Interview of Dr. Darius Žižys, Controls Manager (Residential Air Handling Units), Systemair, discusses the trends related to the interoperability of control systems, and how manufacturers are navigating shifts in customer demand, technology, legislation and cybersecurity in an increasingly connected world.
PhD, Product Manager (RAHU controls), Systemair, Lithuania
This article covers:
· Exploring complexities and potentials of dynamic control systems in HVAC.
· Adaptation to changing demands, technology, regulations, and cybersecurity.
· Interoperability's pivotal role in HVAC effectiveness.
· Legislative push for interoperability, exemplified by the European Commission's code of conduct.
· Interoperability benefits, including energy optimisation during peak periods.
· Challenges: component shortages, high R&D costs, and cybersecurity concerns.
· Customer hesitance impacting investment in advanced systems.
· The vital importance of proper installations for optimal performance.
· Growing customer awareness driven by IAQ and smart home trends.
· Increasing demand for better controls in the HVAC industry's future.
The importance of interoperability
HVAC systems are pivotal in ensuring building inhabitants’ comfort, health and well-being. While the ability of HVAC technologies to regulate mostly air quality, but also temperature and humidity varies based on several factors. The effectiveness of HVAC also greatly depends on the controls that manage and optimise their operation.
Sharing a Systemair perspective on this topic is Dr. Darius Žižys, Controls Manager (Residential Air Handling Units), Systemair. “At Systemair, we spend much time analysing the needs and requirements of different markets, hence our products are dynamic and alive. They are constantly changing, and this especially applies to our controls. The current focus in residential applications is serviceability and interoperability of devices - how freely devices can talk to other devices and be integrated into larger systems.”
The need for interoperability is becoming a critical issue for manufacturers, says Žižys, pointing out that this is driven by the increasing popularity of Smart Home systems, which are becoming simpler and more accessible for regular residential users. Building management systems (BMS) and the need for device-to-device communication also play a significant role in controls development decision making. “This is also relayed to legislation as interoperability is becoming more of a requirement.”
Currently, Žižys adds, legislation regarding controls is not yet comprehensive. “The European Commission’s Directorate General of the Environment and Joint Research Centre (JRC) are currently working on a Code of Conduct for Energy Smart Appliances (ESA), which will be voluntary for manufacturers to sign,” he explains. “By signing the CoC manufacturer confirms that the energy-related devices produced will be interoperable with devices of other signatories, the Building Energy Manager (BEM) and the power grid. This will enable the stakeholders to exchange information about current and forecasted energy usage of devices within the household, energy availability and prices from the grid, thus optimising energy usage within the household in the most efficient way. CoC for ESA is part of an even bigger legislative effort to optimise energy usage by the EU, but this only illustrates the trend”.
Žižys remarks that this is especially critical against the backdrop of the energy crisis across Europe and high prices of fuel: “This is how the EU is trying to optimise energy use and production, and make it more efficient so consumption is more distributed and predictable, we should consume the energy when there is a surplus of it, and train the device to consume less during low availability and high energy price points.”
The need for such functionalities, says Žižys, will only increase in the next 5-10 years. “In my opinion, while this is not a pressing requirement currently, as manufacturers are doing this voluntarily, strengthening the interoperability between devices and the energy grid will become mandatory in time.”
From supply chain to cybersecurity: Tackling the critical issues
While the need to innovate controls to address this demand is clear among manufacturers, adapting to this trend can be a challenge. One of the issues that manufacturers have had to deal with recently is a component shortage. “Everyone had an issue with component shortage for about one and a half years,” Žižys explains. “We are slowly coming out of it, but the problem is that controllers are rather monolithic. Components such as the Micro Controller Units (MCU), chips that provide complete intelligence and other semiconductor-based components were a real struggle to source. If you cannot source that, you would need to look for alternatives, and based on design and selected architecture, there are limited options. We, like other manufacturers, spent a lot of resources to redesign firmware and hardware to house new components.”
Admittedly, says Žižys, there are workarounds through brokers. However, the price could go from € 2 to € 100. “This is why our focus now is on flexibility,” he adds. “We investigate using more generic hardware platforms with decoupled software/hardware architectures that would add a great deal of flexibility in times of need. We generally work on being more adaptive regardless of component supply situations by being less dependent on the hardware.”
Žižys points out that there is also a heavy cost associated with investing in R&D for changes or improvements in controls. “It can be a struggle as each functional or other change in controls comes with not only significant hardware and/or software development costs but also certification and other direct or indirect costs. Some changes are driven by market requirements, and these are easier to absorb since usually these changes simply help to sell more production by providing unique selling points. On the other hand – some changes are driven by legislative changes and do not necessarily provide obvious added value to the product as seen by the end customer. Such topics cause big debates in trade associations such as Eurovent and EVIA, with many manufacturers fighting against regulations.” Žižys says there is always a compromise about what a legislator would like to do and what the manufacturer would like to do, and this is the value of associations and ensuring manufacturers’ opinions are well reflected.
Another evolving issue in this space is cybersecurity and data protection laws. “Interoperability is nice, but it’s important to remember the other side of the coin, protection of both machine and user personal data, security of the IT and other infrastructure is becoming more and more regulated, that, along with systems becoming more and more complex adds additional administrative and maintenance burden on manufacturers such as Systemair”, he says, underlining the importance of adhering to data and cybersecurity regulations and that navigating this is critical going forward.
A customer perspective
In addition to the challenges manufacturers face in developing controls, there can also be reluctance among customers who are unsure if they are willing to invest in the higher cost associated with systems with better controls. “Within the European market, the Energy Related Product (ERP) label is present, denoted by categories like Class A, B, or lower,” Žižys states. “These categories are tied to regulations outlining the criteria for achieving each class, including the necessary performance and, most importantly for my line of work, control factor that qualify a product for an “A” or “D” class. For example, a system with zonal CO₂ control can better respond to the changing IAQ conditions in certain building zones by adjusting ventilation rates and, as a result, minimising energy consumption and building energy losses related to ventilation. It greatly benefits customers, but it’s not always the easiest to encourage customers to invest in better controls and additional materials required to achieve such functionality. Such functionality is typically only adopted once it is no longer possible to achieve requirements related to total building energy performance classes without adopting such solutions. As a result, customers are forced to choose more expensive devices with better ERP class to contribute to achieving required building energy performance class.”
In markets where requirements for newly built or renovated buildings are not that strict, there is less willingness to select a better control platform.
A shift in customer awareness
Despite the above, Žižys remains optimistic. He believes that the pandemic became a catalyst for greater awareness, as, in some markets, requirements were set for commercial applications to have CO₂ sensors to monitor IAQ.
Additionally, Žižys says there is a growing demand among technologically forward adults who see their homes as a complete system where each device should be able to communicate with each other to achieve the best possible performance. He says that when the smart home platform becomes more affordable, simpler to deploy and more accessible in general, offering systems that can provide connectivity through a cloud API or platforms like Alexa, IFTTT, or Google Home has gained traction and interest. “These interoperability requirements become important, not just because of legislation, but also because end users are becoming more self-aware.” As awareness of the importance of ventilation grows, Žižys holds that this will also drive greater investment in better controls.