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Murphy's Law: The Controls Integration Dream

April 26, 2010
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Mike Murphy

The process of connecting two or more systems that were not intended or designed to be connected is the likely dream of every contractor that has ever tried to read three instruction manuals simultaneously. Just as every architect revels in the elusive perfect combination of form and function, every installer takes pride in fitting the perfect plenum, and every baseball pitcher yearns to hurl the perfect game, every controls contractor who has ever touched two wires together longs for the day when he can integrate two systems together to effectively become one.

To the industrious control contractors who endeavor on a daily basis to accomplish this goal, please do not take this harshly, but - fat chance.

It is a laudable goal indeed, for such a feat would not only mesh together disparate systems, but at the same time, integrate the suppliers of the systems, and more importantly, the users of the systems. To be sure, some real integration does take place thanks to cooperation among some suppliers and control protocols, but for the most part, a pipe dream still exists. As new protocols or control platforms are introduced that do not seamlessly and transparently cooperate with each other, a chasm seems to be widening.

Near the turn of this century, there were about four major control protocols vying for world-wide contention for a variety of purposes. Regarding HVAC system applications, it had mostly come down to BACnet® and Lon Works™. However, further Internet advancements brought more technologies into play with regard to how data is defined and carried: TCP/IP and XML for examples. Some people would even suggest that building management might some day be taken over by IT department personnel, which might make sense if we expect the future of building systems controls to truly become integrated.

That could mean thinking outside of lighting, HVAC, life safety, and perhaps including things such as building security, Internet firewalls, automated window shading, water, etc. Who is better prepared to handle total systems integration than the IT people who already understand all the new buzzwords and abbreviations?

CONTRACTORS BETTER CHOICE

Actually, HVAC contractors are much better prepared to understand the intelligent buildings of today. Especially considering that many controls contractors have spent countless hours learning the nuances of putting square pegs into round holes - in other words, contractors have the experience of working with a variety of systems from suppliers, and making them work together. Their specialty is buildings, not lighting, not security, not fire dampers - buildings.

But, a chasm widens every time a new proprietary protocol is introduced in the market, no matter how many names are attached to the list of partners or endorsers. It seems that too many organizations are still intent on creating their own controls platforms. Theoretically, new controls protocols work seamlessly and transparently with a number of suppliers and systems. True, to a point. However, what if a supplier or system is not on “the list”? What if a particular company chooses to team up with another protocol? What if Protocol A does not have a 100 percent communication capability with Protocol B?

Controls contractors often cut their teeth on a particular controls package and tend to promote and sell that package long into their careers. Building owners can be served quite well by a sole-sourcing contractor who provides one brand of equipment and one brand of complementary controls. However, many facilities are cursed with an assortment of equipment solutions, as square footage or entire new buildings were added, or replacement decisions varied from the original equipment. Therefore, in an ideal world, controls contractors need to be able to work without the limitations and restrictions of proprietary protocols especially when they choose not to carry more than one controls package.

There is not much that can be done for the old systems already in place. Contractors must continue to work with round pegs and square holes. However, new non-cooperating controls protocols may serve to limit contractors’ offerings and building owners’ choices.

Sources: Engineered Systems, August 2003

Publication date: 04/26/2010
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