Navigant Research Blog

Building Automation Shifts to Integrated Controls

— October 12, 2014

Building automation system (BAS) controls have long acted as a cash cow for vendors.  Historically, they were built on closed, proprietary communications protocols, virtually guaranteeing steady revenue from future maintenance and upgrades.  Now, though, customers are migrating to control systems with open protocols, such as BACnet and LonWorks, to gain greater flexibility and interoperability.  The emergence of these standards is changing the landscape of building controls.

The shift to open protocols largely benefits building owners (and has unsurprisingly been driven by the demand of building owners).  Competition is increased, as all vendors are on equal footing, which drives down prices.  Naturally, controls vendors are now exploring alternatives to gain a competitive advantage and regain steady revenue.  One emerging strategy is integrating more intelligence and more controls into HVAC equipment.  Even though more vendors can compete with open systems, the more intelligence that is shipped with HVAC equipment, the less there is available for controls companies to install, thereby protecting revenue from the increased competition.

Rapid Adaptation

Johnson Controls seems to be adapting to the changing environment rapidly.  The company made two important announcements in September.  First, it is reorganizing its building efficiency business to separate the North America branch from the global products business.  This will enable the company to focus on high-margin HVAC product lines, notably air distribution and ventilation solutions and variable refrigerant flow (VRF) systems.  The second announcement signaled plans to divest Johnson Controls’ Global Workplace Solutions business.

As I noted after Johnson Controls’ acquisition of Air Distribution Technologies, the move was not about products but about controls.  Johnson Controls’ joint venture with Hitachi to provide VRF systems follows the same strategy.  VRF systems represent lower potential revenue for controls suppliers because controls are typically provided by the equipment manufacturer.  Moreover, because VRF systems use refrigerant as the heat transfer medium instead of air, the need for complex air-side control of supply air temperature and humidity is obviated.  By shifting its focus to HVAC products, Johnson Controls is ensuring that its controls stay relevant.


Wireless Power Could Transform Smart Building Nanogrids

— October 6, 2014

From mobile phones to Wi-Fi, wireless communications have fundamentally changed human behavior.  As the much hyped era of the Internet of Things looms, the dense, rich communication networks needed seem to only be possible using wireless networks.  Moreover, big data requires ever more data to be collected and shared.  In buildings, this means more sensors and more communications to enable better efficiency.  Though wireless communications are poised to facilitate this transformation, the shift remains tangled in the wired status quo.

In addition to communications, building networks need power to create what Navigant Research has defined as nanogrids, which are, in essence, single-building microgrids capable of aggregating and optimizing distributed energy resources (DER) while increasing resilience thanks to their ability to island during utility power grid outages.  Running power wires to sensors is costly in new construction and prohibitive in most existing buildings.  As a result, it’s not done unless absolutely necessary.  Wireless makes the communication side of the equation easily scalable.  The incremental cost for connecting more sensors is small.  But, if a sensor needs wired power, why would anyone invest in wireless communications?  Power remains the key to unlocking greater data density in smart buildings, and thereby, expanding near-term opportunities for nanogrid applications.

Get Low

One approach to reducing the cost of sensors is lowering the cost of power wiring rather than eliminating the wire all together.  This is accomplished by using low-voltage direct current (DC) power for sensors, controllers, actuators, and even LED lighting.  Low-power DC wiring doesn’t need to be installed by an electrician, reducing the installation cost.  Also, many electronic devices are natively DC-powered.  So alternating current (AC) power must first be converted, resulting in an efficiency loss.  Moreover, onsite generation of power through solar PV panels or wind turbines is typically DC (as are battery storage devices).  So, DC distribution within buildings helps match energy supply with loads (since according to some estimates, 80% of building loads such as LED lighting, laptops, and cellphone chargers are all natively DC).  Low-power DC in buildings can serve as building blocks to nanogrids that tailor energy services to the precise needs of end users.

The push for DC power is being led by the Emerge Alliance, an industry association developing DC power distribution standards for commercial buildings.  A competing solution can be found in Power over Ethernet.  Both solutions can be cheaper to install than a traditional system.  But, though low power is less intrusive than the status quo, wires remain a limiting factor.

Power from High Frequencies

Eliminating all wires is the most elegant solution to enable the transition to more data-rich buildings.  Currently, this is being done either by installing batteries or by harvesting ambient energy to power devices.  Batteries require replacement and, when examined on a cost per kilowatt-hour basis, are very expensive.  They just don’t provide enough benefit to eliminate power wires.  Energy harvesting, on the other hand, eliminates the maintenance requirement but is restricted by the ambient light available.

However, a shift from energy harvesting to wireless power transmission is on the horizon.  Ossia, a tech startup, has demoed its Cota wireless power technology and expects to have commercially available products by the end of 2015.  Cota works by broadcasting radio waves over the 2.4 to 2.485 GHz ISM band (the same as Wi-Fi, ZigBee, Bluetooth, and others) and is capable of transmitting about 1W of power up to 10 meters – enough for a sensor, but not much else.  Even a decade from now, it’s unlikely that wireless power transfer or energy harvesting will be able to provide enough power for anything more than a sensor.  But leveraging big data in buildings requires more sensors, many more than are currently deployed.  Wireless power could be the building block that brings the Internet of Things to smart buildings and hasten the spread of nanogrids.

For a more detailed look at the nanogrid market, please join our free webinar, The Expanding Business of Nanogrids, on Tuesday, October 14 at 2 p.m. ET.  Click here to register.


Building Systems Learn to Communicate

— September 25, 2014

In the Hype Cycle, the Internet of Things (IoT) has reached the peak of inflated expectations and may even be over-hyped.  Many observers have commented on its adoption in home automation, high-voltage transmission systems, and smart cities.  The state of IoT in commercial building automation is murkier.

In a recent survey of building professionals administered by CoR advisors, 41% of the respondents reported not being familiar with the term “Internet of Things.”  Hype about IoT in building automation, it seems, is lagging, but its promise may be just as enticing in buildings as in other applications.  Indeed, more respondents indicated that they think the IoT will have an effect on how their building is run over the next 2 to 3 years than those who indicated they were familiar with it.

At a certain level, machine-to-machine communications, the foundation of the IoT, have been present in building automation systems (BASs) for decades.  In heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC), a temperature sensor can communicate with a variable air volume box to modulate the supply of conditioned air.  In turn, this variable air volume box communicates with an air handling unit that supplies the proper amount of air.  In most buildings, this happens on the HVAC control network.  The promise of IoT is for this to happen not on a network, but on the network, for any machine to communicate with other machines.

Open Sesame

This integration is happening.  Daintree Networks, for instance, offers seamless HVAC control, lighting control, and power metering.  Similarly, Automated Logic has introduced solutions to integrate different control silos.  One of the most interesting integrated deployments is the Government Services Agency headquarters in Washington, D.C.  The building management system knows when an occupant badges in, where that person is going, and what temperature they want the space they’ll occupy.  The next step is getting building automation to interact with a mobile phone or an automobile.

Unlocking the promise of IoT requires multiple companies and multiple systems to interact with each other.  It requires disparate BASs to not only communicate with other BASs, but to also communicate with anything.  Thankfully, the industry is moving in that direction.  Over the past 20 years, open protocols, such as BACnet, LonTalk, DALI, and Modbus, have gained widespread acceptance.  Unfortunately, they don’t communicate with each other very well.

Another survey, this one by Echelon (which recently announced an increased focus on the IoT), outlined the path to IoT in buildings.  Seventy percent of respondents reported that they plan to integrate disparate BASs onto a common platform.  Nearly a third of respondents indicated a plan to do so in the next 12 to 18 months.  Regardless of whether the IoT is over-hyped or unfamiliar, it’s coming to commercial building automation systems soon.


Rethinking Water Use in Buildings

— September 8, 2014

Bad news about the water supply keeps rolling in.  In July, a study on the groundwater in the Colorado Basin found that 53 million acre-feet of water (65 billion cubic meters) had been depleted between December 2004 and November 2013.  The historic drought in the western United States is so severe that it is causing mountains to rise.  And ominous signs of water scarcity are not limited to the United States.  Farmers in Vietnam are converting rice paddies to shrimp farms as the dry season gets dryer and the rising South China Sea turns coastal freshwater ponds salty.  Water scarcity threatens much of the world economy, from the food industry to the mining industry to the petrochemical industry.

Though climate change accounts for a part of the unfolding water crisis, water management practices are driving the problem.  Water has long been treated as a free and inexhaustible raw material.  As a result, it’s used inefficiently.  While great progress has been made in increasing awareness of energy efficiency, water continues to be taken for granted.  Without major changes, two-thirds of the world’s population could be living in water-stressed conditions by 2025.

Water Scarcity and the Built Environment

Buildings account for about 12% of water use in the United States.  Already, water conservation efforts and greater efficiencies in using water have led to a reduction in water withdrawals.  But, for further gains, fundamentally rethinking the built environment is necessary.  For the most part, everything that needs water in a building is provided with potable freshwater.  Similarly, all wastewater is treated the same.  But not everything needs potable water.  And rather than being disposed of, some wastewater can be recycled.  Water from a sink can be reused to flush a toilet.  Water from a bathtub can be used for landscape irrigation.  When water is cheap and abundant, it makes sense to have a single system for all water needs and a single system to dispose of all “used” water.  But meeting all water needs with potable water may soon no longer be an option.

Similar recycling efforts can be achieved with stormwater runoff.  Many municipalities treat stormwater runoff and domestic sewage the same, using a combined sewer system to transport them in a single pipe to a sewage treatment plant (though heavy rainfall or snowmelt can create undesirable outcomes for combined sewers).  Rather than building infrastructure to capture and transport stormwater through gutters and sewers, capturing it to recharge groundwater or for direct nonpotable consumption can directly improve the water situation.  Indeed, the Pacific Institute estimates that urbanized Southern California and the San Francisco Bay region have the potential to increase water supplies by 420,000 to 630,000 acre-feet per year simply by better managing stormwater runoff.

One Word: Graphene

Of course, when we talk about water scarcity, we refer to only freshwater, which accounts for only 2.5% of total global water.  Desalinating abundant seawater is a seemingly attractive workaround, a way to solve water scarcity without the difficult task of changing water use habits.  Unfortunately, desalination, for now, is expensive and energy-intensive.  The most common form of desalination, reverse osmosis, forces seawater through a polymer membrane.  The membrane allows water molecules to pass, but blocks salt molecules.

Graphene, an allotrope (i.e., a different structural form) of carbon, which shows promise in battery technology, quantum computing, health monitoring, and solar cells, could reduce the cost and energy associated with desalinating water.  The gaps in polymer membranes are determined by the physical and chemical properties of the polymer used.  Gaps in graphene must be punched, so they can be sized to reduce the amount of pressure needed to pass water through but still prevent salt from passing through.  Lockheed Martin and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are both working on overcoming the engineering problems associated with graphene membranes.  Commercial viability may still be several years away, but graphene may make desalination accessible enough to meet the world’s needs for clean water.


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