Implementing BACnet – why it’s harder than equipment manufacturers think

April 16, 2019
Charlie Peterson

Today’s HVAC units, lighting devices, and other commercial and industrial devices can no longer function as stand-alone, independent units. Today’s commercial equipment buyers and owners expect these devices to operate as part of a system that can be managed and monitored together. 

This is why it’s imperative that today’s equipment manufacturers implement Building Automation and Control network protocols to ensure that their devices can work together with each other and other manufacturer’s devices. Not doing so at this point puts them well behind the curve from a technology and feature standpoint and gives all of their competitors a major differentiator and a competitive advantage. 

In this environment, it’s understandable that equipment manufacturers are pushing their engineers and product development teams to get these protocols implemented and integrated into their devices. There is one thing that every company needs to know as they work to integrate Building Automation and Control network protocols, the most popular and accepted of which is BACnet, into their devices: 

It’s harder than it looks, and they should probably get some help. 

The BACnet BTL Testing Lab functions to test and certify that new BACnet-equipped devices will function as intended.

The perils of going alone

Many equipment manufacturers are incredible at making boilers, or air conditioners, or elevators.  It’s what they know, and what they’re best at. What they’re not always good at is protocol development. In fact, most companies have to go out and hire a protocol engineer to spearhead their integration for them. 

While these companies are often aware that they’ll need to hire some new engineers to make an integration happen, they’re often unaware or even somewhat naïve about how long the process will take. 

It can take an equipment manufacturer up to a year and a half to internally develop a BACnet interface for just one of the two market-leading BACnet protocols: BACnet/IP and BACnet MS/TP. It can then take up to another year and a half to get the platform stable. 

When the development and integration is done, the protocol engineers need to stay. The company will need to continually support the product once it is released, meaning that the company’s protocol engineers need to remain onboard to continually support the BACnet implementation for the life of the product. This increase in overhead costs is not optional, as there are constant updates and changes to the BACnet protocol and the engineers are essential in ensuring that the product remains up-to-date.

The time to market and the increased overhead are really just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to BACnet integration problems that equipment manufacturers face. There’s also a good chance that the BACnet integration will stumble out of the gate and face interoperability issues. 

 

The protocol engineers spearheading an integration for an equipment manufacturer could interpret and implement BACnet differently. There is a chance that an engineer can misinterpret how some functionality should be implemented, creating massive interoperability problems. 

 

It was this specific issue that led to the BACnet organization introducing the BACnet BTL Testing Lab, which functions to test and certify that new BACnet-equipped devices will function as intended. 

 

Prior to the introduction of BTL Testing Lab, there were BACnet-enabled products that had problems speaking with each other and causing some significant interoperability issues in the field. That problem still persists today, often as a result of engineers interpreting things differently and introducing products that they claim are BACnet enabled but that aren’t BTL certified. 

 

Going it alone on a BACnet integration is clearly difficult, but it’s also bad for business. 

 

The bottom line Attempting to do its own BACnet integration can cost a company up to $400,000 and take up to three years. The BTL certification can add to the cost, and take from six months to a year to complete. That’s a scary statement, not because of the dollar amount, but because of the time frame. 

 

While a company is busy hammering out the kinks in a BACnet integration and going through the BTL testing process, their competitors that either did their own integration already or embraced a BTL certified gateway for their BACnet integration are already selling their BACnet-enabled devices. 

 

In the commercial and industrial equipment marketplace, it can be very difficult to unseat incumbent solution providers. Equipment owners are loyal to their brands and have a tendency to stick with them. This means that any potential customer lost to a competitor because their product was already BACnet enabled is a customer that could be lost for life. 

 

It could be even more damaging if a BACnet product is released with interoperability problems. This could lead to integrators charging the manufacturer for the time they spent debugging their products, which can be substantial. It can also lead to a damaged reputation for the equipment manufacturer, which can chase away both existing and potential customers in the future. 

 

The solution

 

If attempting a BACnet integration internally is both more trouble than it seems and potentially damaging to a manufacturer’s bottom line, then what’s the better alternative? 

 

As I discussed, manufacturers are very good at building incredible boilers, and air conditioners, and chillers and escalators, but they’re not great at protocol development. Why not outsource the protocol development to a company that is great at it? 

 

There is a universe of gateway manufacturers and solution providers that provide equipment manufacturers with gateways that are already BTL tested and certified, ensuring that any device that they’re integrated into will work with BACnet without any interoperability issues. Not only is this approach less risky, it also can be accomplished in months, instead of taking years. 

 

Also, BACnet represents just two of many protocols that are being used to connect industrial and commercial equipment and devices. There are numerous other protocols with significant buy-in and market share across the industry, including LonWorks, KNX, Metasys N2 Open and Modbus. Combined, these protocols make up more than 30 percent of the market worldwide. Integrating both BACnet protocols and these four additional protocols means six separate integrations for equipment manufacturers to spearhead and manage, each with their own challenges. 

 

Today’s gateways are modular in nature, capable of integrating and working with some or all of these different protocols by swapping out modules. This can give equipment manufacturers the ability to offer their customers integrations with multiple disparate protocols, and give equipment owners flexibility in the future. 

 

Protocol integrations are hard, and a protocol integration that takes too long or goes wrong can have long-lasting, negative effects on an equipment manufacturer. However, there is a viable, faster, cheaper and more effective solution available. Working with certified gateway solution providers can ensure that equipment manufacturers bring BACnet enabled devices to market quickly and efficiently, and ensure that their reputation for making exceptional products remains intact.

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Charlie Peterson
Charlie Peterson is the Director of IIoT Sales at Sierra Monitor Corporation where he is directly responsible for helping OEMs adopt turnkey IIoT cloud solutions that dramatically improve the way they support their products in the field and customers.

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