Bringing Building Automation Benefits to Small and Mid-Size Commercial Properties

The information technology revolution has come slowly to commercial buildings. Until now, piecemeal innovations in automating isolated functions like temperature, security, lighting, and air quality have added up to less than the sum of their parts. When Sutardja Dai Hall opened in 2009, for example, the state-of-the-art system for heating and cooling the building was unable to use the occupancy data gathered by the automated lighting system. And that lighting system was unable to incorporate data from the digital security system. And so on.

Creating an integrated and open software environment for existing systems that currently only see and respond to their own data is a significant opportunity for computer scientists to help make buildings more responsive to their occupants and reduce the carbon footprint of commercial buildings, says Carl Blumstein, Director of the CITRIS i4Energy Initiative and Director of the California Institute for Energy and the Environment (CIEE). The coordination of data streams from different systems would enable automatic analytics tools to determine the most efficient mix of cooling, lighting, ventilation, and other building performance systems.

For the past six years, Blumstein, Associate Director of i4E Therese Peffer, and colleagues have been working with the recently renamed Software Defined Buildings group to connect independent Building Automation Systems (BAS) by organizing them within an open software architecture that provides access to data from all existing applications, including proprietary ones. The resulting “Open-Source, Open Software Architecture Building Automation System” (OpenBAS) platform unifies data from many different building systems, allowing building managers to visualize it within a single, user-friendly interface. Data can be pulled in from sources as diverse as Ethernet, webscrape, Zigbee, and wifi networks.

Open BAS’s foundation is sMAP (Simple Measurement and Action Profile), which can standardize tens of thousands of data streams, place them into a single time series database, and visualize them in a way that gives each application access to all of the data.

“It doesn’t matter where the data come from or what the physical protocol is—sMAP can read pretty much anything,” says Peffer.

The sMAP system uses a transaction-management application, called BOSS (Building Operating System Services,) that coordinates how all the data streams assembled in sMAP are put to use doing practical things, like opening air ducts or turning off lights. For example, if the thermostat says to cool temperature of a room but the occupancy data says the room is empty, BOSS would consult its operating rules and decide how to best resolve the conflict.

sMAP was primarily coded by Steven Dawson-Haggerty, a computer scientist who received his PhD from UC Berkeley this spring. Dawson-Haggerty, working with computer science professor David Culler, fellow students Andrew Krioukov, Jay Taneja, and others also wrote the BOSS application. The systems were developed and refined in Sutardja Dai Hall, the 141,000-square-foot CITRIS headquarters on the UC Berkeley campus that houses research laboratories, classrooms, office space and also serves as a world-class testbed for building management systems. In future buildings, if an occupant wanted to change the ventilation in a room not scheduled for use, she could tell the OpenBAS to perform that action via a web interface or smartphone app. Comfy, a proprietary system developed by Dawson-Haggerty and Krioukov and originally piloted in Sutardja Dai Hall, offers this feature through a simple and engaging user interface.

Because the sMAP tool is open source (as well as open architecture), freely downloadable, and not licensed or tracked, the exact number of users is not known. Here in the Bay Area, sMAP is helping coordinate the BASs in The David Brower Center building in downtown Berkeley and at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Building managers at the University of Southern Denmark, the Information Technology University in Denmark, and the Korea Electronic Technology Institute have also integrated sMAP into their automation systems, says Blumstein.

“The key to OpenBAS is its open architecture,” says Blumstein. “It can easily accommodate diverse vertical systems and allow them to work together.” The expanding market of proprietary building management tools can also benefit from OpenBAS’s ease of use and interoperability.

Peffer says the aim was not to create a central nervous system for buildings, but to facilitate a kind of distributed intelligence that provides just enough infrastructure so that connectivity is robust and meaningful. “We want to enable both the human occupants and the automated lighting sensors to say ‘there’s plenty of light in this space: turn the bulbs off,’” says Peffer. “No one should have to think about it, walk over to the wall, and flip a switch.”

Buildings account for 41% the primary energy use in the United States. Open BAS can help a single building reduce its use by 25%.

However, buildings the size of a neighborhood grocery or a dry cleaner often do not benefit from a BAS. In 2012, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) awarded a $500,000 grant to a CIEE-led team to develop an open-source, open-architecture software system that would bring more agile building management to small and mid-sized commercial buildings. As part of that DOE project, this summer Blumstein and Peffer are outfitting the 7,500-square-foot CIEE office in downtown Berkeley with sensors, networked wifi and Ethernet thermostats, and individually-dimmable LED light fixtures to create another testbed for their tools. They are replacing the wired occupancy sensors that occupants struggled to use effectively with wireless sensors that are operable from a web-based user interface.

“Until now, the first person to arrive in the morning turned everything on and the last person to leave turned it all off,” says Peffer, who has been studying thermostat use for more than a decade. “That is pretty typical for spaces this size. And very inefficient.”

If just 25% of small business facilities adopted these types of automated systems, they could collectively save up to $5 billion a year, CIEE Deputy Director Karl Brown calculates. Just as important, Peffer says, these smarter building systems could reduce the carbon footprint of such structures by a quarter.

by Gordy Slack