Why open source automation is the secret to smarter buildings

I recently created a thermostat that should keep people more comfortable while using less energy by more accurately reading people's comfort. It measures not only air temperature but the mean radiant temperature of all surfaces within view.

My teammates and I could push the invention out into the world by licensing it or trying to start a company with it but we have other priorities. What about everyone in the building controls industry with good ideas to make their own buildings run greener? What if we could share what we make and build off each other's work without reinventing the wheel any time we wanted to add a spoke?

Oh, wait, that exists. It's called open source.

Valuable for building owners

Open source software is extremely successful for these very reasons. It's good for businesses because it enables more innovation and customization at lower cost. It allows for higher robustness, security and auditability because more people can test it in their own ways. It provides greater interoperability because it doesn't require a particular company to write code for a particular piece of hardware or situation. It lets companies try it before committing financially because the software itself is free. It usually allows companies to use cheaper hardware because open source systems typically are lighter and less code-bloated. It also saves everyone from replicating tedious and time-consuming infrastructure.

Imagine if every power company had to deploy its own power lines to the home of every user it wished to serve. (That used to be true, making it the big barrier to customer choice you'd expect.) Open source is such a good idea that the open data taxonomy Project Haystack received the Best Intelligent Building Technology Innovation award in 2013 at Realcomm, the commercial real estate conference.

Building owners can improve the energy efficiency of more buildings faster, while making more money, with open infrastructure for automation. Open source splits up the cost of developing automation systems to all companies involved. This includes not just automation companies such as Johnson Controls or Siemens and monitoring companies such as Lucid Design, but also manufacturers of hardware that need to interface with these systems, such as solar panels and HVAC systems. Large commercial building owners also have custom requirements for their systems, such as governments, hotel chains, factories and franchises. Not everything in the industry will (or even should) be open-sourced, but having open interoperable infrastructure widely used would make the entire industry perform better.

Valuable for automation providers

Besides open source's obvious advantages to building owners and operators, it can be valuable for companies providing building automation systems. Such companies generally make most of their money from support and installation, not from hardware and software sales; this business model lines up perfectly with open source. (Don't be fooled into thinking that open source systems will be free; they simply will have lower costs, less up-front cost, and likely more long-term benefits.)

Open source infrastructure lets companies avoid recreating the infrastructure when writing the specialized service apps their customers actually pay for. Businesses with large market share have leveraged open source software well; IBM has been doing it for years (PDF). One of the biggest companies in the building automation industry, Honeywell, acquired Tridium in 2005 but has let it continue open-sourcing software. Like IBM, it makes money by selling closed-source apps and services built on the open source platform. These services are valuable to building operators, too, because a brilliant invention that no one supports doesn't last beyond the first system hiccup.

Some open source platforms have been acquired by other companies and then closed. Closed systems make building owners more dependent on vendors because it's hard to switch to a new vendor when systems aren't compatible. However, the quickening pace of technological change may push building owners away from closed systems, just for the sake of keeping up.

"Unfortunately, with the pace of technology, your physical controls equipment is likely to outlast the associated software support. … Companies all over the world are having to upgrade their machines to match the new software," Zach Denning wrote in the Automated Buildings blog.

When you're facing hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of replacing perfectly good hardware because of software updates, it becomes much more tempting to avoid the problem by switching to an open standards-based system that keeps everything compatible. "The best way to ensure a long-term solution is to create an open source platform that is owned by the community and cannot be acquired," Anno Scholten, founder of OpenLynx, said in an interview with Automated Buildings.

In the long-term, open source — or at least plug-and-play compatibility with open standards— will be necessary for companies in the building automation sector, simply for survival. That's because open source home automation is a popular and growing niche for hobbyist hackers, and Moore’s Law will drive their systems toward lower cost and higher complexity until they eventually can handle commercial buildings. Granted, this is many years off, as current home automation hacks are no threat to serious commercial systems, but it undoubtedly will happen. Companies whose business models work with low-cost components in open standard configurations will be much better prepared when it does.

Building automation innards

Open interoperable infrastructure is an open version of the different layers of building automation systems. All the parts work together naturally, so you don't have to build your own bridges between them. The whole system doesn’t need to be one unified product — it probably never will be — it just needs all parts to work together. All this infrastructure is a means to the end of running buildings more efficiently while keeping people more comfortable. Infrastructure isn't what you want to spend your time on.

A building automation system has different layers, structured like this:

• interface and apps
• communication from user to server
• server and controller software
• server and controller hardware
• communication from server to sensors and actuators
• sensors and actuators

At the lowest level, your sensors are taking data, such as temperature, occupancy or brightness, and sending that information somewhere. A simple thermostat takes that data and actuates your heater with the simplest form of communication — either a wire that's connected or an open circuit. But more intelligent systems are more complicated. Say you want to log temperature readings from the thermostat over time. Then the thermostat has to send its temperature data to a server, which can record it, and then you need to connect to that server through a user interface in order to see it. This might be within the building, all hard-wired, or over the web. You might have an app on your smart phone to check the status of all thermostats in the building so you don't have to go to physically check that everything's OK.

Cheap or free options exist at every level of this architecture, such as a sensor made from a $1 thermistor you wire yourself or a complex sensor and actuator made with Arduino, as was our radiant thermostat mentioned earlier. Free open protocols exist for both wired and wireless communication, such as BACnet, Modbus, Zigbee, X10 and others. (In fact, there are a few too many standards here; more agreement is needed.)

Open source hardware for a server can be a Raspberry Pi running Linux for as little as $35, as opposed to the thousands of dollars charged for most proprietary devices in the industry, and it can run open source software such as OpenLynx, Tridium's Sedona framework or Freedomotic from Italy. Freedomotic also has a user interface of its own, while another open source user interface and controller system is Open BMCS, based in Australia. There are also scores of open source tools for generic data visualization on the web. Connecting these pieces together can build an entirely open source operating system for buildings. You could use such a system to monitor and control directly, or you could develop custom apps for your own needs, such as a hobbyist's voice-controlled home on Lifehacker. Some industry players want to create an entire marketplace of apps for buildings, similar to the Apple app store or Google Play, for sophisticated or custom monitoring and automation needs.

While open elements exist at all of these levels, they need to be solidified and better-integrated in order to scale. System integration is the tar pit that swallows building monitoring and control projects. It is not an inherently technical problem, but a political problem between vendors that becomes a technical problem for operators. Open source standards of interoperability would push them to compete more on features and services than on the platform. A fully unified plug-and-play system radically would reduce the barriers for building owners to automate buildings, spreading energy efficiency in buildings like low-carbon wildfire.

The time has come

This is not an armchair call to action. My team and I open-sourced our WiFi radiant thermostat and its web interface. Scores of people from many companies around the world have worked on this for years; there's even a thriving community of hobbyists doing open source home automation. It's time for people in the green building automation industry to rally around open systems, to help everyone make more buildings more efficient and comfortable in a profitable way.

Open source ecosystems are not perfect — it took Linux more than a decade to be usable by anyone other than hardcore hacker geeks — but making them ubiquitous in green building monitoring and control systems will help building owners and operators, automation companies and the world at large.

Because buildings are the largest single energy user in the world, helping better controls become more ubiquitous should be a top priority.

Linux penguin and building image by Jeremy Faludi and Larry Ewing (Linux penguin via Wikipedia Commons)