WHEN SHOULD YOU CONSIDER MIGRATING YOUR BUILDING AUTOMATION SYSTEM (BAS)?
One of the ways I make a living is migrating legacy BAS systems and I get this question a lot. There are some OBVIOUS answers to this that any Facilities Person has had to consider in the budgeting cycle but more often than not other competing interests, like roof leaks and chiller failures, interfere with this item on the “Facilities Wish-List”.
In considering when a Facilities Manager should propose a migration of their BAS to the ownership of the company they work for there are some LESS OBVIOUS answers as well. I’d like to share with you my completely unscientific research over the last couple decades of the three (3) most common reasons in each of the two categories, the OBVIOUS and the LESS OBVIOUS.
The OBVIOUS Reasons for BAS Migration:
1. Approaching Obsolescence: “End of life” for BAS systems appears to be happening earlier and earlier these days. Due to the rate of change in automation technology, the shelf life of BAS systems is in the neighborhood of an (8) year range. By the time you pass this 8 year mark you would have also seen at least a couple major head-end software revisions, several system patches and probably at least one new generation of equipment controller from the original manufacturer of the system. If the manufacturer of the system in your building has moved to a new platform or new generation of control front end…and this happens all the time…there’s going to be a marketing push at the Facilities Folks to upgrade to the new system. It would not be unusual for this sort of upgrade to have the same level of cost and disruption associated with it as a complete retrofit.
2. Obsolete System: Anybody in my line of work still sees their fair share of pneumatic systems. Face it, they worked and they were easy to fix…and you can still buy a lot of the parts. That aside, if you have an early generation BAS and you’ve kept it alive like Frankenstein’s monster you are faced with trying to source used or after-market parts. Your biggest problem might be that your IT folks are trying to push you away from the old Windows platform the system if running on and your head end computer/server is no longer supported. You are on borrowed time and are just one controller failure, database error or system glitch away from having a system that cannot be recovered and a central plant that is out of control. It’s hard to explain to your Boss that he or she decided to re-tile the bathrooms instead of migrating the circa 1990 BAS system in your building but somehow you own the problem!
3. It Just Doesn’t Work: When I was a young mechanic I heard all the typical complaints of the Facilities Folks when it came to their BAS. Most of them are more customer service related but many of them are the result of how the system was procured. In America we like to do things faster and cheaper, this is what made us who we are. As I converted myself to a “Systems Guy” during my career I often wondered how owners got themselves into this mess, but it mainly came down to their procurement process. The contract chain is probably not the best way to procure a system. It’s full of miscommunication and creates too much separation between the folks who design and install the system from the folks who own the system. The complaint that “It Just Doesn’t Work” is legitimate. It might never have been the right system, application or systems design for what the building occupants really needed. Typically the Facilities Folks live with what they have and miraculously make
it work somehow. The result is decades of complaints over the complete inability to effectively control comfort and out-of-control energy use. The system doesn’t work as planned and is one of the major “obvious” reasons why systems ultimately get migrated.
The LESS OBVIOUS Reasons for BAS Migration:
1. Lack of Flexibility: Given what we’ve discussed here in terms of “rate of change” of systems, flexibility ranks fairly high as a reason folks consider migration. BAS manufacturers create change in their platforms due to customer demand. That’s right…most of the manufacturers out there DO actually listen to their customers. Customers are demanding systems that can speak multiple protocols. They also don’t just want remote access, they want an APP for their smart phones. If a Facilities Person is in the midst of upgrading some major equipment everything comes to a screeching halt if the BAS is not capable of expanding to accommodate the new equipment, can’t speak a particular protocol or has no way of “reading” in the important information into their system. I’ve seen this in particular in buildings where the company may have a large IT room or data center and the BAS is just not capable of being able to provide the information out of the critical equipment to the folks that MUST know when there is a problem.
2. Lack of Innovation from the Manufacturer: This one is easy to spot. That’s why it’s down here in the LESS OBVIOUS category. We are in an era of convergence of manufacturers. In order to get access to a particular capability, the big guys are swallowing up the smaller guys. When the manufacturer was independent and small, they did not consider innovation in terms of Return on Investment (ROI). They looked at innovation as the way they differentiated themselves from their competitors. It was all about being “better”. Being the first to market with an innovation meant something and it meant grabbing market share. When you are being sold new software or system revisions because they are just “new” and don’t contain real added value to you…THE USER, my suggestion would be to check out the manufacturer’s website and you’ll probably find out that sometime in the recent past they were acquired by Enormous Company USA, Inc. What this really means is that the
manufacturer has ceased to invest in the research and development (R&D) to truly keep the system innovative. Without you even noticing it, your system became obsolete. Your facility is always changing; your BAS needs to keep up.
3. The Service is Sub-Par: Maybe this one really belongs in the OBVIOUS category, but I put it here because compared to obsolescence it’s less of an emergency. Most customers are dealing with a proprietary system and they don’t have much in the way of choice of service providers so they just accept that they can get a call back a week after they’ve had an issue. Facilities Folks are service people. Their “customers” are the building occupants. If there is a complaint they have to move FAST and get things resolved or their job can be in jeopardy. If your system is proprietary you know what I mean, you feel like a hostage. Let’s take a commercial office building as a most basic example: if your tenants are angry about comfort and energy use despite constant complaints, they might not renew their lease. Low occupancy rates equal low employment rates in Facilities.
For what it’s worth, I think that most BAS systems are pretty good. The problem is execution and service after the sale. A BAS system is ultimately designed, installed and serviced by PEOPLE. The people behind the BAS make all the difference. Even the latest and best technology handled by someone that doesn’t care won’t work well. I once heard someone say “no roof shingle is better than the roofer who installs it”. The same is true with the BAS systems.