BCIA Jon Belfield column

Jon Belfield, BCIA, controls, smart buildings, fieldbus, BACnet, DALI, Modbus, IoT
Jon Belfield

Jon Belfield, president of the BCIA, compares a well-designed smart building argues it’s not the quantity of technology implemented that makes a building truly smart, it’s about choosing the right technology for the right system.

Is it ‘smart’ to overload a building with technology that is not necessarily required for that property? Or that is too complicated for the people who actually occupy it?

A building fitted with state-of-the-art equipment that isn’t integrated and doesn’t perform isn’t brilliant and this can be avoided during the design phase. Instead of overspending on technology that you don’t need, it’s important to identify the products that will integrate into a system that will be of most benefit to your building and add value to its performance.

It is vital to ask how the systems work as a whole, not simply as individual pieces of technology. Investing in smart technology for technology’s sake is at risk of being pointless, unless it is actively serving a specific purpose, like improving the indoor environment or reducing energy costs - or, ideally, both!

Smart technology in the home can be both fun and useful, but it is really in the commercial sector that it is crucial to get the choice of smart technology right if you want it to form a vital part in positive business outcomes. The ‘measurable business goal’ is the justification for investing in the smart technology; without a goal, this equipment will, undoubtedly, be ‘value engineered’ out.

Before the rise of smart technology and smart buildings a building energy management system (BEMS) would have been primarily targeted at a building’s HVAC system, with the end users unlikely to be involved in its operation. Now, as the latest technology allows us to make buildings more interactive with their occupants’ needs, we can do far more to optimise the spaces we live and work in:

Jon Belfield, BCIA, controls, smart buildings, fieldbus, BACnet, DALI, Modbus, IoT
  • Safety: Our primary objective is to ensure that the plant controlled by the BEMS operates safely and can be safely operated in the event of a fault or fire.
  • Comfort: We can look at this topic in a bit more detail. When we’re at home we are all conscious of the ways we can save our energy costs, including simple things like switching off lights in unoccupied rooms or hanging up washing instead of using a tumble dryer. It’s easy to remember when we’re at home – we’re the ones paying! However, it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that we become a little slack with our attitudes once we get to work. But creating a workspace that is clean, comfortable and safe should be high on any employer’s priorities if they want to attract the best staff. Employees who feel comfortable in their workplace are generally more motivated and more productive than those who feel that their work environment falls short of expected standards. By putting in place the technology that enables occupants to manage their environment easily, building managers will also reap the benefits.
  • Performance data: This is a growing area in the world of BEMS as companies are recognising that all the data that is now available in a smart building needs to be presented in manageable quantities and in formats that can be used to plan a strategy that will both match the occupants’ needs at the same time as reducing the building’s energy costs.

Some of the larger technology companies have recognised the market potential in the building controls industry with the likes of Vodafone and Dell teaming up with Utilitywise to create an Internet of Things (IoT) platform aimed at changing the way businesses use energy.

IoT will obviously play a very big part in how we manage our buildings in the future, but it is important to differentiate smart systems from IoT. A smart building control system may contain no IoT devices whatsoever, although the IoT devices might be the enabler for the solution or even, perhaps, the only way of integrating additional equipment into existing systems. A product with built-in wireless connectivity, such as a remote display device, should not be classed as IoT if it does not connect to a cloud based service. Likewise, a smart lightbulb controlled by a wireless remote control is not, strictly speaking, an IoT device until you add a hub or gateway, connected to the internet via a broadband router, leading to a potential IoT system. As things stand there is no defined standard as to how IoT devices should communicate. IoT is not a ‘fieldbus’ like BACnet, DALI or Modbus.

BEMS and new smart technology products can indeed work in tandem to not only benefit our sector commercially but also to significantly improve the performance and environment within our buildings. But with smart technology gaining such a high profile, the trick is to not just select smart for smart’s sake – it must meet the performance criteria and add real value.

A building fitted out with smart devices only becomes truly smart when the integration is set up to operate correctly from the outset and produces a system that operates with minimum input from the end user and achieves the ‘measurable business goal’.

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