Controlling the Future

Sept. 5, 2001
SPECIAL REPORT: BACnet Manufacturers Association

Controlling the Future

Founded in 1999, the BACnet Manufacturers Association (BMA) encourages the successful and widespread use of BACnet in building automation and control systems through interoperability testing, educational programming, and ongoing promotional activities. Association President Jim Lee took a few minutes to chat with BUILDINGS about BACnet and the association's role in supporting this important building standard.

BUILDINGS: How has building automation technology evolved over the past 10 to 15 years?

JL: At one time, only components from a single manufacturer's automation systems could be used within a building. When building managers went to expand or retrofit, products by that single manufacturer had to be used, as there was no interoperability between different manufacturers' components.

This soon led to the dominance of a single contractor in a facility and prevented building managers from using competitive and more cost-effective systems simply because these other systems did not fit into the original manufacturer's technology.

As a result, many buildings owners were locked into products from a single manufacturer and were not able to take advantage of innovative new technologies or cost-saving opportunities.

This tangle of different proprietary systems and customers' inability to choose or switch BAS suppliers led to a market full of dissatisfied customers - many of them large users, such as the government, universities, and large corporations.

In 1987, these users banded together under the auspices of the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) and sought to develop a standard whereby interoperability could be achieved. The standard, called BACnet (Building Automation and Control network), underwent extensive industry debate and was approved as an ASHRAE/ANSI standard in 1995.

No single company owns BACnet. It is an open, consensus-based standard developed by a committee comprised of end-users, consulting engineers, manufacturers, the government, and the academic community.

Development of the standard means that no matter whose building automation components are used, it is quite possible that many other vendors' products could be compatible with the existing system.

BUILDINGS: What are the advantages of seamless open-system building controls when compared to the old-style, piecemeal approach?

JL: More and more manufacturers are choosing BACnet when developing their building automation systems. This offers advantages, such as choice to the building owners. It also opens the market to competitive bidding from BAS manufacturers and vendors.

Nearly all BACnet-compliant products should be interoperable with each other - because they use a common set of rules for data structure and transmission, allowing them to easily exchange data and execute commands. This interoperability permits building owners to purchase numerous BAS components from different manufacturers in order to get the best product, delivery, or any other features they are seeking and still have a system in which all components integrate and work seamlessly together.

BUILDINGS: How does the issue of BACnet compatibility and interoperability figure in with a retrofit situation? For example, a facility might have an automation component, such as HVAC, which is in excellent working order. Management, however, wants to upgrade other components to BACnet-tested equipment. How will the older equipment tie in to the new system? Will it affect overall interoperability, or is there some way to connect these existing components into the loop?

JL: Building owners should specify BACnet for all retrofit projects. Most manufacturers now supply BACnet gateways that allow connection to their legacy equipment. A gateway bi-directionally translates the messages of the existing proprietary system to and from the BACnet protocol, allowing them to interoperate.
BACnet is well on its way to becoming a mature protocol. It is finding favor with increasingly more building owners, facility managers, consulting and specifying engineers, architects, and others involved in new or retrofit construction in such markets as commercial and industrial, educational, hospital, office buildings, and hospitality.

BUILDINGS: What is the BACnet Manufacturers Association doing to educate both manufacturers and end-users about the standard and its benefits? Has use of the standard increased since it was first introduced in 1995?

JL: The BMA has a solid education program in place. As part of this program, it has had three large "advertorials" in trade publications. These inserts include the history of BACnet, the current status, the testing program, and the future for BACnet.

Many BMA members speak at other allied associations, presenting information and case histories in sessions covering the BACnet standard.

The association also maintains its own website (, which is devoted to educating and updating members and visitors alike to the benefits of BACnet.

In cooperation with the BACnet Interest Group-North America (BIG-NA), BMA holds an annual conference. This year, BACnet members and other interested parties will gather on September 24 and 25 at the Penn Stater Conference Center and hotel in State College, PA. The program - themed "BACnet - It Works!" - will include two days of speakers representing both BIG-NA and BMA topics of interest.

BUILDINGS: What are the requirements for membership in the BMA?

JL: At the moment, we have about 25 member companies. The requirements for corporate membership are that a company be involved in BACnet development and manufacturing. Our membership roster includes various manufacturers of BACnet products, all of which are committed to ensuring that their BACnet products will interoperate.

BUILDINGS: What role does the BMA play in the move toward total interoperability in building automation?

JL: The association has helped promote BACnet products, helped educate building owners and specifying engineers to the merits and advantages of BACnet products. Now, with the start up of the BACnet Testing Laboratories, the association also will help potential buyers of BACnet products identify those products that have conformed with various aspects of the BACnet standard.

BUILDINGS: As a standard, the BACnet protocol is recommended but not required, correct? Are there manufacturers of building control systems who are not employing this standard in new system components? Can you predict what will happen to those who do not adopt the protocol in their manufacturing processes?

JL: The use of BACnet has increased since being introduced in 1995. Increasingly, more manufacturers are leaning toward using the standard. With the new testing and listing program, usage is expected to continue to increase. A survey of manufacturers as of the early part of 2001 indicated that there were BACnet installations in place in approximately 17,500 buildings.

We foresee that as the use of BACnet products grows, and as testing and listing programs help potential users identify BACnet products, consulting and specifying engineers, architects, and other specifiers will favor BACnet-compliant products over products that use proprietary communication methods.

Robin Suttell, based in Cleveland, is a frequent contributing editor to Buildings magazine.

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