ACHRNEWS

Building Automation Can Boost Your Business

December 7, 2002
Contractors are always looking for different ways to grow their businesses. Positive word of mouth from existing customers is one of the best ways to get referrals. Advertising in various media (coupon packs, local newspapers, and Yellow Pages) is another way to attract business from new customers.

But what about offering a completely new product or service — one that is intertwined with the products and services a contractor already offers, but that many customers would find extremely beneficial if implemented correctly?

That new product and service can be found in building automation systems (BAS).

Some contractors may think that they shouldn’t get involved with designing and installing BAS because the systems are too complicated. They may believe it best to leave BAS implementation the way it’s always been done, with the system specified by an engineer and installed by a dedicated systems integrator or manufacturer. This scenario is changing, especially as BAS move into smaller commercial applications.

TAKING THE PLUNGE

Contractors need to embrace building automation technology rather than be afraid of it, because more and more building owners are seeking creative ways of operating their properties “smarter.” To accomplish this and make important operational decisions, they need to have real building information on the equipment and temperature and humidity trends.

How can contractors know these things if they don’t have a BAS in place collecting data?

This customer demand is being pushed into smaller and smaller buildings, said Patrick Madigan, program manager for Delivered Systems, Trane, St. Paul, MN. “It is with these light commercial or rooftop unit buildings that contractors are looking squarely into a huge opportunity to diversify their business, add value to themselves and their customers’ properties, and make more money by understanding and offering more than programmable thermostats.”

Indeed, there are products available today that do not require a degree in computer science to set up and are perfectly suited for most typical small- to medium-sized buildings. Some of these products are “delivered” BAS, specifically designed to be delivered to contractors for their ownership in installation.

While these delivered BAS lack some of the flexibility of the powerful, complicated products specified by some engineers, they are truly ideal for the light commercial/rooftop unit market.

Designing and installing a BAS is a detail-oriented process. There are numerous items that mustn't be overlooked.

AVOIDING MISTAKES

As can be expected, there’s a definite learning curve involved when designing and installing BAS.

“Contractors usually find their first few BAS jobs to be their most challenging,” said Madigan. “On their first few jobs, installation and building startup are always the biggest challenges. The goal is to do it right the first time, get off the job, and get paid. Every additional day and each callback has a direct impact on the job’s profit.

“I think BAS and controls are perceived as a risk, simply because of the lack of experience and/or training of many contractors.”

Designing and installing a BAS is a detail-oriented process, and there are numerous items that mustn’t be overlooked. Madigan pointed out that some mistakes involve the polarity of the communication (if it’s required), the proper addressing of equipment (usually done with dip-switches), and making sure all the HVAC units and VAV boxes have temperature sensors wired in. Omission of any one of these seemingly small details will make it necessary for the installer to troubleshoot the installation.

Madigan notes that the BAS should be smart enough to tell what many of the common problems are via alarms. For example, if a zone sensor was missing the BAS panel, it would have a diagnostic alarm stating “Zone Sensor Fail RTU #1.”

“As you can imagine, if it is one of the situations that doesn’t generate an alarm, the troubleshooter must literally verify wiring connections one by one, and this is not fun,” said Madigan. “It truly pays to slow down, clearly label all wires, tighten all screw terminals, and double-check addresses before you move on to the next one.”

Interoperability issues may arise as well, even after successful installation and wiring. “We’re doing great things with technology, like making input and output terminals on a controller multifunctioning,” Madigan pointed out. “What this means to the contractor is that if the device configuration isn’t correct from the factory, the installer must know how — and have the software tools — to connect to the device and reconfigure it via a laptop computer. So for most installations, I wouldn’t say we have interoperability issues; we have change-in-technology issues.”

GETTING STARTED

For a contractor to successfully add BAS to his business, it might be prudent to first designate someone in the business to champion the cause — a sort of go-to person.

Madigan also suggests working with the equipment manufacturer and controls manufacturer (if different) to find a class. “The sooner you get a few jobs behind you, the better you’ll feel, and the more excited you’ll get about the endless possibilities,” he said.

Deciding to offer BAS services also doesn’t mean launching a huge advertising campaign, especially if the contractor is new to this type of business. As the contractor successfully completes more BAS installations, it might be worth adding the appropriate signage to company trucks and vans.

As noted, word-of-mouth advertising can be a contractor’s best friend, and if projects come in on time and budget, positive comments will spread and referrals will roll in.

And for those contractors who still think BAS should be left to the systems integrators, Madigan has a few words of wisdom. “I see systems integrators as computer and software specialists. They’re trying to get brand ‘X’ BAS to share data with brand ‘Y’ BAS and brand ‘Z’ security and/or fire and life systems.

“A systems integrator may know very little about the design, installation, and application of the HVAC system. As the HVAC controls specialist, you will be invaluable to the customer and to the system integrator.”

Publication date: 12/09/2002