Making Commercial Controls Talk Together

September 20, 2010
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What obstacles do commercial controls contractors face today? And what are the best approaches and trends that aid them in developing workable solutions for their customers? One man with a wealth of experience who can answer these questions is Richard “Dick” Starr, president and CEO of The Enterprise Corp.

Starr has been in the controls business since 1970 when he joined the industry as a young sales engineer. Today, he said, the biggest challenge in commercial controls is integrating all of the systems in use by a customer into a single platform.

LAYERS OF HISTORY

According to Starr, there are layers upon layers of issues that controls contractors must understand in order to effectively serve their customers. These layers, Starr said, stem from the historical progression of the controls industry. In his opinion, being knowledgeable about how the industry has evolved over the years is essential to understanding the problems faced today by building owners and facility managers.

A rough chronology of the industry, as related by Starr, begins with the development and adoption of pneumatic controls in the 1960s and ’70s. He noted that the industry began to experiment with electronic controls in the 1970s, but the most common systems used through the ’80s and ’90s were hybrids of pneumatic and electronic controls. In the 1990s, more and more customers switched to computerized-type controls, and it wasn’t until the 2000s that the industry saw the proliferation of web-based systems.

Although “we are currently in an era with open protocols like BACnet, LonWorks, and ModBus,” Starr said contractors must understand the industry’s history to be able to make control systems of varying vintages work together.

TALKING TOGETHER

For commercial controls, Starr said, “The real goal is to get everything talking together.” For example, Starr said, on a current project for a health care company, he is working to integrate “a Johnson Controls Metasys system from the 1980s, a Siemens system of 2000s vintage, and Carrier rooftop units with proprietary controls.”

But this concept of “talking together” doesn’t just apply to the equipment and systems. It also applies to the people involved in the project, Starr said. In fact, he used the buzzword “coopetition” - a compound of cooperation and competition - to describe how former competitors must collaborate to serve the needs of the customer.

Starr said if he were to talk controls only on this particular job, Carrier could still be considered his competitor. But now, he said, they’re working with him so he can integrate the older rooftop units into the controls system.

He also noted that this project again highlights the “complexity of why contractors must understand how systems from earlier generations function and must be able to understand what the owner needs.”

AN INTEGRATED FUTURE

As contractors continue to successfully integrate different HVAC systems into one platform for the customer, the next step, Starr said, “is to integrate more facility functions with the system,” which could include lighting and security.

For instance, he described a perfect scenario of integrated controls for a large office building. On a nonworking day, an employee who needs to get some work done will arrive at the office and swipe her badge at the building’s entrance. This will immediately inform the network of the need to integrate the various control systems in the building to make her visit to the office convenient and effective. After she swipes her pass, the door will open, and lighting will come on that directly lights her path to her desk. In addition, airflow and ventilation will be modified in her work area to make her environment comfortable. This example, Starr said, is truly “taking advantage of all the technology out there.”

He also mentioned other projects that are moving in even more sophisticated directions. For ex- ample, he cited a clinic that is seeking to develop a “smart bed” that will “tell the network what’s going on in a room as the patient comes in.” The network will be able to respond with specific information about that patient, such as what medicines he’ll need, what temperature is needed for the room while he’s there, and more.

Starr noted that the customers most interested in sophisticated controls systems are schools, hospitals, industrial plants, and commercial office buildings. But he believes that the progression and adoption of highly integrated controls will continue. Starr said that the industry’s vision of what controls will be able to do in the future is expanding, and he has been impressed by many of the people he has met while serving on the boards of both the Mechanical Service Contractors of America (MSCA) and the Mechanical Contractors Association of America (MCAA).

“The technology has really allowed us to evolve,” Starr said. “It’s a great time to be alive.”

Publication date: 09/20/2010

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