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Posted on: 08/07/2000

Building Automation System Communication

by Larry Rowland,2637,8172,00.htm The EUN/APEM Energy Management Training Series is designed to provide nonspecialists with an introduction to the fundamentals of energy management. Communications is one of the most important aspects of building automation systems (BAS). Without communications these systems cannot tell the building manager anything about what is happening with the building systems they monitor and control. Those who have duties involving BAS already have an understanding of the functions and impact of system communications, but the objective of this article is to acquaint the reader with the operational and financial impacts of communications protocols and to explain how to use them to an advantage.

What Constitutes a Building Automation System?

A building automation system is comprised of electronic equipment that automatically performs specific facility functions. The commonly accepted definition of a BAS includes the comprehensive automatic control of one or more major building system functions required in a facility, such as heating, ventilating, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems. In many cases a BAS includes lighting, security, fire safety, industrial processes, and more. Automated systems include a collection of sensors that determine the condition or status of parameters to be controlled, such as temperature, relative humidity, and pressure. Similarly, output devices impart electronic signals or physical action to the control devices. Examples include electric relays or damper and valve actuators. The sensors and output devices are connected either to a unitary controller or to a distributed processor. Unitary controllers are limited to the needs of an intended function and have limited capabilities, such as memory size. Distributed processors can accommodate the needs of several unitary controllers as well as connect directly to input and output devices. Distributed processors usually have more memory and more flexibility than unitary controllers. For example, unitary controllers often control single zone air handling units with heating and cooling coils, and may use temperature and relative humidity values from that system to accomplish the control. The same unitary controller commonly is connected to a distributed processor that has most or all of the unitary controller's activity signals passed on to it. The final major component of a BAS is the head end. The head end is usually a personal computer that is set up to monitor all of the distributed processors in the system. There may be several head ends in larger systems. Many systems are arranged to use a laptop computer that functions as the stationary head end, but also connects directly to distributed processors, unitary controllers, and other points in the system. There can be many combinations of BAS components in any application, but most fit this general description. Understanding the generic layout of an automated system is important to grasp the impact that communications have on effective function.

Why Are Communications Necessary?

Consider the single zone air-handling unit (AHU) mentioned above. The AHU has a cooling coil, heating coil, fan motor, outside air damper, space temperature sensor, and a duct mounted smoke detector. The system must communicate as a whole to use all these functions effectively. Distributed processors and head ends impose monitoring requirements in the system, which take place concurrently with control functions. Once a controller has compared the temperature level to a programmed setpoint, for example, a heating or cooling actuator would respond accordingly. The controller, in this case, would increase or decrease a current or voltage level to an actuator or turn a relay on or off to cause a valve to open or close.

Monitoring inputs and controlling outputs require basic two-way communications functions that can be used to accomplish other functions. For example, maintenance activities can be enhanced and response times shortened. A technician can evaluate several simultaneous system readings remotely to determine the probable cause of a problem before traveling to the site. Similarly, the ability of head end computers to communicate with distributed processors makes the storing of historical data easier. Historical data allows mechanics and technicians to identify trends in the operation of a system before a failure occurs. Such a capability can help a maintenance group plan its work on mechanical systems. Also, energy consumption levels can be evaluated so actions can be taken to lower electrical demand.

How Is Communication Accomplished?

The electrical connections used most extensively to communicate between sensors and unitary controllers consist of a current loop, voltage loop, or low voltage control. In older systems, pneumatics-compressed air-are still used. Most uses of pneumatics, however, are now limited to very large valve and damper actuators. The increasing use of sensor communication loops has had an impact on communication protocol. Beyond the sensor level, telephone lines carry the highspeed data communication between the components of a BAS. Increasingly, fiber optic cable is being used to transmit data signals at higher speeds, decreased interference, and increased capability. Fiber cable installation requires careful protection due to the fragile nature of the connections at hubs and repeaters. Finally, a few automation systems use microwave transmissions between the head end and distributed processors or unitary controllers. To accomplish communication between unitary controllers, distributed processors, head ends, and third party controllers, most systems employ a dedicated communications bus. This bus simply is a set of telephone wires or fiber optic cable directly connected between system components. Only the system components can communicate through these cables. There are some applications where dial-up communications are employed, but this arrangement is used where the head end has functions other than working with the rest of the BAS and only calls the distributed processors or other supervisory head ends when it needs to. Signal accessibility is a significant part of the communications matter. BAS head ends communicate with the remainder of the system in one of three ways: proprietary, gateway, or open. In past years, and still to a great degree, communication signals have been proprietary. Only the head end of manufacturer X can successfully communicate with manufacturer X field equipment. A head end from manufacturer Y cannot communicate with other manufacturers equipment if the communication protocol of X or Y is proprietary. Proprietary here means that the communication language or set of rules is not intended for use by other manufacturers. Secondly, some manufacturers have developed and manufactured what are called gateways to translate communications between two different manufacturers. Lastly, open communications protocols can be used by anyone, but not all manufacturers have chosen to use them.

What Is A Protocol?
A data communications protocol is a set of rules: a group of machine codes, message structures, and treatment of these codes and structures. A protocol does not necessarily define equipment or specific software, but rather defines coding methods for data and structures the way coding is manipulated by the system. An open protocol is a set of detailed, published rules for communications. Open protocols are available for public use and implementation. These protocols usually have been developed by a single vendor and may have been tailored around a specific application. Open protocols usually require gateway interfacing, or a microprocessor-based translator. A standard protocol is a set of these rules that are published and available to the public, sometimes for a price, and are also globally accepted. The BACnet standard, published by the Association of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air Conditioning Engineers (Ashrae), is an example of a standard protocol (see page 16). Most leading BAS manufacturers provide some level of BACnet compatibility.

Proprietary Communications
Proprietary communications are fast disappearing from the marketplace. Proprietary communications protocols, those specific to the equipment of one manufacturer, cannot be easily applied to the equipment of other manufacturers. These systems were developed for intercommunication with different components of the same manufacturer's system. There may be backward or forward compatibility with equipment generations of the same manufacturer but no ready intercommunication with the equipment of others. One of the disadvantages of proprietary communications is a lack of interoperability. Because a proprietary system does not communicate with others, the user's options for expansion of the BAS in a particular facility are limited. Choices also are reduced with the purchase of new equipment, limiting the user's bargaining power. An alternative would be to install separate systems of two or more manufacturers in a facility. Installing multiple systems will create a competitive pricing environment, which is critical to containing installation costs of expansions and upgrades. This strategy, however, can increase the cost of maintenance and requires operators and technicians to be trained on all systems.

Gateways have been developed by some manufacturers to address the interoperability issue. A gateway is a device that translates the proprietary communications of a manufacturer to the communications of a competitor or to a standard or open protocol. The use of gateways helps solve the interoperability issue, but only is successful for a particular manufacturer and the specific competitors and manufacturers of third party controllers for which the manufacturer has decided to build gateways. User choice is still limited, and the manufacturer of the proprietary equipment protocol still controls most of the activity. If a user wants to install a competitor's head end, for example, the competitor must construct gateways to the existing equipment in the same way the manufacturer of the existing equipment did. This is cost intensive, complex, and costly to maintain.

Open Communications
"Open" is a relative term that implies transparency. While there will probably never be totally transparent communications between all manufacturers of building automation systems, there have been great strides made in open protocols in recent years. Several open protocols have been in existence for some time; the development and publication of the BACnet standard by Ashrae helped moved things along significantly. The BACnet standard is a published set of communications rules that have reached a high degree of consensus. In essence, this standard defines the rules of communication for every device level in the BAS, from sensors to head ends. There is even some room in the model communications string for a limited amount of proprietary data. Several examples of networking options that are supported by the BACnet protocol are listed below. Ethernet-ISO 8802-2 and ISO 8802-3-local area network (LAN) is a high performance network with a data exchange rate of 10 million bits per second. This network generally is used for higher-level system control, and is usually more expensive. Ethernet networks are commonly used in a broad spectrum of commercial and industrial applications. ARCnet-ATA/ANSI 878.1-LAN also is a high performance network with a data exchange rate of about one fourth that of Ethernet. While this network is more widely used in industrial applications, it also lends itself to building control situations. MS/TP (master-slave/token passing) methods provide a lower level of performance, but are much less expensive. This method uses an EIA-485 signal and is characterized by serial data transmission over multiple drops. LonTalk networks use "neuron" integrated circuit chips (proprietary) for communications interfacing. This network is versatile and has been successfully applied over twisted pair wire, power lines, and microwave transmission. LonTalk networks have moderate data exchange rates and are easily applied to all system component levels.

There are several advantages to using an open communications protocol for a BAS. First, there is the assurance that a number of manufacturers will be able to interface with existing equipment. Using equipment with open protocols creates a competitive bidding environment for system

additions and renovations that help contain costs. This situation also helps keep manufacturers who have equipment on site from becoming too "comfortable," ensuring a good level of service and response to problems. Another advantage is the containment of expenses associated with interfacing to mechanical equipment. It is very difficult to extend the instrumentation and monitoring features of a BAS with proprietary communications to measure temperatures, pressures, flows, and monitor safeties of a chiller. If all additions to a system are specified as open/standard protocol, interfacing becomes easy and inexpensive. In addition, by using an open protocol, the head end of the manufacturer of your choice can interface with all equipment in the facility through communications, not through separate gateways or a multitude of wires. This reduces the need for multiple head ends and specialized interface equipment. The result is reduced training expense, fewer maintenance agreements and spare parts, and a single mode of system access. Using open communication protocols introduces additional considerations. For instance, if a system with one manufacturer's head end and three others comprising distributed processing, and a host of third party controllers, who is called when one part of the network stops functioning? Care should be taken in the maintenance contracting process to clearly delineate the areas of responsibility for maintenance activities. Whenever system additions are installed in the field, the manufacturer of the existing head-end will have to do additional programming to support the additions. Alternatives would be either to have a certified contractor who is proficient with the existing head end install the additions, or to have in-house personnel do it. The same advice applies to additions that affect only a distributed processor. There will be some programming requirements in the distributed processor whenever additions are made, so staff or maintenance contractors need to be familiar with all the manufacturers of distributed processors on site. Finally, acceptance testing is the key to effective communications. Open/standard communication systems should be thoroughly commissioned, and the performance of all system components compared with the published and submitted manufacturer's performance data. With BACnet standard systems, Protocol Implementation Conformance Statements (PICS) should be submitted before construction to ensure compatibility at all appropriate levels. While most BAS are commissioned to some extent today, the open/standard communications issues will require commissioning for success.

Design Issues
Any discussion regarding BAS and its implementation is not complete without addressing design issues. Systems still are being installed today without formal specification or design. Instead, installation is done by agreement between the user and the manufacturer. The communications issue makes it even more essential that systems be specified by an engineering firm familiar with standard and open protocols. Simply stating in the specification that communications shall be BACnet compatible or use LonTalk doesn't accomplish much. Several levels of communication, communication properties, system objects, and a host of other issues must be specified for the user to get the desired result. To ensure conformity, it is advisable to have knowledge of formal BAS specifications and the requisite requirements for submittal of equipment specifications to the designer of record. Larry Rowland is a senior project manager for Savage Engineering, and heads their southeast U.S. office in Birmingham, Ala. Rowland is a Certified Energy Manager (CEM) and a Certified Lighting Efficiency Professional (CLEP), and has served on the technical advisory board of Energy User News for over five years. Rowland is a nationally recognized energy management educator and energy engineering professional.