ACHRNEWS

Choosing The Right Integrator For Building Automation

May 16, 2003
Building owners and managers are confronted with a host of control industry terms, titles, and technologies that tend to confuse more than clarify. The challenge for today’s facility professionals when it comes to installing a building automation system (BAS) is to understand the difference between system integrators and product integrators when implementing a given project. A key success factor is defining not only their changing roles and responsibilities, but also the desired outcomes and goals. This article examines the prevailing definitions and responsibilities of each type of integrator, offers a novel approach to system integration, and sets realistic expectations for the owner in terms of benefits, outcomes, and overall values.

Most building owners and facility professionals today are unclear over the differences between a product integrator, a network integrator, and a system integrator. While all of these players can provide quality products at competitive prices, the similarities typically end there. Compounding the confusion is the fact that many of the integrators do not differentiate themselves accurately from each other. In addition, an owner’s expectations of more advanced capabilities along with greatly reduced operating costs oftentimes exceed the integrator’s ability to deliver on them. For these reasons, it is appropriate to refer to the Control Systems Integrator Association (CSIA), which has formulated a specific definition for a system integrator.

Working Definitions

According to the CSIA, traditional building automation system integrators are essentially contract engineering firms that can design and implement automated production facilities for end users lacking the resources to do the job themselves. System integrators bring specialized engineering skills to automation projects and can supplement the end user’s often-understaffed engineering department.

Moreover, a system integrator is an organization or individual that is responsible for specifying, installing, designing, and maintaining the functionality — trends, alarms, and schedules — of a BAS created on an open communication protocol network, such as LonTalk. It is the responsibility of the system integrator to assemble the various components, which includes not only network devices but also controllers that are designed to handle temperature control, to create a cohesive system that meets the needs of the building owner. Building owners should expect that responsibility to include providing a solid, stable platform or system to build upon, rather than simply adding different products and components together in a piece-meal fashion.

While the CSIA offers no specific definition of product integrators, it is implicit in the above description that their responsibilities for integrating an individual product into the building automation scheme end with the product installation. This is a critical distinction for every owner and manager to understand.

A network integrator, as defined by Echelon, is an organization or individual with core competencies in the specification, design, installation, and maintenance of open control systems that are built on LonWorks networks. Unlike a system integrator, a network integrator and/or product integrator does not usually have available a base system that they can use as a platform to build on. A network integrator is continually trying to build a system using different vendors’ components and products that may not always match up properly. As such, neither the product nor network integrator is responsible for assuring that the system is truly capable of providing full system functionality.

A true system integrator can provide a single-seat, site-wide BAS graphical user interface, which many consider to be the ideal way to run a building. A system integrator provides access to key data and increased information management. This allows the use of more sophisticated programming strategies that can be implemented to reduce operating costs, increase productivity, prolong asset life, and increase occupant safety and satisfaction.

Ironically, a system integrator can also strengthen an owner’s bond with a single BAS provider and still offer greater choices in “best of breed” products and technologies from various manufacturers. Yet, many owners today are seeking single-source responsibility for the entire BAS project that consists of multiple vendor products, which only a proven system integrator can provide.

With the trend toward interoperability in building controls, the not-so-subtle differences between system integrators and product integrators take on additional significance. (See the comparison chart below.) Functional responsibilities normally overlap in the installation, programming, and start-up phases. However, at the commissioning stage, roles begin to change.

Good product integrators and/or network integrators are adept at all of these responsibilities, but their skills are limited to the functionality of their specific products. Their responsibilities end naturally with commissioning of their devices.

The system integrator’s responsibilities, however, extend beyond just commissioning, to include energy management strategies such as demand limiting, scheduling and device/system operations, energy reporting, and assuring interoperability and operational ease of use of the entire, integrated BAS. The system integrator is responsible for establishing and/or building upon a system platform. This platform provides the system integrator the foundation to embrace even greater project management responsibilities throughout the facility.



To achieve a truly interoperable system demands intense scrutiny in product compatibility. As such, the system integrator must function as the “front-end expert,” a critical supplier that evolves to become the owner’s primary contact for project information and progress reporting. A trusted, experienced professional needs to first understand the owner’s expectations, then scrutinize the myriad of details so that the owners can focus on their core business.

The system integrator has greater reporting responsibilities, as well. The deliverables must be documented in advance in order for the system integrator to function adequately as the “voice” of the owner. As the single point of contact, the system integrator must manage the project through completion, while providing the necessary support and services, and communicating with all involved parties throughout the process. Relationships with suppliers and contractors that create synergies and deliver on the owner’s expectations are critical to the project’s success.

Solid Platform Needed

As with any integrated system, the BAS is the solid foundation upon which everything is built. Typically, HVAC controls comprise the backbone of the system. Therefore, the fundamental role of a system integrator is to assure that the owner’s BAS is based on a firm yet flexible foundation. This foundation includes system components as well as individual controllers. A system integrator understands this intuitively. Essentially, the system must be open, easy to use with inviting graphics, include Web access, and offer full system functionality, such as schedules, trends, alarms, reports, and totalization.

A practical example of an “open system” that is built on a solid platform would be one whereby the BAS workstation handles graphics and reports, while employing an open protocol such as LonTalk as the primary communication vehicle. In this example, all the devices and applications, such as trending and alarming, scheduling, and database management, share information via peer-to-peer communication. It is important to note that the only portion of this example that is presently specified by LonMark is the various network interfaces, or LonMark Profiles, for controllers. Here, the product integrators will only provide the interfaces for their specific devices, while a system integrator is responsible for integrating all of the devices in a system and assuring interoperability.

The opportunity for end users to select from multiple manufacturers who offer products using the same, common protocol is increasing day by day. Who will enable end users to quickly upgrade or reconfigure their networks as new products are added? Here again, a system integrator can be of immense help in identifying and capitalizing on these opportunities because they have a view of the “big picture.”

Conclusion

Building owners and facility professionals looking for guidance in the installation of their BAS that uses multiple vendors’ products must be able to distinguish between product integrators, network integrators, and system integrators. Despite the flood of control industry terms, titles, and technologies that tend to confuse more than clarify, today’s professional needs to understand the responsibilities of each type of integrator, and then choose the most appropriate product and service provider to implement the project. Defining and outlining realistic expectations for the owner in terms of benefits, outcomes, and overall values is key.

Will Podgorski is Staefa Control System Product Manager, Siemens Building Technologies Inc., Buffalo Grove, Ill. For more information, visit www.staefa.com.

Publication date: 05/19/2003