5 min read

Supervisory control from the 1980s [Nexus Newsletter #139]

Hey friends,

A wide gap has grown between (1) what technology is capable of and (2) what the average building automation system (BAS) is 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.

Consider a few use cases from recent conversations and projects:

  • Can the BAS find the optimal amount of ventilation for occupant experience, occupant health, and minimizing energy consumption? (Umm, no.)
  • Can the BAS detect a poorly-programmed or overridden control sequence and correct it automatically? (Hmm… no.)
  • Can the BAS predict when the building will set a new peak in electric demand and choose between potential alternative sequences to mitigate it? (Yeah, no.)

Startups are popping up left and right to try and capture the opportunity inherent in closing the technology and performance gap. I call this type of technology "Advanced Supervisory Control". (No, I don't like this acronym. Yes, it's the best I got.)

To discuss ASC, we first need to define traditional supervisory control. Supervisory controllers are part of almost every building automation system. They typically sit on the local IP network and support a lower-level network of field devices. The building’s “front end” supervisory computer or server pulls in all these supervisory controllers, looking something like this (image credits: J2 Innovations):

Together, the supervisory devices perform some set of these functions:

  • Displaying graphics
  • Exposing field level points
  • Hosting system-level control sequences and programs
  • Storing and displaying trends
  • Coordinating time of day and calendar scheduling
  • Creating and displaying alarms

These functions are vital to the system, but by today’s technology standards they’re really f-ing dumb, right? In fact, the architecture hasn’t changed much since the 1980s when it looked like this:

The only difference is the webserver, the network, and the protocol. That’s 30+ years of progress!

Perhaps the most sophisticated advancement from a building performance standpoint was the creation of trim-and-respond style supervisory control sequences allowing the system to “reset” formerly static setpoints based on actual heating and cooling demand.

Let that sink in: it’s 2022 and our biggest automation advancement so far has been the addition of some if-then-else logic!

To make matters worse, if you’ve ever clicked around on the user interface of one of these supervisory devices, you know these basic functions are quite difficult to use. We might be using IP addresses and HTML5, but the user experiences are still straight outta 1987.

It's like asking my 85-year-old grandpa, who uses Spotify on his iPhone today, to instead use Napster or LimeWire to burn tracks to a CD like I did circa 1999 (shoutout to the 90s kids!). Sure, he could listen to his Lawrence Welk in both scenarios, but they’re entirely different experiences.

One-way overlay solutions have stepped up to fill some of the void left by this dumbness and poor UX for the last twelve years or so. For example, we’ve seen graphics overlays like DG Logik (founded in 2007) and data analytics overlays from SkySpark (2008) and KGS Buildings (2008) see solid adoption.

Since about 2019, we’ve been seeing another wave of overlays: advanced supervisory control. ASC overlays not only pull data from the BAS, but also push commands back down.

In the last year, I've seen a proliferation of startups entering this category (58 according to the Nexus Vendor Landscape). I've seen "Building Operating Systems" and "digital twins" adding ASC as a capability of their software. We've heard from many ASC vendors on the podcast. We've seen acquisitions, like JLLT buying Hank. I've seen RFPs for procuring it, like we explored on our Live Broadcast with Monash University (members only).

So how are these new technologies improving on the old ways? How do these systems work? What are the potential implications on existing solutions and what does this technology mean for energy efficiency in the built environment? Finally, what's the right strategy for deploying it?

I answered all these questions in our deep dive series on Advanced Supervisory Control. I wrote it in 2020, but it's still relevant today...

What trends are you seeing in advanced supervisory controls?

Let us know on LinkedIn,

—James Dice, Founder of Nexus Labs


✖ At the Nexus

Here’s everything worth sharing from Nexus HQ this week:

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★ PODCAST: 🎧 #112: Demystifying 'Zero Trust'Episode 112 is a conversation Richard Miller of Buildings IoT and Jim Anthony of Appgate on Zero Trust Architecture and Zero Trust Networks.

We talked about how building networks are built unsecurely today, why that must change moving forward, what Zero Trust means, example use cases for Zero Trust technology products, why Zero Trust means a lot more than just products, what to look for in a product, and how to make the transition to Zero Trust.

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★ MEMBERS-ONLY EVENTS THIS MONTH:

  • New Member Orientation: Nexus Founder, James Dice, hosts an introduction to the Nexus Labs Community and how you access and take advantage of all the resources that come with your Pro Membership. This is for new members or those who've not taken advantage of all the resources at the Nexus Community. August 16th @ 3:00pm MT
  • Subject Matter Expert Workshop: TBA
  • Pro Member Gathering: The subject is TBA. August 31st @ 9:00am MT.

Join Nexus Pro now to get the invites and access to the recordings.

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★ ON LINKEDIN: Is there a Tesla for buildings?

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★ READ OF THE WEEK: A guide to reducing Embodied Carbon

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★ JOBS: Are you hiring? Searching for a job in smart buildings?—We've relaunched the Nexus Labs Jobs Board and we've made job postings free.

It's got great jobs from It's got great jobs from LMRE, Audette, Alutra, Embue, WiredScore, AVUITY, Lockheed Martin, Thoughtwire, Switch Automation, WSP, Buro Happold, Gridium, Gridpoint, McKinstry, Vanti, Aquicore, Honeywell, Synchronoss Technologies.


👋 That's all for this week. See you next Tuesday!

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