Article | A Brief History of BAS Open Systems

How open is open?  Open systems in the building automation systems (BAS) industry can mean a lot of different things, but all too often integrators deliberately apply open technologies in a closed manner to keep an advantage of not being altruistic.  The word “open” is typically interpreted as meaning not being blocked or obstructed in any way. An open door is easy to walk through. An open receiver in football is not covered. An open bar means free drinks. An open BAS, however, could use open technology, but be as closed as your cheap uncle’s cash bar party.  It is important that end users know the games being played so they can work with the right partners to get the truly open system they were expecting.

Many years ago, control systems were truly open. The backbone of the system was basically pneumatic tubing with 0 – 20 psi air. The industry had, for the most part, standardized this methodology of control to measure temperatures, control actuators, enable/disable systems, etc. using air pressure. You could easily have a Robertshaw pneumatic thermostat controlling a Landis variable air valve box with a Honeywell valve in one room, and vice versa in the other. This would all be on the same pneumatic control system without any closed system barriers. The competition was fierce, which meant contractors had to deliver as promised in order to keep their customers.

A limitation with these older pneumatic control systems was that everything ran blind of the bigger picture. There were limited opportunities for various systems to communicate requirements up the energy delivery chain. The central plant didn’t know what the AHUs needed and the AHUs didn’t know the zone demand. They all typically worked independently with limited temperature resets, if any resets at all.

Then the transistor was invented, electronics became cheap, and the manufacturers realized the benefits and efficiencies that could be gained with computer monitoring and optimization of whole systems. During the advent of digital controls, there were no standards, just innovations, and advancements by the manufacturers all operating independently. They quickly realized that once they got a control system into a building, that it would be very difficult for their competitors to compete on future work at that location, primarily due to first cost and end user investment. The manufacturer’s strategy then became to “buy” the first building and makeup on future work. Owners started to realize that the first project was just to get a foot in the door, which became problematic for end users to budget future work or maintenance.

Today, mostly due to market pressure and external forces, end users can get the best of both worlds, which includes open systems of the good old days and innovative whole system approaches of today and the future. But only if they know how to navigate the industry jargon. The key is to be wary of buzzwords, understand some of the manufacturer’s hooks, and dig deeper on some of the word manipulations. For example, terms like “the system is capable of …” can be interpreted as “it is possible to add this feature with a lot more money and effort.”  The cost and experience of a system that includes a feature and one that is capable of that feature are two very different things. The key is to work with control system vendors that are not tightly tied to a specific solution provided by one manufacturer. Seek to work with vendors that exhibit transparency, collaboration, integrity, and maintain a client-centric culture.