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3 building management systems to improve energy efficiency

May 24, 2022
BETTER, VOLTTRON, and WEBs-N4 are software solutions that are open—to varying degrees—and developed by the U.S. Department of Energy, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, and Honeywell, respectively.

As buildings and their operations increase in sophistication, so does the technology that supports them. For any high-performance project or portfolio, knowledge is power. Today’s building management systems (BMS) and building automation systems (BAS) can provide owners, engineers, and facility managers that information and control.

“Analytics is invaluable, provided the source information is accurate and the output is usable,” says Nathaniel Fanning, energy and infrastructure service leader with MEP engineering firm Fitzemeyer & Tocci Associates, headquartered in Woburn, Mass. “Systems that can perform analytics, like fault detection and diagnostics, … can allow the end user time to react and make corrections. For example, issues such as simultaneous heating and cooling can be costly and easily missed if there are no temperature complaints from buildings occupants.”

The ideal BMS or BAS depends on the project, the job, and your role in it. “A facilities manager might ask [for] a web interface or [access via] a phone or tablet,” says Nathan Watkins, building automation project manager at Indiana University. “An engineer specifying the system might care more about how it operates and performs; and an owner might want … 24/7 support.”

Another big decision: whether to go with a solution that is proprietary, open source, or open system. Proprietary, closed-source solutions are locked down. Open-source solutions allow users to see, modify, and expand the software code. An open system, while similar, doesn’t allow users to modify or expand the code; it does have a communications infrastructure, networked devices, and control algorithms that might come from different vendors, but are able to work together in an integrated manner.

“There isn’t a clear better option,” Fanning says. Closed-source solutions “are usually a more refined product with better customer experience, but this typically comes at a price. If only a select group of people can work on a product, getting service … can be difficult.” Interoperability with other solution platforms might be difficult, and customization not an option.

Open-source solutions can solve some of these problems, Fanning notes, but they may also create a few new ones. For example, the issue of ownership and accountability might be nebulous when a problem arises. Open-source controls, however, do allow for customization.

Here, Smart Buildings Technology looks at the features, benefits, and applications of three BAS/BMS systems—two open-source and one that is proprietary with an open system framework.

BETTER, U.S. Department of Energy

The Better Efficiency Targeting Tool for Energy Retrofits software toolkit helps building operators identify improvements through readily available data. The system benchmarks a building’s or portfolio’s energy use against others; quantifies energy, cost, and greenhouse gas reduction potential; and recommends energy- and operational-efficiency measures.

Primary use case and benefits: BETTER provides energy performance comparisons without requiring site visits or complex modeling “to help identify immediate, cost-saving energy efficiency improvements and focus further audits and studies,” says Carolyn Szum, a program manager at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s Building Technology and Urban Systems Division. Users can “compare a building’s performance against either a built-in dataset or their own building portfolio.”

Target users: Engineers and facilities managers. “BETTER has more than 20 API users, including corporations, universities, energy information providers, and ESCOs [energy service companies],” Szum says. “One ESCO is using BETTER’s API to identify opportunities for the replacement of boilers and furnaces that utilize high-polluting heating and fuel oils with high-efficiency pumps in low-income communities in New England.”

Noteworthy: BETTER utilizes an open-source analytical engine and a web interface to analyze monthly energy usage. Instead of requiring building characteristics, such as size, type, and location, BETTER uses regression techniques to analyze how much energy use is weather-sensitive (heating and cooling) versus weather-independent (lighting and plug loads). It fits the normalized data to temperature patterns to determine whether a project’s heating and cooling set points are appropriate and whether equipment is performing optimally. Eric Noller, principal at San Francisco–based Energy Resources Integration, finds BETTER’s recommendations to be “valuable, particularly at times when on-site assessments are either impractical or not feasible.”

Platform: BETTER can be used in combination with the Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star Portfolio Manager and DOE’s Building Energy Asset Score to conduct a multilayered analysis of both structural and operational energy performance. The toolkit consists of a web application, API, and analytical engine source code.

Cost: Subject to some terms, the web application and API are currently free for early adopters. The analytical engine source code, available on GitHub, can be adopted, redeveloped, and redistributed freely under an open-source license.

 Eclipse VOLTTRON, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

This distributed control and sensing software platform analyzes building data streams and converts them to actionable information to improve operations, manage energy consumption, and enable grid integration. Developed by PNNL in 2012, with funding from the DOE’s Building Technologies Office, Eclipse VOLTTRON can manage a range of systems, including HVAC components and electric vehicle charging stations.

Eclipse VOLTTRON can interact with local or vendor resources through agents and drivers. An agent is software that acts on behalf of a user to perform a set of tasks. A driver acts as an interface between agents on the VOLTTRON platform and a specific device.

For instance, the driver for the Ecobee smart thermostat device gathers data by interfacing with the Ecobee cloud API, which provides a web-based interface for control and access to Ecobee thermostats. The same is true for the weather agent that connects the Weather Underground site and retrieves information it shares with other agents running on the platform. Applications written for the platform can be reused in other open-source systems due to the code separation between the services and applications.

Primary use case and benefits: Eclipse VOLTTRON enables secure interactions with IoT systems and subsystems inside and outside the energy sector. The scalable platform can monitor and control energy performance, integrate distributed energy resources into the grid, and support a distributed control system for users on specified devices to transact information. Its drivers can interface with devices that communicate via BACnet, Modbus, and other protocols.

Target users: Researchers and commercial users “who want to interact securely with buildings in a protocol-agnostic way,” says PNNL project manager Jereme Haack. Eclipse VOLTTRON’s open-source nature enables it to run on commodity hardware.

Noteworthy: Like the 1980s cartoon series “Voltron,” where robots joined together to function as one, VOLTTRON is the sum of independent parts working in concert. The system utilizes agents (dubbed "V-agents"), or software modules that execute functions such as data collection and controlling IoT and industrial control system devices. Among VOLTTRON’s 30-plus public and private sector users are two other national laboratories, NREL and Oak Ridge.

Platform: The language-agnostic platform supports Modbus and BACnet protocols, as well as both Intel and non-Intel CPUs.

Cost: Free at GitHub.

WEBs-N4, Honeywell

Leveraging its Niagara Framework, a proprietary technology with an open system, the WEBs-N4 software platform provides buildings systems a connected framework for operation. While not technically open source, the open-system framework can integrate most mechanical systems in commercial buildings.

WEBs-N4 features an HTML5 interface, which makes it less reliant on browser plugins. Designed to be fast and user friendly, WEBs-N4 allows end users to access, analyze, and process a wide range of operational data. Almost any system, including those from other HVAC equipment manufacturers and technology providers, can be brought in. Users can take full advantage of IoT technology and advanced tools for enhanced visualization, search, security, and navigation.

Primary use case and benefits: WEBs-N4 can manage all building control systems, bringing together systems including HVAC, water, lighting, acoustical, and access control. It has “tag-based navigation, a built-in search function, data-cleansing capabilities, customizable charting and enhanced data visualization, role-based access control and security, and pluggable authentication schemes,” says Scott Jacobs, BMS senior product manager at Honeywell Building Technologies. “The platform also features real-time troubleshooting.”

Target users: System integrators, who must go through a technical training and certification program, as well as Honeywell WEBS contractors, who must meet specific requirements.

Noteworthy: WEBs-N4 is limited to Honeywell customers and providers. “It is not open source, but it is an open system,” Jacobs notes. “[A]ny WEBs contractor is able to support any WEBs installation, and our toolsets stay with the owners/facility managers.”

Platform: The application is designed for integration and can work with nearly any other communications protocol. Even if a specific protocol is not supported natively, the framework allows users to create their own drivers.

Cost: Honeywell does not sell this solution directly to building owners, but to authorized system distributors. Pricing information is available through local Honeywell dealers.

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About the Author

Jim Schneider

Jim Schneider, LEED AP, is a writer who has worked in and covered the design and construction industry for nearly 20 years. He writes about architecture, construction, sustainability, industry trends, and building technology.

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