cochrane, President and CEO, Cochrane Supply & EngineeringContributing Editor,


 Scott Cochrane, President & CEO,

 Cochrane Supply & Engineering;

 Contributing Editor



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THE FIRST ERA OF BUILDING AUTOMATION | THE PNEUMATIC ERA (1900s to 1980) - This era started in the early 1900s with stand-alone pneumatic controls / air pressure-driven devices. These devices were continually improved into the 1960s when the receiver controller, pneumatic sensors and other innovations allowed for AHU and centralized control in large buildings for the first time. This led to great growth for the industry in the 1970s because they could finally offer better comfort control more efficiently. All good things come to an end and so did the PNEUMATIC ERA, when the microchip became available to the industry in the early 1980s. The microchips brought computers, and with computers came a new era in BAS... 


THE DIRECT DIGITAL CONTROL (DDC) ERA (1980s to 1999) - Not only did computers replace centralized control, but the devices that controlled air and water flow also changed from being powered by air pressure to electric signals, giving rise to new companies that dominate today like Belimo. The DDC days also brought us communication protocols that allowed controllers distributed throughout the building to communicate with a centralized computer. That computer housed graphical user interface software so the operators could see and control the entire building from one computer interface for the FIRST TIME EVER!!! So cool—just like the Jetsons. I started in the industry around this time and I noticed the quick rise of the DDC over pneumatics. But for a long time, even today, there are still many hybrid systems running pneumatic zone devices with an automation system overlay. Pneumatic Electric systems (the leftover legacy of the joint eras) are still in some of the biggest buildings, primarily due to the huge expense to replace some of these pneumatic systems.   


By 1998, ASHRAE, Echelon, and other large companies and industries had developed different network communication protocols, each requiring specific software and products to work. This created incompatibility between these computer systems causing pain for contractors and building owners who had to overcome these challenges. With challenges come opportunities, however, and a man named Jerry Frank saw something and decided to act on it, creating the Niagara Framework and a company called Tridium.  


Niagara allowed the industry to integrate all these dissimilar protocols, creating a new common interface for building operators. Not only did Niagara allow for integration between temperature control systems, but it also allowed for integration to other systems like lighting, energy metering, backup power and basically any building system that had a communication protocol could be considered. And with these new combined system capabilities, and with added computing power in controllers and computers, true building automation became a reality and started a new era... 


THE BUILDING AUTOMATION SYSTEMS (BAS) ERA (2000 to… the day you read this article) - Open Systems now reign Supreme!!!! As integration took over, building owners got smarter about procurement and realized systems comprised of open network protocols and devices are far less expensive and more flexible to install and maintain. This trend has ended buildings being forced to use the same vendor for all BAS services and has allowed new manufacturers into the party and thus strengthened the capabilities of independent control contractors and integrators.  The BAS days that most would argue are still here have ushered in the Internet and all the good and bad that comes with it.  At first, we were like, “COOL, connect the BAS system to the owner’s network and any web browser on the network can work—unlimited access by anyone on the network!” Then, the WHITE HAT HACKERS showed up and showed all of us some of the new problems we are potentially causing, but we went forward anyways.  


We kept working with one IT department after another, ensuring we met their security standards, updating, changing, updating, coding, developing and another meeting with the IT department until we find out they sold the building and we are starting over with a new IT department. This was not healthy but we were learning, about IP, about the internet, about cyber security and we were sharing with BAS manufacturers the importance of IP and how it will change the industry.   


Some listened early and developed full IP BAS control offerings in the early 2000s and by 2019, all the major BAS manufacturers started offering fully IP-based BAS control systems. No RS485 or subnetwork required, these bad boys sit right on the network. Well, those IT departments we were collaborating with on one or two IP drops, all of a sudden we were asking for 24 drops, then 100, then 300, then they said that’s bigger than my business network in this building... get the f**k off my network. Oops sorry!?   


Okay, we can get off the owners’ networks, we just needed to install our own IP network, and with our own IP network our BAS industry capabilities just hit hyper drive... why? Because we are now free to utilize this Operational Technology Network to connect anything in the building quickly, with blazing speed, with no limits on data gathering—all in a way that’s cost effective, secure and managed by facility professionals that understand IP. It’s not run by IT departments that typically have other priorities outside of the comfort within a building. And so I introduce you to our brand-new era just starting… 


THE OPERATIONAL TECHNOLOGY (OT) ERA (2020 to hopefully I’ll be retired????) - Here we go, into the great IT black hole—a whole new vocabulary and a new way of architecting our BAS solutions. No longer will we be worried about what kind of protocol the systems has, but instead whether the IP device has an API or a web server. The OT era will allow us to cost-effectively connect different building control applications together on a dedicated network on premise and allow for the systems to work together to accomplish new applications in occupant and owner experiences.  


YES, the BAS industry is becoming another IT industry, just like the telephone industry did. Instead of dedicating a business's IT department to dealing with networks that support the building, these new networks will be designed by mechanical engineers, installed by mechanical contractors, and maintained by the building’s facility staff, all of whom will combine their mechanical knowledge with new IT knowledge to craft a modern solution. Welcome to our new reality—completely IP based digitized systems controlling buildings with 100X the data. That data, constantly being analyzed by analytics driven by artificial intelligence, are creating new energy efficiency standards, new building control capabilities, and an entire industry of new smart building features now enabled for the owners and occupants within.    


No this isn’t your normal IT-managed service…

How can you make sure you’re educated on this era, what’s available now and what’s to come? I highly encourage you to check out Controls-Con, a Smart Building Controls Conference coming this May 2021. Don’t wait until the next era to be at the forefront of this one… See you there! (AutomatedBuildings readers can register with Promo Code AB10 to save 10% off!) 


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