Navigant Research Blog

Wireless Building Controls Standards Emerge

— April 17, 2013

Wireless communications for building control systems have been available for more than a decade.  However, these product lines – focused on specific single building system (lighting, HVAC, etc.) – have achieved acceptance only in small market niches.  Wireless controls have always had what seemed to be a strong business case: reduced labor costs thanks to less wire pulling, more flexible sensor placement, and the ability to adapt as building interiors are rearranged over time.  In practice, however, these benefits were offset by the initial costs, lack of training, and often poor performance characteristics of the proprietary, non-standard market offerings.

This is changing rapidly, as two particular wireless controls standards have emerged with strong multivendor support:  ZigBee Commercial Building Automation (ZBA) and EnOcean.   Our recently published report, Wireless Control Systems for Smart Buildings, forecasts that these two standards will battle each other for share in a growing global market.   Interestingly, these two successful standards evolved from very different approaches.

Wireless Building Controls Penetration Rate by Region, World Markets: 2012-2020


The ZigBee Alliance was founded in 2002 to develop an open standard for wireless sensor networking, with commercial building automation a key application target.  While market attention has focused on an Internet Protocol (IP) version of ZigBee for Smart Energy (i.e., smart meter and home area networks), other groups quietly, steadily, and quite slowly, inched toward a ZigBee implementation for commercial building control systems.  It took more than 10 years and several detours, but the working groups ultimately adapted the popular BACnet building control protocols to the proven ZigBee PRO networking stack to deliver a mesh networking solution that most industry participants are now embracing, including Trane and Schneider Electric, among many others.  Ultimately, a long, multi-vendor effort has produced an acceptable general wireless standard that spans lighting, HVAC, fire & safety, and security & access building controls systems.

The EnOcean specifications have emerged by a completely different path that started from a proprietary single-vendor product set targeting a specific problem; it subsequently opened up to multiple vendors and a broader solution space.  EnOcean GmbH was spun out in 2001 from Siemens AG as a provider of self-powered wireless lighting controls, whereby the energy inherent in physically toggling a light switch is harvested to power wireless communications to the lighting system.  This avoids the battery maintenance problem associated with battery-based wireless switches.   EnOcean the company initiated the creation of an industry alliance, and though the technology has been accepted as a ISO/IEC standard, the underlying technology remains essentially sourced by a single vendor.  Yet, the EnOcean solution has garnered broad industry support and customer acceptance, particularly in Europe – enough to cause the ZigBee Alliance to develop a similar energy harvesting specification.

Despite the very different pedigrees, the stage is set for a battle between ZigBee, EnOcean, and proprietary solutions.  Other standards and semi-standards including Wi-Fi, Z-Wave, and LonWorks will also look for mindshare, but we see these are secondary to the larger battle between ZigBee and EnOcean.  This competition should benefit the consumers of these technologies: building controls vendors, integrators, installers, and ultimately, building occupants.


German Plug-Ins Arrive, Finally

— April 16, 2013

Automakers in the United States, Asia, and France have been at the forefront of plug-in electric vehicle (PEV) development since the vehicles hit the mass market reality.  Tesla, Chevrolet, Nissan, Mitsubishi, Renault, and a slew of Chinese automakers have led the charge since 2008, but no German automaker had placed a PEV in a major market until March.

German companies have been hard at work placing hundreds of PEVs in lease-only test fleets and car share programs in the United States and Europe.  The three major German automakers, Daimler, Volkswagen, and BMW, along with their subsidiaries, all announced deployment schedules last month for their long awaited PEVs.

The first German PEV to hit the mass market was Daimler’s smart fortwo ED, which went on sale in March for $25,000.  The ED is the smallest and cheapest highway-capable PEV available in the United States.  Close behind the ED is BMW’s i3, which will have a range of around 100 miles.  BMW has done much to assuage any potential range anxiety by connecting the vehicle’s infotainment system to analyze road topography and real-time traffic data to provide the most accurate range estimate possible.  Buyers of the i3 will also have an option for a small gas engine to accompany the vehicle’s all-electric range, giving it an extra 80+ miles.

Risk & Reward

In 2014, Mercedes, another Daimler company, will deploy the B-Class E-Cell, which has a drivetrain designed by Tesla and a range of around 115 miles.  Germany’s biggest automaker, VW, and its subsidiaries Audi and Porsche will also launch their respective models in 2014: the VW e-up!, the Audi A3 e-tron, and the Porsche Cayenne e-hybrid.  The VW e-up! is a compact battery electric vehicle (BEV) and will be compatible with the SAE DC Combined Charging System, a.k.a. the combo connector.  The Audi A-3 e-tron will be the first German plug-in hybrid (PHEV) and is expected to have an all-electric range of more than 30 miles.  The Cayenne e-hybrid, also a PHEV, will be a crossover and is expected to have an all-electric range of at least 15 miles.

The hesitation by the German automakers to market their vehicles until now carries risks, as the first entrants to the fuel efficiency market have historically retained their market dominance (e.g., the Toyota Prius).  The hesitation, though, might pay off because real world deployments of PEVs have resolved much of the uncertainty concerning PEV acceptance.  March sales of PEVs in the United States were nearly 200% higher than March 2012 results.


Building Design Software Adds Energy Modeling

— April 16, 2013

Decisions made early in the building design process can have dramatic impacts on the building’s energy performance.  Is the building oriented to take full advantage of solar rays to maximize daylight while reducing unwanted solar heat gain? Will those more expensive double-glazed windows pay off?  As Joseph Romm famously said of building design, by the time “1% of the project’s up-front costs are spent, up to 70% of its life-cycle costs may already be committed.” In other words, a building’s design team, which only plays a role in the early phases of a building’s lifecycle, has significant control over the building’s long-term performance.

In the nearly 12 years that the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED green building certification has been administered, energy efficient design has been highly dependent on specialized designers that are able to integrate design software, such as Autodesk’s Building Information Modeling (BIM) suite, with energy modeling tools, such as the U.S. Department of Energy’s eQUEST tool.  To date, the process has been largely one-directional: a design team submits its completed design to a team of energy engineers, who redraw the blueprints in eQUEST and model energy performance.  By the time the design is submitted to the engineering team, however, most of the key decisions have been made, and little can be done to tweak the design to improve energy efficiency.  I recall from my days as a LEED and energy efficiency design consultant the frustration of being engaged in the design process too late to drive true energy efficient design.

So Long Redrawing

Now, however, building design and building performance is becoming a two-way street with Autodesk’s Revit 2014 software release.  This latest version now encompasses building performance analysis (BPA) features, which help design teams iterate between building design scenarios and their implications on energy performance.  Such capability not only allows design teams to make better-informed decisions about energy efficiency in the early stages of the design process, but it also reduces considerable labor costs on the back end because it allows design teams to export the digital blueprints to energy modeling environments such as eQUEST without redrawing, which can be a time-consuming process.

Jonathan Rowe, Sustainable Buildings Program Manager at Autodesk, sees this as a major step forward for the building industry as a whole. “One major pain point design teams face is getting rapid feedback on the energy performance of their planning decisions early in the process,” he told me when I spoke with him recently. “Energy Analysis for Autodesk Revit 2014 is a cloud-based solution that aims to provide this kind of actionable feedback in minutes rather than hours, making sustainability assessment a routine part of any project delivery.”

Given that Autodesk’s energy efficiency software is used to design many of today’s high-performance buildings, this level of interoperability will help facilitate the design of more efficient buildings and integrate energy efficiency into building design – from the outset.


End Near for Compact Fluorescents

— April 16, 2013

For years, the compact fluorescent light bulb (CFL) has stood as an icon of the modern sustainability movement.  Simply replacing an incandescent bulb with a CFL can reduce energy consumption by 75%.  That impressive saving has led college sustainability groups across the United States to hold light bulb swaps in an effort to get more CFLs into use.  It has even led countries around the world to ban or begin phasing out incandescent bulbs, driving the adoption of CFLs.   The tell-tale swirl of this favored bulb has worked its way deep into our popular culture, standing as a symbol of efficiency.

Though widely admired, the CFL has never been perfect.  The bulbs can be slow to start, they do not dim well, and they operate poorly in low temperatures.  For the environmentalist, a more significant problem is the tradeoff these bulbs pose between toxicity and global climate change.  CFLs contain between 1 mg and 5 mg of mercury, which can be released when the bulbs are broken or disposed.  Many have argued that the mercury in CFLs is more than offset by a reduction in mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants.  Few would deny, however, that it would be preferable to avoid this compromise altogether.

Mercury Rising

Enter the light emitting diode (LED).  Years of falling prices for LED lighting are finally making LED lamps a reasonable alternative to both incandescents and CFLs.  LEDs are more efficient, avoid the problems of dimmability and low temperatures, and, of course, contain no mercury.  While the combined effects of price and performance will drive consumers toward this type of lighting, there are also new signs that the issue of mercury will begin driving consumers away from CFLs.  In January, the governments of 147 countries approved the Minimata Convention on Mercury, which limits mercury from multiple sources including CFLs.  The current limits will still allow for the manufacture of CFLs, though the writing may be on the wall for stricter limits in the future.

A new report from Navigant Research, Energy Efficient Lighting for Commercial Buildings, forecasts that revenue from CFL sales will experience a steady -9%  compound annual growth rate (CAGR) between 2013 and 2021.  During the same time period, revenue from LED lamp sales will increase at a 23% CAGR.  While CFLs will surely remain a widely used light source for years to come, their tenure as an icon for sustainability will quickly come to an end.


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