With Wireless and Handheld Technology Changing the Building-automation Game, Opportunities and Challenges Abound for Upgrading Existing Facilities

Trend Alert May-June 2015

Welcome to the new era of building automation. Never before have building owners and facility managers had such sophisticated and integrated systems to keep their buildings operating at peak performance—thanks to ever-evolving digital tools that enable real-time monitoring and control of building systems. The automation of HVAC, lighting, fire and life safety, and security and access controls—particularly when combined with wireless technology—promises to improve energy efficiency and optimization and provide new levels of functionality. And the trend has real traction in the market.

In fact, according to a report from Boulder, Colo.-based Navigant Research, annual revenue from commercial Building Automation Systems worldwide will grow from $56.9 billion in 2013 to $100.8 billion by 2021. But the existing building stock is still rife with legacy equipment, outdated thinking, and budget constraints that prevent owners and facility managers from fully capitalizing on the efficiencies these new technologies afford them. Further, inherent challenges with wireless applications exist in retrofitting scenarios that can complicate matters.

Nevertheless, the demand for mobile building-automation controls is high as facilities management professionals seek to capitalize on greater access to real-time data, and opportunities for improving efficiencies abound with these emerging digital solutions. retrofit spoke to several industry experts from the InsideIQ Building Automation Alliance, an international association of independent building automation contractors, to find out what they had to say about this emerging trend.

Cutting the Cord

As wireless and mobile technology continues to develop at an increasingly rapid pace, building owners and facility managers expect those advancements to extend to building automation, as well. In fact, 43 percent of respondents to a 2013 Building Efficiency Panel IT Mobility Survey by Milwaukee-based Johnson Controls said their operations currently use mobile tools with their Building Automation System (BAS) or Building Management System (BMS), and another 30 percent said such systems would be very important in the future.

Additionally, the survey revealed mobile devices are already being used to access a wide variety of building-related data, including BAS/BMS (43 percent); HVAC equipment/controls (42 percent); work order scheduling/management (40 percent); energy usage/consumption (26 percent); lighting (23 percent); security (23 percent); utility costs (12 percent); and fire (11 percent). In fact, less than one-third (27 percent) of respondents said mobile devices are not being used for any of the above categories in their facilities.

“There’s a great deal of interest in the market with regard to wireless technologies and mobile access technologies,” explains Shad Buhlig, president of Automatic Controls Engineering, Hayward, Calif. “Building operators do not want to be tied to the aging computer nobody wants to touch down in the boiler room that isn’t even necessarily on the network. They want to leapfrog to 2015 and get their existing, aging DDC system—no matter whose brand it is—up to the current standard, and it needs to be accessible via the web. So, whether using an Apple iOS or an Android or even just an Internet platform, that’s the expectation.”

Buhlig points out while the popularity of and demand for mobile applications for building automation are on the rise, he notes handheld technology is most commonly used for monitoring purposes and data collecting rather than for controls. Wireless solutions, he says, carry with them the added benefit of lower installation costs as opposed to hard-wiring. However, when it comes to controls, Buhlig says most customers still request browser-based hardwire systems that boast a higher degree of security (more on this later).

Among the reasons for the wireless trend in building automation is a strong push for data analytics as it relates to facilities management, according to Brian Oswald, executive vice president of Brookfield, Wis.-based Environmental Systems Inc. “I think that’s going to be a growing trend—being able to see [building-automation] data on your mobile device, so that you can walk into a building or walk into a retail location and pull up the analysis of that store, and you can see how it’s performing over a period of time. Or what possible faults occurred you would want to look at or start to investigate from a maintenance repair standpoint.”

About the Author

Robert Nieminen
Robert Nieminen is a freelance writer; the former editor of Interiors & Sources magazine; and retrofit’s editor at large, specializing in interiors. Under his direction, Interiors & Sources was the recipient of several publishing awards, as well as a pioneer of sustainability reporting.

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