Smart thinking for future-proofing
Smart building technology cannot stand still: it has to be able evolve throughout a building’s lifetime if it is to continue adding value. Commercial tenants may need to set up for a completely new way of working as their business changes. New sustainability and energy efficiency targets may be imposed to manage costs and/ or to manifest corporate social responsibility.
On the domestic front, home owners will get older and their requirements for assisted living will increase over time; maybe new babies come along or multiple generations have to find new ways to live alongside each other? Meanwhile, new technologies will come on stream, and building users’ aspirations will be changing all the time.
Integrators and consultants like me are at the front line in making sure that evolving our customers’ buildings’ intelligence is possible, practical and affordable. If we fail in that, we are not doing the best job we can on their behalf.
First let’s define our terms. What does future proofing mean in the context of smart building control and what do we need to do to make it happen? I would suggest that the core requirements are: meeting aspirations, assuring continuity of supply and keeping it simple.
The first challenge is to ensure that the installation is based on a platform that is capable of accommodating the latest technology as it becomes available. The requirements a client might specify at the outset will surely evolve when faced with industry developments and in the light of their own growing understanding of what is possible. Right now, for example, we’re finding that the growth in availability and popularity of voice activation has led to a high demand for its inclusion. Not least, we’re seeing requests from long-standing installations to have the feature added.
What we find is that much of the object of aspiration is, in the main, associated with the user interface that operates the field-level devices that actually do the work: heaters, lights, blinds, alarms etc. Field-level devices and the actuators that operate on them should be simple to upgrade, keeping in step with the customers’ requirements. The key to this is that the underlying infrastructure will have been designed from the outset to keep open the door to future expansion and reconfiguration.
A future-proof installation can only be a realistic possibility if it is built on a commonly-accepted and harmonised platform that assures there will be continuity of supply, and that the end user is not hostage to the commercial whims or imperatives of any one supplier.
In real terms, the communications protocol and its infrastructure requirements should be a recognised open standard, in other words, not owned by any one manufacturer or commercial interest. It follows that proprietary systems - even if they are nominally presented as ‘standards’ - are not intrinsically future-proof.
KNX is one of the leading open protocols, well into its third decade of development and use, and adopted within the international regulatory environment. In Europe, it is included in the EN50090 series; in the USA as ANSI/ASHRAE 135; and in China as GB/T 20965. At the end of 2006, KNX was also approved as a world standard (ISO/IEC 14543-3-1 to 7). Manufacturers of products that use the KNX protocol are attracted by the global marketplace it offers, and they invest in the development and support of controls.
Manufacturers understand that they must ensure that every KNX product they submit for certification is backwards compatible. From my own personal experience of the impact of this, I know that if I went back to the first KNX systems I ever installed, almost 20 years ago now, I could expand it by adding newly released devices with absolute confidence.
Another significant benefit that arises from this open standard is that it is supported by a worldwide manufacturing base of over 450 companies. This is a strong indication that KNX is set for long-term availability, for as manufacturers come and go, a source of product will always be available somewhere.
Another important consideration in future-proofing controls is how physical changes to a system have to be made in the event of alterations to the use of a building. We live in an age where consumers expect ‘plug and play’, not ‘rip out and replace’. One way to avoid this problem is to ensure that installation does not rest on a complex wiring and communications system with a single point of failure.
KNX has a hierarchical topology. This means that instructions - or telegrams, as they are called – are sent and received locally and the system is based on what is known as a distributed intelligence. A key benefit of this is that expansion of a BMS is simply a matter of tapping into the nearest available KNX point and taking a new branch of interconnection from that point.
Energy management is often the key driver for an investment in building control, especially for commercial buildings. Traditionally, building energy management has been thought of as something that needs to be under central control. On the contrary, l would argue that it is a function that must be protected from system-wide failure and that the distributed intelligence approach is the clear choice.
It also means that the energy management function is doing just what it says on the tin – it enables occupiers to manage, not just monitor. Data feedback can be programmed to trigger positive actions such as load shedding at the micro level, switching off equipment when consumption reaches threshold levels or at times of day when energy prices peak - perhaps intelligently checking beforehand that a room isn’t already in use.
This can apply in the home as well: how long will it be before we see multiple tariffs determined by time of day and even perhaps current weather conditions in domestic premises?
By considering factors such as product availability, backwards compatibility and long-term support, as well as the ability to find qualified and experienced installers, clients should have a firm basis on which to make a decision about their BMS. A system that works well for the client also benefits the integrator because they will have a longterm customer that will keep coming back for more because the barriers to continuous improvement are, relatively speaking, negligible. And that is a definition of ‘future proof’ that works for all parties.
Ben Lewis is director and principal consultant at KNX Consultants