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In a session at the 2021 Controls-Con, presented by Cochrane Supply, Jim Young, founder and CEO of Realcomm, presented a bold vision of the future: a built environment that has been fully digitalized. The building automation trends that many expected to take 20-30 years have sped up dramatically as a result of the pandemic, helping to realize Young’s vision of the future. People are rethinking how much space they need and whether that space will be used in the same way as before. In addition, digital technology will reach into nearly every aspect of the building: for example, hotel rooms that automatically reduce (or shut off) electricity to a hotel room when the occupant leaves, or elevators that are programmed to run in the most efficient way possible. With all of this, data will be collected that can help owners reduce their bottom line.

Jim Young.

DIGITAL FUTURE: Jim Young, founder and CEO of Realcomm, spoke at Controls-Con and presented a bold vision of the future: a built environment that has been fully digitalized. (Staff Photo)

HVAC has a critical role to play in the future of building automation and digitalization. Already, building automation technology exists to increase comfort, efficiency, and security.


Managing Building Comfort

Building automation technology on the market today offers robust control of buildings and vast data collection, which can lead to energy savings.

“Over the past several years, we’ve recognized that while building occupants are looking for personalized local comfort control, building owners and facility managers are demanding better-centralized control of equipment through more sophisticated controllers and building management systems,” said Charles Miltiades, director of controls, products, and solutions, Mitsubishi Electric Trane HVAC US (METUS). This better-centralized control leads to a range of benefits. Facility managers can access the energy and performance data of their properties, and then they can identify strategies to lowering energy costs. These systems streamline the management of any structure, whether it be multifamily housing, office buildings, or mixed-use spaces. The building automation systems of today also ease the service and maintenance of HVAC systems, allowing much of the system monitoring to be done remotely.

“Daikin sees a number of technologies trending in the building automation sector,” said Mike Hoppe, product leader, Daikin Intelligent Solutions. “These include a shift to cloud-based building controls, wireless sensing and control, and using data analytics to gain insights regarding energy consumption, IAQ, sustainability, and HVAC equipment performance.”

Wireless communications within building automation systems are becoming more and more of an expectation. Rooms and spaces today are frequently repurposed, and wireless technology allows for sensors to be easily relocated so electricians don’t need to be brought into restructure wiring within walls. Plus, with wireless technology, there is no fear of a link on a wired network being cut, where everything in the network after the failure disappears.

“A self-healing wireless mesh network of devices — both controllers and sensors — provides multiple paths for data to move around a network,” said Dave Molin, vice president of controls, Trane Commercial HVAC Americas, Trane Technologies. Instead, he explained, if a node fails on a wireless network, a properly designed solution would mitigate that failure by providing alternate communication paths to keep as many devices online as possible.

“This ultimately can lead to an improved experience for building occupants and fewer callbacks for a contractor,” Molin added.

Building automation systems also can be hosted on the cloud, which dramatically lowers the work from when customers needed to manage their own servers. Companies devoted to hosting secure BAS servers charge owners a subscription fee for the software along with maintenance and upgrades.

Mark Jones, business manager, Carrier Commercial Controls, said that with this model, BAS providers are simplifying setup, removing surprise IT costs, improving reliability and security, and improving BAS accessibility for customers.

“Installing contractors also win through simplified BAS setup — there is no server to install/maintain on-site, and customers benefit from a reliable, secure BAS with built-in maintenance, upgrades, and 24/7 accessibility,” Jones said.

Building automation systems are able to drop energy costs too. Tools built into the software will run automated tests, which will test the HVAC’s system components at the first start-up. Troubleshooting features are built into the systems as well, which can help building owners and installers consistently monitoring the health of their HVAC systems.


Cybersecurity and BACnet

As digital technology spreads throughout different sectors of the economy, there is a growing need for built-in security for devices and systems. One building system in Israel was accidentally infected with malware, and three months later, the owners were still unable to get the elevators to run or the HVAC to operate properly. Today’s building automation systems include a number of technologies to maintain their integrity, and one of these is a security enhancement of BACnet called BACnet Secure Connect.

“While BACnet continues to be the customer-preferred open standard communications protocol, this technology improvement provides a secure and encrypted data link that is designed to satisfy the requirements for improved cybersecurity and data protection,” said Molin. He added that successful controls contractors are already capably navigating building owners’ IT security needs, and that BACnet Secure Connect will only make that navigation easier.

BACnet Secure Connect is still being ratified by ASHRAE and offers a secure communication between a building and the cloud, as well as secure communication within a facility. BACnet Secure Connect is also compatible with existing BACnet systems.


Ease of Use

“Contractors should be looking for systems that leverage the latest technologies but also have a proven track record,” said Carrier’s Jones. “The best BAS systems for contractors offer all the HVAC equipment and system controls they are accustomed to, while adding SaaS technologies to further improve occupant comfort, system performance, and operating costs.”

End users value building automation systems that make managing a building easy and viewing its energy use data intuitive. This often takes the form of a dashboard that can display information like system performance, energy savings, and indoor air quality metrics. If given permission, contractors can access the dashboard as well. They can then connect with the end user to either schedule needed HVAC maintenance or remotely optimize the equipment.

According to Trane Technologies’ Molin, building owners are increasingly looking for a single interface to manage their entire facility’s infrastructure. An HVAC BAS will eventually be rolled into a comprehensive facility energy management solution in the near future as owners work to streamline processes even more.

Norman Pennant, senior commercial controls manager, Daikin North America LLC, explained that contractors should be looking for building automation systems that do not require programming knowledge to integrate HVAC systems and external devices.

“It should save them time and money since the hard work of complex programming and integration of the system is already done,” Pennant said.


The Indoor Environment

Building automation systems and their accompanying air quality sensors can also help facility managers and building owners ensure that the indoor environment of their property is kept at its best. Systems that can measure indoor contaminants and then adapt accordingly are now considered the norm, and they can also manage other aspects of the environment such as temperature, acoustics, and lighting.

“The future of intelligent HVAC systems and building automation solutions will place emphasis on enhanced sensing and device connectivity capabilities,” said METUS’ Miltiades. “The adoption of smart sensors will increase, especially those detecting other indoor environmental conditions like moisture and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) to help improve indoor environmental quality.”