Building Automation Systems (BAS) are integrated electronic systems that can handle almost every aspect of electrical, plumbing, and mechanical building operation through specialized software programs. BAS are becoming popular in all buildings but are absolutely integral to high-efficiency structures attempting to meet LEED energy efficiency standards. Electricians are sure to run into BAS routinely, and some electricians specialize in installing and maintaining BAS.
The origin of building-wide control systems emerged as Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning (HVAC) became common in large commercial structures. The challenges of balancing airflow and managing many different zones within large buildings like skyscrapers called for some sort of centralized control system to operate fans, valves, and duct baffles.
The original control systems were pneumatic and exclusively devoted to HVAC. But as solid state controllers and electrical switches became cheaper and more reliable, most HVAC control systems also became electrical in nature. Low-voltage control wiring skeins stretch through every building today.
As the electronics industry has advanced, so has the ability of those controllers. Cheaper and even more capable chips coming out have allowed building control systems to take advantage of the Internet of Things—smart sensors, programmable logic controllers (PLCs), and other networked devices that can communicate not only with centralized management software, but also between themselves to coordinate functions. This provides resilience and data in the building systems that offer tremendous flexibility and all new capabilities.
BAS Installation Is Becoming A Specialty Position For Low-Voltage Wiremen
Historically, because of the association with HVAC, HVAC contractors have performed most BAS installation work. But as the systems have become both more comprehensive and more capable, the work involved is increasingly falling into the spectrum of low-voltage wiring installation.
In some states, only specially licensed electricians are allowed to perform this wiring. With laws on the books in 33 different states that govern who is allowed to work on cabling carrying between 0 volts and 49 volts, most BAS installations fall into the regulated area.
Electricians may be responsible for:
- Routing and pulling wire, either through conduit or within building walls.
- Terminating and installing jacks and faceplates at wire ends.
- Installing routers, boosters, and other network devices.
- Inserting power taps into the lines where necessary to provide power to remote devices.
Many BAS systems, such as those based off of LON or BACnet, have their own dedicated physical layer network topologies that are run through the building. Just as the internet has largely replaced dedicated point-to-point data connections, BAS networks are slowly replacing other special-purpose building low-voltage data networks.
But increasingly, BAS networks themselves are being built on standard Ethernet networks. Special adapters even allow LON to tunnel over Ethernet, minimizing and standardizing the low voltage wiring in the building.
Using Power Over Ethernet (POE) standards, Ethernet can even be used to supply low-voltage power to devices such as cameras and networking equipment without having a separate wire run. The network can carry data traffic from both the BAS network and business Local Area Networks (LAN) simultaneously. This flexibility is quickly making Ethernet the standard of choice for BAS wiring.
Because this equipment is so common and so inexpensive, BAS is also crossing over into residential use as HAS—Home Automation Systems. Electricians also work on HAS installations using off-the-shelf wiring and hardware such as NEST thermostats and August Smartlocks.
BAS Electricians Develop Information Technology Skills
Troubleshooting these advanced systems requires new skills for many low-voltage electricians. The basics of checking for open circuits and testing voltage on wire pairs are no longer adequate for tracking down every problem on a data bus. Now, electricians have to understand the basic building blocks of data networks. They might find themselves deciphering Internet Protocol packet headers or analyzing line interference with an oscilloscope.
Some of the work happens as much with software as with old-fashioned tools like wire strippers and cutters. Once a wiring system is in place, most configuration and troubleshooting can be performed with computer and data analysis tools.
The integration also creates security issues that are not present in traditional low-voltage systems. Because most LANs are Internet-connected, the possibility of malicious intrusion and hacking is also introduced. Putting in firewalls and taking care of other basic security precautions is also becoming stock-in-trade for BAS electricians.
Building Automation is Taking Over Traditional Low-Voltage Roles
BAS technicians may also be closely involved with security system technicians. Fire alarm and security systems are increasingly being integrated into the main building automation system. This sort of integration allows BAS controllers to tell how many people are in the building, and sometimes where they are, which can help regulate HVAC and electrical services more efficiently.
The combination can make code compliance difficult in some jurisdictions, which may have regulations prohibiting fire alarm systems from being integrated. Although NFPA 72, the National Fire Alarm Code, does expressly allow this, many local implementations of the code have not been adjusted to permit it. Even in those cases where it is allowed, installers have to insure that the shared system:
- Meets performance requirements under established voltage, temperature, and humidity variations.
- Has both primary and secondary power sources and integrity monitoring systems.
- Meets fire alarm actuation standards of initiating all alarm functions within 10 seconds of a sensor device activating.
- Meets bandwidth and error reporting standards to report failures within 200 seconds.
But generally, connecting alarm functions to the BAS has numerous advantages:
- More efficient wiring runs and simplified troubleshooting.
- Alarms can easily override HVAC controls to manage airflow to snuff out oxygen to fire floors.
- Building natural gas intakes can be shut off automatically.
- Backup power sources can be brought on line to power emergency systems.
- Security systems can be temporarily disabled to allow rapid evacuation from the building.
Becoming a BAS Electrician
Finding a position working with Building Automation Systems as an electrician is getting easier and easier as BAS use spreads. Most major new commercial construction has some degree of BAS built into it, and the search for installers and maintenance technicians means there is constant demand.
Like most other types of electrician, an associate’s degree or better is important for getting your foot in the door. Many licensing schemes, in those states that require a license, also demand a degree or certificate to demonstrate that you have the requisite education to work safely on low-voltage systems.
There are a number of different certification options to boost your credential in BAS work. The International Society for Automation offers a specific Certified Control System Technician certificate covering:
- Calibration, maintenance, and troubleshooting
- Project start-up, commissioning, and planning
- Administration and management
The Electronics Technicians Association has certifications available for:
- Data Cabling Installer
- Fiber Optics Installer/Technician
- Alarm System Technician
- Electronic Security Networking Technician
- Residential Electronics Systems Integrators
Also, most manufacturers of BAS devices and software offer their own specialized training and certification specific to their devices.