LON Lecture Series Goal: ‘Open Minds’

Editor's note: The movers and shakers of the LON community tried a different tack at AHR in Orlando this year, conducting a day-long series of well-received lectures on open building systems. The sessions were really the precursor of an international seminar series addressing open building systems, as the organization is concerned, frankly, that too few M/E/P engineers are taking advantage of t...

By Jim Crockett, Editor-in-Chief April 1, 2005

CSE: Why have you split up the LON groups?

Haaser: We were trying to do everything for a 300-member international organization and run it from California. But for real growth we felt we needed to localize it. By building support locally, people are better prepared to to deal with local issues, particularly if they’re in Japan, the U.K. or Denmark.

Bernstein: As far as the U.S., LonMark Americas officially formed in September 2004, and our first meeting was at ASHRAE in Orlando. We really want it to be a formal organization with a board of directors, budget and a dedicated mission to marketing and branding LON.

CSE: What are some of those marketing goals?

Bernstein: We’re trying to dispel a number of myths being perpetuated, such as the fact that Echelon controls the entire technology or that LON is really only for small buildings or vice versa.

CSE: I confess that one of my preconceived notions is that LON is terrific as a field-level controller but does not fare as well when it comes to trending and network control.

Bernstein: It’s fair to say LON is a bottom-up solution, while BACnet is top-down. That’s the way it was designed. But I think it’s really apples and oranges when you start talking about system control or trending, as we’re talking about two different architectures doing two different functions. In my mind, the front end is irrelevant. Since LON is a device-level system, it is still gathering information and delivering that information. And over time, the market has developed other means for trending, etc.

CSE: On a recent courthouse project I visited, LON devices were indeed in the field, but it was a Johnson Controls system at the top.

Bernstein: That shouldn’t be so surprising, as JCI is a LonMark member. But what we’re really talking about is the kind of model you use. What I mean is that the front end will either be session-oriented, like Metasys, or it’s a sessionless front end that’s browser oriented. Either way, you’re simply taking a piece of data from the network and sending that data to the appropriate controller. BACnet does that in an entirely different way. LON, on the other hand, doesn’t need to do it like that. There’s no need to have a standard way to present data from one front end to another.

CSE: Is it fair to say there’s a lot of confusion about open systems, or at least how different BAS-related equipment can function together?

Haaser: That’s really the reason for the sessions. We want to focus our attention on education, because it’s our concern that too few specs are taking advantage of open systems.

CSE: Tell us your plan.

Haaser: It’s 21 cities in the U.S. and 22 in Europe, and the purpose is to reorient everyone in the food chain—architects, engineers, specifiers, controls contractors and controls vendors. Each worries about different things, and for a lot of engineers, specifying is really the risk-aversion business. Frankly, open systems are risky. But integration is what it’s really all about, and we’re trying to explain that—what it takes, is it worth it and what do I have to do? We’ve hosted five to date [at the time of this interview], and we’ve had tremendous response. ( For more information, visit www.buildingopensystems.com/us ).

CSE: Are better controls specs part of this ‘reorientation’ process?

Haaser: Absolutely. One of the things that’s resonating in these sessions is the guidelines we’re providing on how you make sure your specs are truly open. In other words, is it open to lots of different suppliers and not locked into certain devices or routers? You also have to consider maintenance service and installation—can you go with anybody? In other words, if you can source 2,500 products, don’t limit yourself. That said, a second but equally important piece of this puzzle is that we’re not just talking about HVAC systems, but leveraging the whole investment—lighting controls, access control, shading systems, etc. Each slice of the pie should be easy to add—at the least, no more difficult than adding a PC to your business’ Ethernet network. ( Visit the HVAC community of csemag.com for a paper by Bernstein on writing open specs ).

Bernstein: I think another key—and this gets back to the network control matter we were discussing earlier—is that there are two levels of the BAS spec process: 1) the controls specifications for the building itself; and 2) a separate spec for tying the building into a campus enterprise system. In many ways, the latter is more the domain of the IT guy, but when this kind of thinking is involved it leads to more competitive bidding. This is what the Army Corps of Engineers has done—one spec for HVAC and another for the controls/IT end.

CSE: For the record, the Corps has a new BAS spec that it has made available for all to review.

Bernstein: Yes, and you can download it by going to www.lonmarkamericas.org and clicking “Resources.” We also hope to soon have some other sample specs available.

CSE: I’m glad you brought that up. The Corps, along with NASA and a local school district, was a participant at a day-long seminar on open systems as part of the AHR Expo. That, in and of itself, says quite a lot about open systems.

Bernstein: Without question ASHRAE is the home turf for the BACnet guys, but this was the first time in 10 years the show has given us any stage time at an ASHRAE conference to do any kind of educational sessions.

CSE: I sat in on a few of the sessions, one of them an owners panel. All the owners obviously used, and were happy with, their new LON systems, but it seemed to me the underlying driver for these users was really a desire to break away from proprietary contracts and establish a means for more competitive bidding.

Bernstein: I don’t know if I agree with that assessment. The Army Corps did spend a lot of time analyzing BAS options, including Ethernet and BACnet. But they did, in fact, choose LON.

Haaser: In the case of the Corps, they used to employ a two-tier spec with BACnet at the top and LON below. But they realized they made a mistake because that two-tier system couldn’t give the user the total control and freedom they wanted. So even if you think you’re writing an open spec, it might not hold water unless you approach it from a big-picture, systems-architecture notion.

Bernstein: We’re really talking about having a master plan for the specification process—some kind of neutral scope document that will allow for fair, competitive bidding. Because if that’s the case, we think LON will win every time. But beyond the Corps, LON in general is doing well in the government market. Earlier, you mentioned a courthouse project you toured that featured LON devices. The reason for that is because GSA [General Services Administration] has a mandate for LON. Schools are also migrating that way. The New York City school system has adopted a LON spec. In a lot of ways, it does come back to competitive bidding for public entities. In the case of many school systems, they don’t really know the difference between a closed or source-solution and an open system. But now, because of things like the Title 1, No Child Left Behind program, many are being forced to change and break away from proprietary systems in order to qualify for such funding.

Haaser: At least 15% of our registrants at our last session were from schools and colleges. We’ve also had strong interest at the county level. It’s really people that maintain lots of buildings who are going through the issues we’ve discussed and are just looking for a solution.

CSE: I wanted to revisit a couple of sore spots, or industry perceptions. First is that BACnet is the 10-to-1 product of preference, according to a study by Frost and Sullivan, and the other being that BACnet enjoys an advantage because it’s an ISO standard.

Bernstein: I’ll tackle the first item. We still question the way Frost and Sullivan aggregated the data, and we feel the report mostly focused on high-end controllers vs. the total penetration of LON devices throughout a building. There’s a good rebuttal document people can check out and another study by Strata Resources. ( Both are available in the HVAC community of csemag.com ).

Haaser: As far as the ISO standard is concerned, we’ve got a lot of our own standards activities going on. One is PREN14908, which is a European standard, and we hope ISO certification is next. We’re really talking about international acceptance, and we’ve always had a lot of work in Asia, where similar standards work is going on.

CSE: Speaking of standards, what’s your take on oBIX, XML and the web services concept?

Haaser: We’re on the board, as are several key BAS industry players—JCI, SBT [Siemens Building Technologies], Trane and Honeywell, to name a few. What we all agree on is that we need an IT standard that will be accepted by the IT world. When you look at buildings and building-automation systems, there’s lots of data available. But that data’s useless unless you have a way for people to use it and adapt it to meet their particular enterprise. That said, all LON standards have been converted to XML so they can be prescribed in an oBIX-OASIS format.