Tackling The Terminology: What Is A Building Energy Management System Anyway?

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Controlling the environment inside buildings is not a modern endeavor. In fact, did you know that experimentation with building automation devices began as early as 270 B.C.? A water clock, pictured below is the earliest documented example of an automatic control system device. (Pay no attention to the out-of-period gentlemen, he is slightly out of place, but you get the idea). Thankfully, building automation has advanced significantly since then. Specifically, the past 25 years, building automation has seen more rapid progress than all the years combined, new approaches have evolved swiftly and in countless ways.


Originally defined by Wikipedia as “the automatic centralized control of a building’s heating, ventilation and air conditioning, lighting, and other systems through a building management system,” legacy building automation systems (BASs) were designed to improve occupant comfort and building efficiency while reducing energy consumption and operating costs.

In the earliest days, the goal of the smart building market was to automate buildings, regardless of the practical or logistical aspects. As a result, a battle of building communications protocols erupted—BACnet vs. LonTalk—much like the PC vs. Mac battle of computer operating systems. And just like computer operating systems, language compatibility mattered because the protocol dictated the interoperability of automated devices. In other words, a LonTalk lighting system could not easily communicate with a BACnet HVAC system, despite the claim that both protocols were “open.” As a result of this conflict, many facility managers (fms) patiently watched and waited on the sidelines while the smart building market matured.

Fortunately, it was not a long wait for fms. With the introduction of building management systems (BMSs), this market reached its next level of sophistication. Automated BAS devices were now manageable BMSs, thanks to open protocols on IP networks. As Brandy Moore, offer management director for Schneider Electric’s Global Field Services for Buildings, explains, BMSs got away from the device communication issue of the past “to integrate all of the disparate systems and provide a holistic view of a facility.” With BMS technology, all of the devices could speak the same language at last.

Nowadays, the smart building market has not only matured, it has exploded in terms of sophisticated energy management options for fms—perhaps at a time when fms need it most. A recently released research report predicts that energy demand will increase by 40% between 2010 and 2040. This is likely to enhance the growth of the smart building market, since it plays a vital role in contributing to energy savings.

Likewise, according to a report from Navigant Research, today’s building energy management systems (BEMs) tap into the importance of “data from both the BMS and additional data on the utility, enterprise, or facility operations sides. Consequently, BEMs can provide visualization and analysis of that data to enable better energy-related decision making.” So while BMSs can gather that data, BEMs take that gathered data and analyze it at a much more complex level.

With its shifting emphasis from automation to management to energy, smart building systems have become an integral tool for fms who are responsible for the essential operational assets. While the language has changed both literally and figuratively, the technology continues to evolve and improve in ways that can help keep strategic professionals one step ahead of the game.

For more information on the growing importance of BEMS to fms, request a copy of the full Navigant Research Leaderboard Report: Building Energy Management Systems-Assessment of Strategy and Execution for 14 Building Energy Management System Vendors by clicking this link.

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  • I consider myself to be well-versed in the area of building automation. However, I definitely learned something new. I had no idea building automation started as early as 270 BC. I always considered it to be a more modern endeavor. Thanks for sharing!

  • Mary Jane McCraven

    9 years ago

    Hello Joshua, Thank you for your note! I must say that I did not know BA started that early either, I only discovered it when I was doing research for this blog. You know what they say, there is really nothing new, it simply gets recycled and improved.

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