Graeme Rees, vice-president of the Building Controls Industry Association (BCIA), looks at the progress made in technology over the last few decades and explains why modern, adaptable systems are the way forward, particularly when it comes to building controls.

Take a moment to reminisce, to think back to the days when the television was the huge piece of furniture in the corner of the room, when Mum or Dad would call out to “turn it over – put the other side on” or “turn it up” and someone, usually the youngest, would have to walk over to action a button or a knob to answer the request. Similarly, recollect the summer day trips in cars with vinyl seats that would get blisteringly hot, the only form of air-conditioning achieved by manually winding down a window and most of the journey praying you didn’t get stuck in traffic for fear of the car overheating by the roadside.

Technology has advanced at such a rate it is hard to imagine how basic the every day was just 20 or 30 years ago. I appreciate a good number of readers will have little appreciation of the scenarios I describe. My own children have little concept of CDs and no understanding of the vinyl single. As to phones, the idea of actually “dialling” is totally lost on them.

Move forward to just the most recent 10 to 15 years, and when we think back to these slightly more recent times we will still reminisce and smile at the simplicity of the technology around us, in our homes and cars. Anti-lock brakes, air conditioning and electric windows were pretty standard and the TV in the corner had probably been replaced with a giant Sony or Panasonic rear projection monster.

“If it ain’t broke…”

In our commercial buildings the control systems that were installed in the days of the Ford Cortina, Vauxhall Viva and the rented 19-inch Baird from Radio Rentals have long been replaced with the early BMS systems of the era of the Vauxhall Vectra and plasma flat screens. Many are still in use today, reliably controlling the environmental conditions in our buildings, and a good number of building owners, occupiers and facility managers are happy with the service being provided. So good are many systems of the era I reflect on it is hard to make the comparisons with those I describe. The old saying “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” certainly springs to mind.

However, the technology upon which these systems were built is the technology of the 1990s and early 2000s. The older the system the less likely it will be able to monitor and manage your building’s equipment efficiently. So on the rare occasion that an item may fail it is often requested to find a spare, or fashion a repair, and challenge the quoted costs for doing so, “that’s more than a new one!”

This kind of reaction would be unthinkable if applied to the similar technologies in our lives.. would we spend thousands repairing our Vauxhall Vectra when there’s an Insignia available for the same money, complete with inbuilt Sat Nav, DAB Radio, cruise control and lane correction features, not to mention superb improvement in fuel efficiency – maybe even go all electric? Would I look for a replacement plasma if that started to dim or would I buy a super flatscreen 4K smart TV upon which I could stream directly almost anything at anytime?

I describe these comparisons, not as a car or TV salesman, but to illustrate in the simplest terms the degree of progress and technological advances in our building systems today compared to previous generations. Commercial buildings are continuously evolving and adapting to the needs of their occupants thanks to the latest smart BMS controls technology and for this to be done effectively it is necessary for building owners and occupiers to plan for technology refreshes, transitions, upgrades regardless of original manufacturer. It is not only unwise, it is frankly impossible for system manufacturers to maintain supply and support of older systems as they are built on old technology design and electronic components, many of which are simply obsolete – replaced by the rapid churn in processors and component technology driven by the electronic giants who create the mobile and smart device technologies.

We also often forget that the underlying operating systems, the firmware within the ageing systems, is much like the operating systems on our PCs. How many of us would be happy still using Windows XP – or even Windows 3.1? Just like the electronics, the underlying software also needs to be refreshed, not only for performance enhancement but to avoid any potential of cyber security threats.

Ready to adapt

So, what do you get by upgrading? By planning and taking steps towards a planned and phased technology refresh or transition you can position your building so that it is ready to adapt and add new technologies to the BMS without having to replace an entire system. A phased approach also dilutes any initial high cost of change and the building owners and occupants would soon benefit from the most efficient, the most capable systems that bring enhanced security. There would be significant improvements to user comfort, wellbeing and the occupants’ productivity too.

There is also the added peace of mind that the disruption caused by downtime failure is reduced to a fraction, and access to the future of a truly smart building where systems interact, self-learn, self-diagnose and report are viewed and interacted with from a single view.

It goes without saying that all of this would be built upon a truly open platform that facilitates unhindered future expansion and development. But, if it’s easier for most of a certain age, compare Dad’s old Cortina to today’s Hybrid, and Saturday’s World of Sport on the Radio Rentals 19-inch Baird to a 4k Netflix stream. There’s no contest, surely?