The market for automated systems in commercial buildings is growing rapidly, driven by increasing energy-efficiency goals, improving technology, and updated standards set by governments and professional associations.

Automation can centralize building systems controls — not just for HVAC but also for lighting, elevators, security systems, fire alarms, and just about anything that uses electricity — as well as cut energy consumption, help create more comfortable spaces, and provide diagnostic and fault-detection tools.

According to Transparency Market Research, a business research and analysis firm, the value of the worldwide market for commercial building automation was estimated at nearly $33 billion in 2020 and will more than double, to more than $76 billion, by the end of 2031.

That kind of growth represents opportunities for HVAC contractors and technicians who work on commercial projects. But automation also presents new challenges that contractors should be prepared for. Automated buildings must combine older mechanical technologies like compressors, fans, and refrigeration lines with more complex, newer developments like the Internet of Things (IoT) and building automation system (BAS) software. And commercial buildings vary widely — along with their owners’ and managers’ expectations for how those buildings should operate.

Following is insight from automation professionals representing three major building automation systems companies — all of whom have worked in the field — about some of the keys to working successfully with HVAC automation.



Continuing education was at the top of the list as experts talked about installing and servicing commercial automation. Technicians need to not only know the mechanics of an HVAC system but also have an understanding of BAS controls and software and how systems interpret data from the equipment to set run schedules, troubleshoot problems, and predict component failures before they occur.

“There is just a ton of information to become a fully well-rounded technician, mechanic,” said Jeff Gross, vice president of solutions at Daikin Applied. “It literally takes years to develop all those skills.”

Grant Salmon, a senior territory manager at Honeywell International Inc.’s commercial building controls division, said labor-management cooperation to provide ongoing training to technicians is vital. Where he works, in the New York City area, labor unions and trade schools have developed a good program of after-hours course work for continuing education, he said.

“Technicians need to be evolving,” he said.

Gross said he sees a lot of building automation workers who come from four-year degree programs in mechanical engineering or electrical engineering, while others come from trade schools that gave them more hands-on training. A better technician, he suggested, combines skills in all those areas.

“There is a requirement for all of those skill sets,” he said.

Robert Harland, a senior product manager at Johnson Controls Inc., has been working in automation for 20 years and said he is still learning.

“I think I’ve learned something pretty much every day, every week, that I didn’t know prior,” Harland said. “While our industry hasn’t necessarily changed at a breakneck speed, it’s always important for us to stay on top of the technology.”

Honeywell, Daikin, and Johnson Controls all have training programs that HVACR contractors and technicians can access to update their skills.

“It really just comes down to companies like ourselves setting them up for success,” Gross said.

“You can’t be an expert in all the different skills that are required in today’s industry.”
-Jeff Gross
Vice president of solutions
Daikin Applied


However, as automated HVACR systems grow more sophisticated, collaboration is also important.

“You can’t be an expert in all the different skills that are required in today’s industry,” Gross said.

Technicians often need to consult with colleagues who have different skill sets, as well as with the companies that make the products being installed or serviced. Personnel from different manufacturers will sometimes need to collaborate as well — for example, when BAS controls from one manufacturer are being retrofit into a system with major components from another manufacturer.

“It takes much more field coordination in ensuring those systems are working properly,” Gross said.

Technical support from manufacturers for outside technicians who are working with their products is essential. Salmon said he spends about half of his time working with technicians.

“The technicians really want to be supported. They want to know that if they’re running into an issue, they can call somebody and have support on the lifeline,” Salmon said. “Providing that level of support is important.”


Coordination On Site and Off

Experts also said HVACR automation workers need a clear understanding of what’s expected in a building automation project: what level of control is being sought, what kinds of data from the HVAC system — and how much of it — is supposed to be harnessed and interpreted to help the building run better.

Technicians, said Gross, need a full assessment of the capabilities of the HVAC equipment for which they’re installing automation. In a retrofit, experts said, that may boil down to how much money is being put into the system and how many major components are being changed out. “It’s all going to depend on what the owner is looking to do,” Salmon said.

“What is the owner’s threshold of what they’re interested in investing?” he said later. “There’re a lot of competing interests when it comes to where real estate owners are going to allocate their capital.”

While just about any piece of HVAC equipment — a older fan or compressor, for example — can be retrofit to be turned on and off automatically, and to have a number of data points captured from it, Salmon said that newer equipment is purpose-built to provide automation systems access to additional layers of data.

“Now we might have 100 or 150 points of data coming off that device,” he said.

Big data “is key in almost every industry right now. It certainly is key in the building automation space,” Salmon said. “It’s those new insights we’re going after that can really change an occupant’s experience of a building.”

From a building owner’s perspective, “It probably makes more sense to update that 30-year-old equipment at the same time they’re installing a new automation system,” Harland said. “Control systems are not going to make up for mechanical deficiencies.”

Like all tradespeople, Salmon said, HVAC automation technicians also need proper coordination on the jobsite, in terms of project sequencing and scheduling, to avoid the frustrations that come with situations like showing up as scheduled to perform a task and finding the equipment isn’t ready to go.

“You get onto a busy commercial construction site and it’s like a beehive of workers there,” he said. Good jobsite coordination, he said, is necessary to keep workers from getting in each other’s way.