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Internet Standards Set to Revolutionize Sustainable Practices in Building Automation

Constant technological innovation has been the great driver of industrial progress for ages. But the societal benefits inherent in the promise of technological progress usually depend on its widespread use and deployment, a process that has historically been mid-wived by the use of standard interfaces and components. Standards play a key role in helping us to harness and roll out technology for the betterment of society. From transportation to communications, no major industry has ever grown its way to becoming a societal building block without first figuring out ways to standardize new technology and processes – creating systems to mass produce progress, if you will.

Today, a nascent Building Automation industry finds itself at the crossroad of standardization and technology. These are the thousands of companies that create the sensors and software that automate everything from lighting and air conditioning systems to commercial ovens, car washes and deep fryers. Standardizing the software interfaces used by these firms offers the opportunity to mass produce greener building methods and drive global adoption of a vast new set of efficiency credos for how structures are operated, maintained and used.

Luckily for today’s architects, engineers and environmentalists, the Internet offers a wide ground to lay the foundation for future innovation and open standards around Building Automation. The Internet – Internet protocol (IP) to be specific — is rapidly becoming the primary method to bundle the hundreds of proprietary communications protocols used in building automation systems, creating a modern platform for digital standardization. Adoption of IP is already helping managers make better use of their existing energy-consuming assets and helping to benchmark, measure and report improvements and their projected impact on reductions in GHG emissions. Standards bodies such as NIST, ASHRAE and the IPSO Alliance — with dozens of leading IT and Building Automation companies in tow — have taken an early lead here, promoting IP as the preferred standard to connect smart buildings along with the millions of smart objects that reside under their roofs.

Thanks to the emergence of IP-enabled networks, companies can now measure and control energy consumption in ways previously impossible, through the combination of low-cost sensors/controls, robust wireless mesh networks and ubiquitous access to the Internet. According to Tridium Corp., a company that builds Building Automation solutions, there are five million commercial and industrial buildings in the U.S.  They use about 30% of their energy in ways that are ripe for easy efficiency improvements through existing technology. Energy costs represent about 30% of an office building’s total operating costs (excluding staffing). By applying existing technology and energy programs, operations managers can reduce energy usage by as much as 50% over conventional buildings, with the most efficient buildings currently performing up to 70% better than conventional properties. Using current technology to trim energy costs can amount to big savings – if those five million commercial structures in the U.S. were able to improve energy efficiency just 10% more than $20 billion in savings would flow back to owners and shareholders.

IP Will Lead to New Levels of Analytics and Processing

Once IP becomes the defacto “language” allowing all manner of siloed and discrete devices to communicate, another evolutionary step towards smart buildings can be taken, one that holds the promise of multiplying the environmental benefits we’re already seeing by standardizing building automation systems. Devices such as sensors will soon become part of corporate IT systems — think data centers running ERP and CRM programs.  The myriad sensors and devices used to automate modern structures are rapidly becoming part of the “Internet of things,” the one trillion devices that will be connected to the Internet by next year. As the integration of IT and building automation takes place, corporate managers and boards will increasingly be presented with new data that can be used to fully maximize any savings to the budget and environment in the name of shareholder value.

Sustainability and energy-management are quickly becoming corporate imperatives at the highest levels, gathering important new constituencies for data and information. In the recent past, building-automation data may have been useful to a cadre of operations managers and real-estate staff. In the near future, environmental data on building efficiency will become report fodder for CEOs, regulators and numerous other audiences, all with critical roles to play as we innovate our way to a greener, more sustainable future.  Indeed, as “sustainability” evolves towards a sustainable managerial concept, it will increasingly need to be supported by streams of new data — the raw material for producing any new corporate imperative.

As standardized communications and reporting methods create vast new pools of data about how our buildings are relating to our environment, we will at last be able to apply the Holy Grail of modern computing to the complex issues around sustainability and energy efficiency – analytics and real-time processing. Systems that analyze and act on data already form a broad and deep layer of corporate computing in the enterprise — sales, HR and financial reporting, to name a few examples — sending results to any variety of customized filters and dashboards. These complex systems have kept numerous industries – from financial services to retailing – at peak performance in recent decades, allowing profits to be wrung where none were possible before. They can and will advance the state-of-the-art in building automation, but only as data sets become standardized through IP.

Just as today’s corporate applications such as CRM and SAP all feed from the same data trough, so to speak, so will future building-automation networks integrate with any manner of IT systems from supercomputer sites to municipal operations centers, corporate data centers and franchise cash register screens. Data that once was useful only to a single facility or operations department, will be valued by many constituents for any variety of reasons. Indeed, this is happening now and will become a fact of life in the building-automation industry, just as quickly as Facebook became a real word.

Florence Hudson is an IBM vice president in the company’s strategy group, heading Energy and Environment initiatives including IBM’s rapidly evolving Smarter Buildings offerings.

Florence Hudson
Florence Hudson is an IBM vice president in the company’s strategy group, heading Energy and Environment initiatives including IBM’s rapidly evolving Smarter Buildings offerings.
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