Wheeler on HVACR: Is There A Future For Open Protocols?
I have avoided covering the subject of building controls in this magazine (although I have been deeply involved in that business for years), simply because I know that many of you don't sell controls, and so you may not be interested. However, I noted something recently that brings the whole idea back into the range of focus for many supply houses and manufacturers reps, especially if you sell commercial equipment. One manufacturer of commercial equipment (McQuay International), recently announced that its applied rooftops, self-contained units, unit ventilators, chillers, and even water-source heat pumps would soon be available for access through at least two open protocols, BACnet and LonWorks. Why should that interest you? Well, let me explain.
Almost any building in North America with more than a half-dozen packaged rooftop units, or one that uses a chiller (more than a 30-ton load), has a building-control system which sets the temperature, monitors the unit operation, and controls the energy costs.
I'm not just talking about big office buildings and factories here. Almost all chain stores are totally automated (which includes the HVAC and lighting) through a central control panel. In one major national discount department store chain, nobody turns on a switch or sets a thermostat anywhere in its thousands of stores. Everything is programmed into a local control panel from its national headquarters via satellite communications. When an air conditioner fails, the panel automatically calls the headquarters. A service technician is dispatched before anyone in the store knows there is a problem. This is where some of the equipment your company sells is being applied.
Every major manufacturer of building-control systems, such as Johnson Controls, Honeywell or Novar, for example, has its own priority language. For years, end users have wished for some sort of open protocol (or control language) which would allow different brands of control systems to talk to each other over a building communication network. That way, the Trane Tracer controls in one portion of a building (or in one store) could talk to the Seibe controls somewhere else, and everything could be integrated into a single system which can be programmed from one computer interface, using a single program and a single screen. Ideally, you could buy parts from different manufacturers that would interface into one control system.
All that is theory. The open protocols are all there now, but the incentives for controls manufacturers to use them is all wrong. Why would the folks who manufacture Carrier's Comfort Network (for example) want to encourage a customer to buy components from someone else? When it has a non-interfacable custom control network, the company whose system is currently on the job has the edge on the sale of any future expansion or replacement sales. For this reason, I wrote an article several years ago (in a sister publication to Supply House Times) foretelling the futility of the open-protocol concept, which for a fact really hasn't taken off to date.
But wait a minute! A new idea has just changed all that. One equipment manufacturer may be the trend-setter which turns that all around. Its open-protocol requirement to interface its commercial systems may provide the "pull-through" required to create a viable market for products which can interface with LonWorks and BACnet.
What does that mean? It could mean that our industry (especially the commercial side) is in the process of making another radical change, which may affect the way you market and sell your products for years to come. And it may fundamentally change the building-controls business, taking it out of the hands of manufacturers and putting it into the hands of supply houses and product representatives everywhere! That would result in lower profit margins for the control manufacturers, which was inevitable anyhow.
On the equipment side, commercial equipment will become far more sophisticated, allowing access to and control over many more operations and sensors. This is all far more economical today, due to the falling costs of computer electronics. Dozens of temperature, humidity, and even indoor-air-quality sensors will become standard, even on small units. I'm already seeing this happening.
It looks like I'll have to eat my words that foretold the failure of open control protocols. While my reasoning was right when it came to the incentives on the control manufacturer side being wrong, I was blind-sided by the marketing efforts of one (at present) equipment manufacturer. Now I think the open protocols are here to stay, at least until the next industry "paradigm shift" comes along. I believe that this is the way the market will be headed. And if that is so, it will fundamentally change commercial equipment, as well as the way you sell it, and the way you do business in the future ¿and eventually, even the residential market.