The Energy Policy Act of 2005 (EPAct), a comprehensive package of energy legislation setting rules for everything from oil exploration to energy consumption in commercial buildings, includes a little-discussed change that could create major headaches for computer-controlled building management systems and other date-sensitive technologies throughout the United States next month.

EPAct extended the length of daylight-saving time (DST) by about four weeks. The trick is, most building management systems don't know it yet. This may create an opportunity for proactive electrical distributors to be heroes for their customers by alerting them to the change and helping them prepare.

The legislation moves up the start date for DST to the second Sunday in March instead of the first Sunday in April, and delays the change back to standard time until the first Sunday in November instead of the last Sunday in October. The changes are to take effect this year, beginning on March 11.

The goal is to reduce energy consumption by increasing the number of daylight hours during the “waking day” over a longer period. Advocates of the change during debate on EPAct legislation said the longer DST period could cut total energy consumption by as much as 1 percent during March and April. These statistics, based on a 1970s study, are disputed by some observers who point to a study during the 2001 California energy crisis that indicated DST mostly just shifted energy usage to a later part of the day.

The more predictable result is a lot of confused computer systems and confused people.

“There will be a lot of people who will get up that Sunday morning, get their coffee, get dressed and go off to church or to open a store, and will find that the lights aren't on,” says Scott Jordan, product marketing manager, Square D/Schneider Electric, Palatine, Ill.

When that happens, many will go into their control systems and manually set the clock forward, only to have the system reset it forward another hour on April 1. “They'll have to change it around again, or have their systems an hour off all summer,” Jordan said. And from Oct. 28 to Nov. 4, the same scenario plays out in reverse.

The effect on building management systems, including lighting management systems, security and access-control systems, heating and cooling systems and any other technology programmed to adjust or record events according to the clock will cause problems similar to the Y2K issue of 1999, though on a much smaller scale.

The amount of work needed to prevent this confusion will vary according to how an individual system sets the dates for DST changes. Building management systems incorporate one of three different approaches, said Jordan.

Some systems dating back two decades and more still have dates set in their hardware on read-only memory (ROM) chips soldered into their circuit boards. These will require a hardware fix, a replacement of the existing chip with a new chip programmed for the new DST effective dates. Building owners using such systems will be well advised to consider replacing their systems with modern equipment.

Dates and times on some other systems are set in firmware at the basic-input-output system (BIOS) level. These can be downloaded into programmable memory and fixed manually with a software patch. Many fire systems, automatic-transfer switches, uninterruptible power supplies and generator controls fall into this category, as well as building management systems based on legacy software, according to Lee Technologies, an infrastructure security firm based in Fairfax, Va.

The third variant comes in systems where dates are set in the software itself, where the change is simply a matter of reprogramming the dates of the DST change through a keypad or computer interface.

Many software companies, such as Microsoft Corp., Redmond, Wash., have information on their Web sites advising users of the need to change and guiding them through the process.

Jordan sees an opportunity here for manufacturers, distributors and contractors who make, sell and install building management systems to step forward and prepare customers for the change. He recommends that distributors contact their manufacturers and get the information they need to answer customers' questions and get ahead of the curve.

“They can call their best customers and say, ‘We might want to inventory your systems that will be affected by the change. We'll work with you to identify the equipment, and then work with the manufacturers to get all the changes taken care of,’” Jordan says. “There's an opportunity here to be on the front side of this thing and turn it into a customer-service advantage.”

Several manufacturers are taking the lead on notifying customers about the change and its implications. Lutron Electronics, Coopersburg, Pa., for example, is sending field personnel out to talk with customers, says Jim Moan, product development manager for commercial systems.

For Lutron's lighting management systems, the disruption should be minimal for systems designed and sold after the company's expansion into global markets in the mid-1980s. When the company decided to sell systems worldwide, it had to build in the ability to set time changes at the user level because many countries use different conventions for setting local time, Moan says.

“With most of our current systems, anyone with a user manual or access to our Web site can make the change, or we have a hotline they can call and we'll walk them through how to change it,” Moan says. “Those systems are meant to be configured by the users.”

More elaborate systems configured by lighting designers will require intervention by the lighting designer or Lutron field personnel, he adds.

There's a definite upside to this problem for electrical distributors and manufacturers who take the lead on helping customers anticipate and avoid problems. Systems that were installed years ago may be in buildings that have a different owner or tenant now than they had when the system went in, giving the manufacturer or distributor a new sales lead, contact with the person now making the buying decisions, and an opportunity to sell an upgrade to the latest systems.

An additional benefit to letting customers know early is the chance to help them get ahead of the glut of service calls manufacturers expect to see as we get closer to March 11. “We expect to see a spike in field service calls, and it will be hard to get to everyone quickly who has these systems,” Moan says. “Distributors should make sure their customers, contractors and users find out ahead of time, because they don't want to be at the bottom of a long list” when the date change approaches.

New Day for Daylight

The new daylight-saving time (DST) effective dates could throw off all sorts of time-sensitive management systems.

Possible unwanted effects include:

  • Building management systems that rotate or automatically operate equipment by time of day could perform tasks at unexpected times.
  • Security systems that control access by time of day may inappropriately deny or allow access.
  • Logs and time stamps could be incorrect. System events will be difficult to relate to one another.
  • In rare cases, serious issues may result if events are performed out of sequence.