Extra Edition / Business Management

Proprietary Systems: Let The Buyer Beware

August 23, 2003
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In the past couple of years I have had many opportunities to work with building owners and property managers on their HVAC systems. One subject that comes up frequently is dissatisfaction with the quality of work done by their service contractor. I have been called in by some of these people and asked to price a maintenance agreement.

The building manager then asks, "Can you also include the EMS (energy management system) in your price?" I look at the system, and often the answer is no.

Specifying An EMS

When a new building is constructed, the architect and engineers get together and specify an energy management system that they want installed in the building. This usually goes through a bid process and the winning controls contractor installs the system. They then train the property owner's personnel on how to operate the system and also include technology updates for the first couple of years.

This means that when a new software revision is available, the controls company will download it for "free." This creates a comfort zone for the buyer. The building owner/property manager is getting the latest and greatest product, which is constantly being upgraded, keeping the system on the cutting edge.

The EMS provider will then sell them a maintenance agreement covering the energy management system. Yes, this will include all of the software updates and programming necessary to keep the system up to date. This will almost always include a maintenance agreement on the rest of the HVAC equipment in the building. (There’s no sense having two contractors when you only need one!)

Now we're two years down the road and the owner is having performance issues with his or her HVAC service provider. The technician that installed and programmed the energy management system is no longer with the company. There are several areas in the building that are plagued with comfort issues that never seem to get resolved, and the equipment is not being maintained the way it used to be. It's time for a change.

Tied In To A Particular Contractor?

The owner calls several qualified contractors — including you — and gets bids for the work. It is likely that some or all of these companies will reply that they cannot provide coverage for the EMS because it is a proprietary system and the existing service/controls company owns the franchise for the entire state. If the customer wants new or upgraded software, he or she will have to buy it from them. (This is where I have seen many owners/managers turn different shades of red.) They look at me and ask why this is the case.

When a controls company installs an EMS in a building, they want to maintain it for life. As time goes on, the quality of the service may erode, prompting the manager/owner to look for a new service company. When they realize that their options for control work and upgrades may be limited to the same company, it's not pretty. They are bitter and wonder how they got into this predicament.

The moral of the story is, when property owners or managers choose an EMS for the building, they need an alternative if they become dissatisfied. If it is a proprietary system, many EMS companies will not train people to operate, program, or work on their system unless that person is a franchised contractor or customer.

Customers should ask questions upfront about how many companies in their area are franchised to work on an EMS if it is proprietary. Who else can provide software updates and technical support? Property owners and managers should make sure they avoid getting into a situation where they are forced to use a contractor that they are unhappy with.

Dennis L. Schroeder works for American Mechanical Services of Colorado Springs, Colo. He can be reached at 719-633-1322.

Publication date: 08/25/2003

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