Navigant Research Blog

Balance of Power in Building Automation Shifts to Lighting

Benjamin Freas — March 27, 2015

Earlier in my career, when I worked for a mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP) design engineering firm, my boss used to tell me, “Mechanical drives the bus.” The mechanical design of a building is composed primarily of the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) system, which has historically been the most complicated of the MEP systems. Moreover, HVAC equipment accounts for about 30% of commercial building electricity consumption in the United States. What my boss wanted to get across was that HVAC needs to be designed first—and all of the other systems can fit in afterwards.

Indeed, until relatively recently, the idea of building controls really meant HVAC controls. Before widespread adoption of microprocessor controls, HVAC controls consisted of a series of tubes (pneumatics, not the Internet), lighting controls consisted of a switch, and the idea of integrating more than one building system was preposterous. Building automation emerged from HVAC controls. Now, however, the integration of multiple systems into a single building management platform is becoming more common. Navigant Research’s recent report, Commercial Building Automation Systems, maps these trends in the integration and interoperability of systems.

More Equal Than Others

Even in highly integrated buildings, the HVAC system retains priority—but that may be changing. As part of the Continental Automated Building Association’s Intelligent Buildings and Big Data research project, Navigant Research quantified the number of data transactions generated by the automation systems of intelligent buildings. In the future, lighting might generate far more data than HVAC. The rapid adoption of LED lighting coupled with faster and cheaper computing options creates the possibility of individual light fixtures having their own sensors and controls. While HVAC systems may still be more complex, the data volume created by the dense sensor networks of these advanced lighting controls is immense. Soon, it may make more sense for HVAC operations to be managed through an additional module on a lighting controller, using data gathered by lighting sensors.

New Pecking Order

The market seems to be reacting to the new pecking order. Acuity Brands recently announced its plans to acquire Distech Controls, a building controls and energy management company. Despite having a complete portfolio that includes lighting, access control, and closed-circuit TV (CCTV), Distech Controls emphasizes HVAC. The company’s integrated room controls solution, for instance, creates an environment where the HVAC controller also controls lighting and automated blinds. Acuity Brands, on the other hand, is a lighting company. It is a designer, manufacturer, and distributor of a variety of indoor and outdoor lighting fixtures and lighting controls.

Overall, as integration between building automation systems increases, so too does the opportunity for the crossover between HVAC companies and lighting companies. Indeed, Daintree Networks, a leader in wireless mesh networking for integrated lighting controls, expanded into HVAC controls in 2013. But the trend has been for established HVAC players to acquire lighting solutions or for lighting players to organically expand into HVAC. Acuity Brands’ acquisition of Distech Controls may signal a shift in the balance of powers.

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