Navigant Research Blog

Building Automation’s Babel Problem

Eric Bloom — January 30, 2012

There’s a lot of promise in energy management systems.  Buildings produce tons of data every minute of the day, and much of it is fed into building automation or building management systems so that facility managers can monitor and control energy and operations.  In our recent report, Building Energy Management Systems, we observe that these systems are starting to take that data one step further by visualizing and quantifying energy in buildings for CEOs, building occupants, and other key decision-makers.  Getting this information to the right users, though, involves pulling data from a number of separate systems (lighting, HVAC, security, etc.), which becomes an exceedingly difficult process when systems communicate using different protocols, such as BACnet, LonWorks, Modbus, and many others.

Here’s the problem: While it is certainly possible to tie together systems (say, an HVAC automation system based on BACnet and a lighting system based on LonWorks) into a single energy management system, the cost of the labor required to integrate systems cannot always be economically justified.  Moreover, in many cases, the automation functionality of two independent systems on different protocols is often higher than a system that integrates the two, as much of the data is lost in translation.

So how did we get to this modern-day building automation Tower of Babel?  BACnet was originally developed in the late 1980s in association with ASHRAE, the HVAC industry association, and is one of the leading protocols in the U.S., particularly for HVAC and lighting control systems.  LonWorks, the other top protocol in the U.S., was developed in the 1990s by Echelon, one of the leading smart grid and automation technology firms in the world.  While BACnet’s association with ASHRAE has curried favor among HVAC vendors, LonWorks has been a favorite among lighting controls manufacturers given its rapid response time.  Other protocols serve other niches or are favored by specific vendors as a way of discouraging mixing-and-matching of products from competitors.

The result is a world in which systems that perform very similar functions can’t communicate with each other.  Imagine if Blackberry owners couldn’t call iPhone owners.  That’s the basic reality in the building automation systems world today.

Last week, Echelon made a major step toward breaking these barriers down through the launch of a suite of tools and products aimed at integrating systems based on LonWorks and BACnet.  This is a particularly fitting move for Echelon, which is the gatekeeper of the LonWorks protocol and is carving out a leading role in developing technologies at the “edge of the grid,” the interface between buildings and the utility distribution network.  Through the platform, which involves hardware, software, and service components to translate between LonWorks and BACnet for rich energy management, Echelon will be able to connect with whole buildings, not just isolated systems within buildings, and prepare them to play a role in overall grid management through demand response and other types of utility programs.

Over time, automation systems will likely shift to IP networks for new buildings, doing away with the polyglot automation world of today.  However, the existing building stock will continue to speak many languages, and solutions such as Echelon’s will play an important role in synthesizing building energy data to make buildings smarter and more energy-efficient.

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