Building System Integration Faces Challenges

Picture this: The CEO of a major corporation arrives early at his company's 40-story office building. He swipes his access card and the door from the underground parking garage immediately unlocks, the elevator bank serving his floor activates and the lights in the hallway leading to his top-floor executive office are turned on. When he arrives in his office on this chilly morning, the room is already filling with warm air, since the HVAC system was activated in his building quadrant the moment he swiped his access card.

If this sounds like a compelling work environment and a model of building system integration, it is. But it's also the exception, rather than the rule, as the industry cautiously looks at the prospect of integrating multiple building management systems.

This holistic approach to building integration, where security and access control align with systems such as fire, HVAC, lighting and audio (intercom/paging), still represents a small piece of the overall market. Unlike the integration of security systems with information technology functions, which is occurring rapidly throughout the industry, it still remains to be seen when or even whether the integration of multiple building systems into a single control unit will become an industry norm. Currently, such efforts are occurring mostly in high-end or specialized settings such as government buildings, high-rises, data centers and museums or in new construction of very large office complexes. The reasons for slow adoption of this seemingly desirable model are both managerial and technology related. Despite this, many believe some level of integration will occur among the various systems in the next few years.

Why Is Building Systems Integration Desirable?
Although multi-system integration may sound new, it's a concept that's been around since the last century. Its first wave started about 10 years ago with the advent of "smart" buildings. These high-tech wonders of the construction industry sought to bring together all the various building systems under one operational umbrella. For those who have been successful in these endeavors, the benefits are many. Tying in the fire system with access control has obvious advantages, such as automatically disarming doors when a fire alarm sounds. Also, the integration of fire detection with HVAC can help control smoke by using air vent systems to contain it to a particular floor. Meanwhile, integrating CCTV surveillance systems with fire systems allows end users to view footage to discover the cause of a blaze as well as to monitor and view the fire as it occurs.

The list of pluses would not be complete without economics, since cutting costs by streamlining building operations is a major attraction of system integration.

A 1999 study conducted by the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology estimated that building automation-another term for integrating multiple building systems-could reduce the annual operating costs of buildings by an impressive 3.6 to 7 cents per square meter.

The importance of comfort cannot be underestimated. Employees and customers enjoy a regulated environment, where temperature and humidity are carefully controlled. And who wouldn't enjoy having their office lit, the elevator waiting and the heater already pumping warm air the moment they swipe their access card?

Some Trouble Points
While the advantages are impressive, some have found the road to multi-system integration a bit bumpy. The first and most obvious problem has been the complexity of linking together disparate systems from numerous manufacturers. Each of the systems has proprietary hardware and communication protocols specific to its vendor, and each essentially was designed to work on its own. Enabling all the various mechanical and electrical systems to work from a single building control point is not a simple task and requires specific knowledge in a broad range of areas.

That brings up the second major problem with implementing a successful building systems integration project: finding one vendor with expertise in all the disciplines needed to make integration work. While vendors may have general understanding of various building applications, most lack detailed knowledge of the design and application of systems not in their area of expertise. For instance, an expert in fire systems may know little or nothing about implementing access control systems, while an HVAC representative-although very knowledgeable about handling air flows through a building-may be unskilled in burglar alarm systems.

The constant in all of these systems is that they are computer driven. Although this means they speak a similar language, it doesn't diminish the need for specialized knowledge for implementing each system. In HVAC, for instance, issues like duct sizing, vent size, flow rates of air and balancing a building must be understood to make the system work properly, while in surveillance systems, camera type, location and lighting are critical.

Some large security equipment suppliers have created partnerships with various system experts in order to offer customers a one-stop building integration package. This brings together the expertise of security integrators, HVAC specialists, mechanical engineers and others under one umbrella. The downside of such efforts is that these integration packages are proprietary, making the future prospect of integrating products from other brands difficult.

The problem also remains that corporations must have the experience to manage the system in-house once installation is complete. Who will be in charge of making sure all these technologies are working well together? Companies find themselves unsure of who to task internally with responsibility for this cross-disciplinary system.

Another issue has been the "what if?" scenario. Building owners may be OK with temporarily losing the function of an alarm system, but what if all systems-HVAC, fire, burglar alarms and access control-fail simultaneously because they are controlled through a centralized system?

The highly regulated nature of fire systems has also added to the complexity of systems integration. For instance, a company's computer network must be UL listed if it plans to host the fire system. National and local fire codes must also be considered.

Factors Helping the Integration Effort
While a variety of factors have slowed multi-system integration, there are a number of factors driving its adoption. Advancements in computer technology, with the all-important ability to back up data and create redundant systems, has helped ease some of the concerns over losing data and having all building systems shut down simultaneously.

The technological advances in commercial control panels for security systems have also played a role. The panels now allow several systems to operate off the same control panel, such as access control and CCTV paired with HVAC, or access control and CCTV paired with lighting and temperature controls. Various control panels, providing different combinations of the building components, are available.

Steve Morefield, president of First Line Security Systems Inc. in Anaheim, CA, a security systems integration company, told of his recent success using one of the new-style control panels for a project integrating access control and CCTV with temperature, water and humidity sensors. "All these things work off one control panel and, better than that, they are all controlled by the same server," he said.

Morefield said the project involved a document and product storage company that wanted to add these integrated capabilities as a sales and marketing tool. "Having the heat and humidity controls and water sensors provided better document protection, which they felt would allow them to attract more customers," he said.

The heat and humidity sensors also work in a "smart" way, which enhances their value to the client. "The sensors can track the rising or falling rates of heat or humidity," Morefield said. "They can recognize a trend and notify people of a problem before it becomes a problem. It doesn't wait until things are too hot or too wet."

Morefield also said the system is IP based and allows the storage company's clients to remotely view their heat and humidity sensors in real time and also to view their storage area.

While Morefield is pleased with the project's outcome, he said he doesn't see multi-system integration becoming a heavily requested item for security integrators. "It will probably be used more in new construction, where you're putting in all new systems and can integrate them from the beginning," he said.

The Advent of Standards
Another factor helping the building integration movement is the advent of two open communications standards for building automation that are finally making headway in the market. The standards-BACnet (Building Automation and Control Networks) and LonWorks (Local Operating Network), developed by Echelon, offer an alternative to the vendor-specific software and communications protocols, which can make linking systems from multiple suppliers a difficult task.

BACnet and LonWorks use different approaches to systems integration. BACnet, developed in the mid-1990s, is a communications-only standard developed for a building's mechanical and electrical systems, particularly heating, ventilation and air conditioning. Companies that manufacture such systems are now beginning to make devices that "speak" BACnet rather than, or in addition to, proprietary control languages.

LonWorks, on the other hand, combines a communications standard, LonTalk, with a neuron chip. Born in the early 1990s, LonWorks has already caught on in the transportation and utilities industries and has been adapted for buildings.

How widely used these communications standards will become remains to be seen. But they, along with advancements in control panels and other technologies, are offering a chance to turn the tide on the slow growth of building system integration.

Bill Savage is a founder and past president of SecurityNet, a network of North America's top systems integrators. For the past 22 years he has also served as president of Security Control Systems Inc., a systems integrator serving clients in the Southwest United States with offices in Houston, Dallas and Austin, TX.