Wheeler On HVACR:
LONWORKS[r] -- A Controls Opportunity For Supply Houses
Many of my friends have been asking where I've disappeared to over the past couple of years, since I've been absent at many major industry events. Well, I've been on the road writing and teaching about what I believe will be the commercial segment of our industry's looming paradigm shift, Standard-protocol building controls. This is truly cutting-edge stuff.
Anyhow, last week, while I was teaching a class on the subject in the little town of Auburn, N.Y., a student raised the question: "Which of the two Standard protocols do you think will win out over the long run, BACnet or LONWORKS?"
It's a good question and I admit that I really hadn't thought about it much. But before I could answer, an industry veteran at the rear of the room spoke up and said: "LONWORKS will find its niche in smaller commercial applications and BACnet will find its niche in larger commercial, industrial and institutional applications. You see, each protocol is so well suited for its individual market that I don't believe either will dominate over the other."
Well said. I can't find anything in that statement that needs correcting or amending. And in the case of LONWORKS, I see a huge business opportunity opening up as a new market for supply houses. Why do I say that? Let me explain.
LONWORKS is more than a Standard building-controls language or protocol, it is an entire method for creating building-control systems that require no central panels or the purchase of licensed site software. To create a LONWORKS network all you need is heating/cooling equipment with LONWORKS-compatible inputs, about $1,300 worth of hardware and software from Echelon Corp. (a one-time purchase), some low-voltage wires to do the connecting, a laptop computer and several small LonMark-certified devices to make the equipment operate automatically. You connect everything across two daisy-chained wires, and from that point on, everything will operate without intervention on a peer-to-peer basis.
So, where is the new market for supply houses? It will be in selling the small LonMark-certified devices which are already becoming available and will soon start to proliferate in the marketplace. You see, by the nature of this unique method and protocol, all the equipment, protocols, and services of the many building-control companies are no longer needed. And once mechanical contractors come to realize how easily and inexpensively small integrated building control systems can be designed and installed, there will surely be quite a market for the small devices to make such systems work (i.e. LonMark-certified scheduling devices, alarm transmission devices, outdoor thermostats, lighting sensors, lighting controls, variable-frequency drives, etc., etc.).
Is anyone reading this old enough to remember the Smart House project? It was a forward-thinking idea to try to bring automation to all the appliance and electrical systems in a home. It was a great idea that just never took off. However, now that LONWORKS has become a true industry Standard, we now have the system in place as well as the technology to do things that we only dreamed about 5 years ago. And the LONWORKS method makes it all inexpensive and easy to do. How easy? How inexpensive?
Well, there is no residential equipment that I know of that is already LONWORKS compatible. However, I know of at least two commercial equipment manufacturers that have come up with LONWORKS interfaces for their unit ventilators. And if something as simple as a unit ventilator can be automated, can residential and light-commercial HVAC systems be far behind? And what will happen to 24V thermostats?
If you're starting to see the emerging opportunity here, why not go to the LONWORKS site on the internet (www.lonworks.com) and see what products are already available and certified for use on such systems. True, everything you'll see is either large commercial equipment or controls designed for commercial equipment, but I think that will soon start to change as people begin to realize the full potential of this wonderful method and protocol.
What about BACnet? Well, this Standard is just a protocol, not a method. It still follows the lead of traditional thinking when it comes to the need for expensive front-end panels, graphics packages and the like. In other words, BACnet is more inside the domain of traditional building-control manufacturers. However, before long we will also see a growing market for independent BACnet-certified parts and pieces as the huge building-controls market becomes less egocentric and the parts become less-expensive commodities. When that happens, will your company be ready for it?