7 min read

Nexus news #23: the next big thing?

Advanced supervisory controls are hot; "intelligent building software" leaders; ASHRAE smart grid guide
These sequences and practices might seem like small (and nerdy) performance details, but this is where the rubber hits the road for building energy performance. In my opinion, BAS vendors have shown themselves inept at making these small details easy for building operators. Advanced supervisory control vendors can help fill this void.

How new technology is replacing old supervisory controls

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: COVID-19 signal in the noise
  2. 🔥 Deep dive: Advanced supervisory controls are hot. Is this the next big thing?
  3. 📚 Nexus Book Club: Machine Learning
  4. 📊 Guidehouse Leaderboard Insights: Intelligent Building Software
  5. 🔌 The building’s role in the smart grid


Disclaimer: James is a researcher at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). All opinions expressed via Nexus emails, podcasts, or on the website belong solely to James. No resources from NREL are used to support Nexus. NREL does not endorse or support any aspect of Nexus.

1. 🤔 On my mind this week

Like all of you, I’m continuing to track the impact of COVID-19 on our industry and I’ll continue to share my thoughts here as I have them. If you’re looking for the signal in the noise, here’s the best content I’ve seen this week:

Ask an expert: COVID-19 advice from Ruairi M. Barnwell—a great interview with DLR Group (and Nexus reader) Ruairi Barnwell

We anticipate that operations and maintenance teams who were already stretched to the limit during normal operations pre-COVID-19, will be overwhelmed with trying to adjust existing systems with inherent limitations to new operational guidelines, in addition to supporting questions and complaints from more demanding occupants. The data-rich reporting that deeper analytics provide O&M teams will be critical to validate building performance, and allow an optimized, analytics based, proactive approach to maintaining building systems and responding to occupant requests.


Design teams will be held more accountable to post-occupancy data and outcomes, and will take on a higher degree of risk than before, but in turn will also be compensated for the more holistic integrated design process necessary, to deliver the next generation of smart, high-performing buildings


We already had the capability to perform remote commissioning and have been developing a standardized firmwide approach for a “connected commissioning” (note: see Nexus #18) process before the COVID-19 pandemic, i.e., integrating analytics into the commissioning process to allow us to use analytics software such as Skyspark to monitor equipment operations post startup, and to ensure systems readiness to eliminate wasted trips. The pandemic has elevated the priority of this initiative and we are integrating this approach into all of our commissioning projects moving forward.
  1. Talking Can Generate Coronavirus Droplets That Linger Up to 14 Minutes (New York Times)—A new study shows how respiratory droplets produced during normal conversation may be just as important in transmitting disease, especially indoors. Pair with A regimen for reentry (Atul Gawande, New York Times).
  2. The office is dead (Medium)—“Get ready for the commercial real estate apocalypse”. Pair with Manhattan Faces a Reckoning if Working From Home Becomes the Norm (New York Times)
  3. Smart cameras will soon check if you’re social distancing and wearing a mask (Fast Company)

2. 🔥 Deep dive: Advanced supervisory controls are hot. Is this the next big thing?

A wide gap has grown between (1) what technology is capable of and (2) what our building automation systems are capable of. Simultaneously, building owners are demanding better performance out of building systems—a level of performance that’s extremely rare, perhaps impossible, with the old technology. New offerings are popping up left and right to try and capture the opportunity inherent in closing the technology and performance gap.

I’ve seen two startup approaches to closing the gap (so far). The first is what I call the blank sheet of paper approach. They’re crumpling up and throwing the old model in the trash. Then they’re building the BAS from scratch with only modern technology. Here we have startups like PassiveLogic (covered in depth here) and perhaps 75F (here).

The second is what we might call the overlay approach—building an intelligence layer on top of what is already commonly installed. Both approaches are compelling, but in this deep-dive series, we’re focusing on the overlay approach. Specifically, overlay version 2.0, where we have companies like BuildingIQ, BrainBox AI, Facilio, Cohesion, Smart Locus, Switch Automation, Verdigris, and Vardi to name a few.

This deep dive is an intro to traditional supervisory control, what’s wrong with it, and how technology vendors are improving it.

Go deeper

3. 📚 Nexus Book Club: Machine Learning

I’m (still) having so much fun with the Nexus Book Club. There are now 10 of us spanning 3 different countries and 7 time zones and we get together over Zoom each week. We’re reading books that orient us on our industry’s digital transformation.

Do you want to join the group? We’d love to have you…

Next Thursday, May 28th, we’re starting our next book: Machine Learning: The New AI by MIT Press.  Hit reply or email me at nexus@substack.com to join.

4. 📊 Leaderboard: Intelligent Building Software

It was an ironic and confusing experience writing the above deep dive, getting amazing feedback from readers, and then seeing this intelligent building software “leaderboard”.

I wrote the deep dive on this trend: modern building automation systems are decades behind where they should be and new companies are rising up to fill the void. This Guidehouse report seems to indicate that there is no void. The top 4 firms in our industry, the ones that have been around for over 100 years each, are apparently the answer. If we pick them, they will catch us up and make our buildings intelligent! The irony, of course, is that they’ve always been the leaders. And yet, here we are.

I’m not saying the chosen leader, Schneider Electric, is not the true leader. They and the other leaders are certainly capable of making a building intelligent. But this report didn’t help me understand that. It left me with more questions than answers. Questions about how this type of “independent research” really works. Here are a few…

  • Who paid for this report? Was it one of the leaders? If so, doesn’t that mean there’s a conflict of interest, even if the “goal is to present an objective, unbiased view of market opportunities”?
  • How were the 14 companies selected? Beyond the top 4, the other 10 strike me as random… comparing them is not apples to apples. GE Current (lighting) vs. KGS Buildings (FDD) vs. Verdigris (meters and EIS software and some supervisory control) vs. ThoughtWire (digital twin).
  • If the analysis is comparing software (see the title), did the analyst see a demo or use the software? If the vendor’s platform has many applications, which of them were reviewed?
  • How come “hardware integration” plays such a large part in the scores? Do hardware manufacturers (see: Top 4) have an advantage because they can integrate their software with their own hardware? Shouldn’t that be a pre-requisite?

5. 🔌 The building’s role in the smart grid

At our member gathering on 5/26, I’ll interview Scott Hackel and Joe Zhou of Slipstream on the recently published ASHRAE Smart Grid Application Guide: Integrating Facilities with the Electric Grid.

The electric grid is evolving before our eyes (increasing deployment of DERs, financial and regulatory incentives for load flexibility, increased electrification of heating, etc) and the pace of change isn’t slowing down. To make matters worse, the game changes based on what region you’re in and who your utility is. If the term “smart grid” feels nebulous and futuristic to you, it might be time to start paying attention. This guide is a great place to start.

What is the smart grid? Here’s a great summary from the guide:

A primary goal of the smart grid is to manage the electrical load of buildings and their end uses to better align with the needs of the electrical grid. Buildings will shift more of their load to times when more, cleaner power is available, and prices will shift to make this strategy the lowest cost option for building owners. This will mutually benefit both the building and the grid. Historically, utilities and grid operators communicated the needs of the electrical grid to buildings through static price signals (e.g., time-of-use (TOU) rates) and depended on manual intervention by the building manager; the smart grid will enable a much more dynamic, direct connection to enable the building to manage demand. Buildings may gain significant financial benefit for participating.

And these dynamic demand-management strategies will depend on the types of technologies we discuss here at Nexus. Why check out the guide? This graphic provides a solid outline of the document:

On 5/26, we’ll discuss how these changes apply to smart building technology and how our members can take advantage of emerging opportunities. We’ll also split up into breakout rooms for more intimate conversations to get to know each other. If that sounds like your jam, join Nexus Pro at the “Join now” link below.

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


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