5 min read

#35: the increasing importance of the overlay

Plus JCI's latest platform play, peaker plants, and scaling edge ecosystems

Good morning!

Welcome to Nexus, a newsletter, podcast, and membership community for smart people applying smart building technology—written by James Dice. If you’re new to Nexus, you might want to start here.

Here’s an outline of this week’s newsletter:

  1. 🤔 On my mind this week: the implications of embedded intelligence

  2. 📚 What I’m reading

  3. 💡 New from Nexus

    • PODCAST—🎧 #014: Friendly rants volume 3: Crawl, walk, run (Pro members only)

  4. 🧐 New to me

  5. 🧱 Foundations course starting 10/1—we’re one third full!


1. 🤔 On my mind this week

Several recent conversations have me thinking about the implications of equipment-embedded intelligence:

Keith Gipson and I talked about his experience with smart valves at a local campus:

“Dozens of localized "closed loop" edge control devices running independently of each other and the Central Plant. You're optimizing for maximum efficiency at the coils but these multiple variations in flow in the field can cause a "tail wagging the dog" scenario up stream at the plant.”
  • A contact in the refrigerated retail space was wondering how to think about the value of refrigeration equipment including a “free” analytics and monitoring service out of the box. Hussman’s StoreConnect is just one example.

Rob Huntington’s thought-provoking comment on LinkedIn:

Imagine a day when every Chiller, AHU, VAV, FCU etc already has a controller when it arrives onsite that is “integration ready”, configurable without proprietary engineering software, discoverable via web services and all data tagged using a uniform metadata schema. When we arrive at this milestone it will mark the extinction of BMS controls and BMS service providers as we know them today.

As I said on LinkedIn, I think these fascinating developments only enhance the value of the overlay software. Here’s why:

  • No one (especially the average building operator) wants to log into a separate UI for each type of device. An overlay, if done well, can bring it all together.
  • As Keith notes, intelligent devices are great, but someone/something needs to be looking at the entire system of systems.
  • An overlay is the best place to start for building owners that don’t have intelligent devices everywhere. Perhaps a brand new building could have intelligent devices everywhere and not need an overlay (doubt it), but for existing buildings, this won’t be the case for a long time.

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2. 📚 What I’m reading


Scaling Ecosystems Through an Open Edge (Part One, Two, and Three)—Nice primer on the pros and cons of different ecosystem design approaches (closed, semi-open, open-source) with common examples (Apple, Android, Amazon Alexa, etc). (Zededa)

Deploying IoT and edge computing solutions takes a village and it’s important to establish an entourage of partners that have a “go to dance move” rather than working with those that are trying to do too much and as a result not doing anything particularly well. Five years have passed and a lot of providers have felt the pain of trying to own everything and have since realized the importance of having focus and establishing meaningful partnerships.


Simulating capital investments—Interesting article highlights Bractlet’s approach to automate much of the energy engineering process: create an energy model, calibrate it with actual sensor/meter data, recommend projects, and perform M&V. (Commercial Real Estate Biz)

In a recent case study, Bractlet collected a half-billion data points for a portfolio and executed a simulation that represented the equivalent of 17,000 building-years to evaluate hundreds of potential capital investments. The projects recommended by the simulation resulted in $2.7 million in annual savings and an estimated increase in asset value of $45 million.


Other pertinent reads from just (a bit) outside the smart buildings industry:

New Energy Efficiency as a Service Model Has Potential to Accelerate Investment in Commercial Buildings (Energy Central)

By addressing the long-standing split incentive barrier to energy efficiency, this model could spur rapid growth in the commercial energy efficiency market, but only if other utilities take note.
  • Dirty Energy, Big Money—reading this was a lightbulb moment for me, tying together the issues of climate, public health, and social justice with smart buildings, energy management, and building-grid interaction. (Peak Coalition)

    When energy demand in New York City spikes above normal levels, highly polluting power plants known as “peakers” fire up in the South Bronx, Sunset Park, and other under-resourced communities and environmental justice communities, spewing harmful emissions (i.e., NOx, SOx, PM2.5) into neighborhoods overburdened by pollution.

    Consequentially, New York City’s frontline communities, already impacted disproportionately by air pollution, are also emerging as among the most hard-hit by the deadly respiratory virus COVID-19.

This installment of NEXUS is free for everyone. If you would like to get full access to all content, join the NEXUS Pro community. Members get exclusive access to the Nexus Vendor Landscape, monthly events, weekly deep dives, and all past deep dives.

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3. 💡 New from NEXUS

PODCAST—🎧 #014: Friendly rants volume 3: Crawl, walk, run (Pro members only).

In the third installment of the Friendly Rants series, Dennis and I talked about another pet peeve of ours.

“To take this rant to the positive side, this should be an open, honest conversation: Are you even ready for new technology? Because if you haven’t leveraged what you have today, you’re under-resourced, you don’t have time, attention, and budget to do anything else… What is this technology going to do?”

4. 🧐 New to me

Even though the Nexus Vendor Landscape has over 100 vendors on it, I still learn about new companies/products to track every week.

Here are this week’s discoveries:

  1. Axiom Energy—Advanced supervisory control for refrigeration systems

  2. Theodora by iESMACH—Another “operating system for buildings”

  3. OpenBlue—JCI’s latest platform play in a long history of platform attempts. If I could summarize the CEO’s summary on the latest earnings call, the platform will connect everything and solve all of our problems!

    Johnson Controls Announces The Launch Of OpenBlue Digital Platform To Support Smart And Sustainable Buildings

    My reaction. To be fair, the name is far better than its predecessor, Data Vault. However, let’s agree it’s a stretch for companies with a history of lock-in to name their platform “Open”. Actions speak louder than words, but maybe the tide has turned?

5. 🧱 Foundations

The dates are set for cohort 1 of Nexus Foundations, an introductory course on the smart buildings industry. From 10/1 to 11/19, we'll publish weekly content, host weekly live workshops on Zoom, and hold weekly office hours. We're capping this (deeply discounted) first cohort at 25 students to maximize the time we can spend with each student.

We’re already 1/3 full, so reserve your spot now. 👇

Sign up for Nexus Foundations

OK, that’s all for this week—thanks for reading Nexus!