With the growing influence of technology in other verticals such as the automotive industry, chiller manufacturers are embracing technologies that make plant-wide communication more efficient. Today, connectivity is the name of the game.

One emerging trend is the development of machine controls, thereby providing the ability to communicate across different platforms and with a building automation system (BAS). Broadly defined, a BAS is a centralized, interconnected network of hardware and software that monitors and controls the environment in all types of facilities and buildings. These systems control many types of equipment, including chillers, air-handling units, fan coil units and heat pump units. 

The Language of Chillers

There are three main networking platforms being used in the process chiller automation industry:
  • Modbus. The granddaddy of all building automation system languages, Modbus was originally published by Modicon (now Schneider Electric) in 1979.
  • BACnet. This automation language was developed under the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE).
  • LonWorks. This language was built on a protocol developed by the Echelon Corp.

With the advent of building automation systems, many functions can be controlled remotely, from lighting and sprinkler systems to security and safety controls. Many buildings can have as many as 10 different systems automating various functions. At its core, a building automation system monitors performance and device functions and alerts when there is a malfunction. It also can reduce energy and maintenance costs. If one has a well-run building automation system in place, energy expenditure can be reduced by maximizing the efficiency of the various pieces of equipment, including the process chiller. 

A critical component of a building automation system is the controller. These are small computers used to control process equipment and building functions. Chiller manufacturers, usually slow to embrace technology, are incorporating machine controls into their infrastructure to communicate with these building automation systems. With these units, chillers now have the capability to remotely communicate with the buildings they are housed in. Programmable logic controllers (PLCs) integrated with a chiller system can communicate with buildings on behalf of the chiller.

But there is one big challenge with adding BAS connectivity: There are several “languages” being used in industry to “talk” to the equipment installed. A problem occurs when the process chiller is using one language, and the facility is communicating using a different language. Fortunately, translators on the market resolve this problem easily. For instance, one translator known as Babel Buster will translate from Modbus to LonWorks. 

With a building automation system and technology equipped with remote access, a technician can communicate with a chiller that is 3,000 miles away. A lot of problems, including overall system failures, can be avoided with this simple communication system.

The emergence of building automation systems has certainly inspired a needed spark in chiller manufacturing. Innovation in this arena is already changing how chiller manufacturers do business. But there are other trends that are impacting the BAS industry itself:

  • Wireless technology is quickly replacing traditionally wired infrastructure.
  • Consolidation is occurring among BAS manufacturers.
  • Controls are becoming a standard part of new equipment being built and brought to the construction site.

In the long run, there are many benefits to having machine controls integrated onto all industrial chillers, from reduction in management and infrastructure equipment costs to time and resource savings.