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Internet unites power savers

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As energy costs continue to rise, companies are searching for better ways to control and integrate energy expenditures

According to the Association for Energy Conservation, the UK spends more than £50 billion each year on fuel. Government officials estimate that investment in energy conservation could reduce that by 20 per cent.

To reduce their capital expenditure on energy, many companies have begun investing in powerful Internet-enabled building automation and energy management software systems that allow them to access and control their energyintensive building devices and systems in real-time, via a standard Web browser. These products give companies the power to extract critical energy data from existing building systems and analyse that information to make intelligent procurement decisions. For instance, building managers can better determine where energy is being wasted, such as lighting, heating or cooling an area of a building when it is unoccupied.

The life-cycle cost benefits of such systems are many. First, companies are able to protect their initial investments in existing building devices and avoid the enormous capital costs of replacing existing systems.

Second, they optimise manpower by allowing companies to manage all of their systems in one building or across multiple buildings from a Web browser. Third, these systems reduce maintenance costs. Many of today's systems feature alarm capabilities that allow companies to set limits on energy use. If a building device breaks down or is not performing at a preset limit, the system will notify the building manager via page, e-mail or fax to correct the problem.

For a business to truly understand its energy use and costs, its energy management software system must be able to integrate multi-vendor building control systems, diverse energy meters and information databases from multiple locations to achieve real-time energy usage and cost management. In the building control products sector, there are thousands of these systems built with their own protocol/language. This makes integration a complicated and expensive task. As a result, building managers have been unable to fully operate these proprietary systems from their software systems.

To support these technologies, the energy systems and building controls industries in the UK and Europe have moved to establish professional standards. A priority has been the promotion of open standard communication protocols, such as BACnet, ModBus and LonWorks, to the leading building control manufacturers, which allow products or systems from one supplier to communicate with those from another. If adopted and well integrated, open system technologies in building control devices would permit the interlinking of different building services, such as lighting, chillers and air handling units, with today's Internet-enabled building automation and energy management software applications.

Businesses would be able to seamlessly access and control all their building systems and devices - regardless of make, model or manufacturer.

However, two related issues are slowing the progress of this standardisation. One is the presence of thousands of inherited building devices that were not built with open standard communication protocols. The other is the absence of truly interoperable Web-enabled software.

It is a fact that the use of open or 'standard' communication protocols (such as in the building, industrial and home automation industries) is becoming more widely accepted and adopted by the leading manufacturing companies in Europe.

New buildings and systems account for a fraction of the total market, and existing buildings with older devices and systems were not built on such open, standard protocols. Consequently, administrators choose to maintain their inherited systems rather than replace them, and thus are unable to fully integrate all of their systems. Replacing inherited systems involves enormous re-engineering and installation costs.

So while these initiatives to create standard communication protocols in new control devices have created opportunities for constructing open system environments, the problem of integration and interoperability still exists because of the economics of inherited systems.

Software companies are, however, creating solutions. Tridium's Vykon software suite is designed to manage multiple communication standards and multi-vendor control devices, by allowing firms to access and control both new and inherited building systems - regardless of manufacturer, platform or communication standard - via a Web browser.

The foundation of the company's technology is its universal Niagara Framework infrastructure. This open Java-based platform converts devices and their proprietary protocols into what is known as software 'objects'. With this object modelling, it can 'talk' to new and inherited systems using their 'native' protocol and respective networks, regardless of make, model or manufacturer. As a result, end-users can access and control their diverse building systems, while protecting investment in inherited systems.

Leo Quinn is president of Tridium Europe, Middle East and Africa. E-mail leo. quinn@tridium. com

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