More and more contractors are having to learn about building management systems. Or, if they aren’t, they should be — especially as more building owners demand that their systems be more functional and flexible.

Part of this trend toward more flexible systems includes device networking (yes, another “hot” term from the world of computers). All it really means is that real-time data is available from the actual device. The old way a building automation system worked involved, for example, a space sensor that talked about the temperature within a space to a CPU or a mainframe computer. That mainframe computer could then dial out or be dialed into.

Device networking at its best goes right to the space sensor, so there’s no intermediate box with the brains that it needs to be tied into. All the brains are in the chip that’s located right at that device.

What this means for customers is real-time access to data, as well as greater flexibility, control, and knowledge.

What it means for contractors is a recurring revenue stream, as well as the ability to become much closer to customers.

Given the number of legacy systems that exist in the market today, device networking will be the logical evolution from systems integration as the systems themselves become less a function of capturing disparate “dumb” devices. The cost points for smart devices are now more realistic.

Users Benefit

The main push behind the move to device networking is coming from building owners. Behind them are the companies that can make it happen. These companies are telling building owners that device networking can provide more data about their buildings than they ever thought possible.

But it’s not just data for data’s sake. It’s real data that can help these owners make critical decisions about their buildings. Basically, the increased amount of information should allow for much better benchmarking and long-term cost control.

In addition, device networking allows for more refined and immediate remote monitoring of a building, which should lead to more up time of building systems.

Better Maintenance

Remote monitoring also allows greater control and more sophisticated maintenance planning. For example, it will only be necessary to have people working on a system component when the component needs to be worked on, which will lead to better service agreements, which in turn should lead to lower cost structures.

And at the end of the day, it frees up employees to focus on other aspects of the business, instead of going around doing preventive maintenance for its own sake.

The maintenance issue is key, according to Jack Bullock, managing director of controls and solutions, CMPA, a large ($50 million/year) general contractor in Grapevine, TX. “Endusers benefit because most of the time, the devices you’re attaching to are application specific, so the maintenance costs are usually less.

“Most of the devices are configurable instead of programmable, so it doesn’t take as high a level of a technician to install and maintain them. From our aspect, it reduces our service costs and our warranty costs.”

Bullock adds that another benefit is that device networking gives building owners more data with a lower cost to install, because all you need to do is string twisted-pair wiring between devices.

The additional data is really handy to have on hand. Let’s use the example of a chiller. In an older automation system, a sensor wire would be run from the control panel out to the chiller, and measurements were taken of chilled-water supply and return temperature. In addition, the system could provide run status and (usually) starting-stopping points.

“With device networking, you get how many amps, what’s the temperature of the machine, what are the critical conditions, and so much more,” says Bullock. “It gives you all kinds of alarms and things you wouldn’t normally have the budget for. I really like being able to pick up a lot more data.”

Contractors Benefit

“Show me a contractor who can afford to put a man in a building for 24 hours a day, 365 days a year,” says Terry Diaferio, vice president e-Business, EggSystems .com, Minneapolis, MN. “That’s what device networking is. It’s constant monitoring of a device or a system, real-time, and that’s service at its best.

“Contractors will see this as a means to stay in touch with their customers, to continue to provide value, and by staying in touch with that customer’s business, it gives contractors a great opportunity to continue to find other areas into which they can bring value. That’s business growth.”

Device networking offers a recurring revenue stream for contractors, getting them much closer to customers and more knowledgeable of their businesses than the simple project mentality of the past. The biggest way this recurring revenue stream will work is through service agreements and on-going monitoring.

Contractors can be connected to the building systems and critical devices and be notified proactively if there are any problems occurring before the occupants are aware of the situation. The contractor can usually be in and out before the owner even knows there’s a problem. And, of course, that ongoing access means contractors should always have their eyes open for additional equipment upgrades and service opportunities.

Service Booster One of the biggest reasons to learn about device networking is that the world of service is changing. Many contractors are very good at controls, boilers, or chillers. And the reality is, that’s all becoming a commodity. There are a lot of people who are very good at those things.

What isn’t a commodity is the knowledge or the domain expertise of how those commodities interface to help building owners be more profitable, have a better edge, and provide better value for his/her customers. Contractors who acquire and apply the technology to enhance their customer’s business will win in the end.

Device networking is a tool that provides contractors with specific information, real time, enabling them to provide value-added information to assist their clients.

It’s more than simply networking the device, but rather matching the information acquired from that networked device with the knowledge of the customer’s business to assist in the application of that knowledge to enhance their processes. It’s the intimacy that will not be a commodity; hence higher margins, longer term relationships, and on-going revenue streams.

“You’re never going to get away from having the man in the building doing the work,” says Diaferio. “Mechanical systems, control systems, by their very nature, will demand people physically doing something to the systems for years to come. So you can’t do it without contractors, you can’t do it without fitters, you can’t do it without technicians.

“But contractors will find themselves doing it much differently when they arm those people with real-time information, direct from the devices.”

There’s no better time than the present to become involved with device networking. Controls are becoming much simpler, and manufacturers are working hard to teach people how to use their products.

“The intelligence is all moving to the device,” says Bullock. “That’s the way the industry is moving. If you don’t learn it, it’s like sticking your head in the ground and saying computers aren’t going to be a big thing.”

Publication date: 11/20/2000

Sidebar: Driving Down Networking Costs

Today, you and your customers can access the Internet from almost anywhere with a free local phone call. “This technology has decreased the cost of device networking and made it a viable option for many companies,” explains Terrence Diaferio, vice president of e-business for EggSystems.

Here are the paths EggSystems has taken on its journey to lower costs, and more importantly, provide enhanced service responsiveness.

No monitoring: 30 years ago, building equipment often was installed and “left to its own devices.” Servicing was completely reactive.

On-site monitoring: A decade later, manually charting equipment performance cost thousands of dollars in service time per system per year, and provided some rudimentary proactive maintenance.

Remote monitoring via modems: 10 years ago, technology enabled businesses to remotely monitor networked building equipment. When linked through a modem, data was transferred to a central repository for action.

“Internet” remote monitoring: Now, real-time, decision-ready information is available through a local call. Tomorrow’s destination? Even better res-ponsiveness and reduced operating costs.

Wireless monitoring: Soon, wireless communication will be cost effective enough to eliminate the central repository. Small devices will be networked directly from the equipment being monitored to your computer.

Publication date: 11/20/2000