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HVAC/R Feb 01, 2023

The wisdom of standard naming conventions for buildings

One of the few staples in abundance for everyone is information. There is greater access to data through more advanced technology than ever before. Still it is increasingly difficult to find information that informs actionable insight. The pursuit of understanding can sometimes feel like shopping at a market stocked with products that have no labels. To know what each package contains, it must be opened and individually examined. To choose between similar products, an entire shelf of goods would have to first be identified, then physically compared, and finally context created without external reference.

This challenge is all too familiar for built-environment professionals. A facility automation system contains hundreds or thousands of database objects. Each object represents details critical to the sustainable operation of complex mechanical and electrical systems responsible for the health and welfare of people and property. An automation system database may be developed and modified over time by various engineers, technicians, and operators from different backgrounds and organizations.

Databases created without a specific focus on intuitive and consistent object identification produce an experience that is user-unfriendly and a system that is unsustainable. Concepts as simple as standard object names and proper use of intrinsic BACnet properties have a significant impact on a facility automation system. Inconsistent object names make it difficult to identify common objects. When common objects cannot be easily grouped, it is unnecessarily complex for the user to understand and aggregate data. If building data are confusing, misleading, or inaccessible, it becomes onerous to optimize facility performance. Fortunately, this challenge can be largely mitigated with minimal effort. Indeed, the solution lies in a disciplined approach designed to reduce the work involved in each project. Every Reliable Controls Authorized Dealer certification student is presented and equipped with a simple resolution: a standard naming convention.


Standard naming conventions

A standard naming convention is a structured scheme that defines object names. Thoughtful development of names for all objects used by all technicians on all projects ensures that concepts are consistently identified, easy to recognize, and simple to group with intuitive relationships.

This organized structure empowers users and technicians to infer the purpose of an object by its name. There are compelling benefits to a standard naming convention. A consistent naming convention that is easy to understand and anticipate makes a database more intuitive. An intuitive database is easier to use and maintain without specialized knowledge or complex training. This simplicity makes it easier for users to find information and understand it in the context of an entire system. Simple access, ease of use, and actionable knowledge are extremely valuable to built environment professionals.

Facility operators and executives are accountable for automation systems programmed according to the varied methods of different specialists and contractors. A rigid standard naming convention clearly prescribed in contract documents makes it more likely that these diverse systems will integrate easily into a common knowledge base. Knowledge that is easy to access, discover, and understand informs a greater number of stakeholders and decisions.

Contractors also benefit from the simple and consistent representation of data, which diminishes the learning curve, reduces engineering time, and improves programming efficacy and efficiency. A standard approach at the organizational level makes projects more accessible to a greater number of technicians. A rigid standard naming convention makes it easier for users to quickly understand, find, and reference specific objects when creating graphics, developing programs, commissioning systems, or optimizing operation. It can also make it easy to modify or report on common sets of data such for as energy meters, space temperature setpoints, and damper or valve positions.


Standard naming convention characteristics

Effective standard naming conventions include some common characteristics that support intuitive and simple recognition of the objects by their names. An unnecessarily complicated scheme is likely to be resisted by programmers and make broad adoption unsuccessful. Therefore, a standard naming convention must be simple, flexible, and sustainable.

Organization of objects into standard categories based on common attributes is an important element of a standard naming convention. In a built-environment database, these classifications can be based on the hierarchical relationships between the processes that objects represent. What are some common attributes of all built-environment objects?

  • Location: Objects physically reside in or relate to a specific location in a facility or enterprise, such as a building, classroom, or office.
  • System: Objects serve strategic purposes within a sequence of operation, system, or piece of equipment, such as a chilled water system or terminal unit.
  • Component: Within a system, objects are related to elements or processes, such as fans, pumps, and valves.
  • Device: To operate properly, each component requires field devices and process values. These objects include sensors, actuators, and operational modes like occupancy and heating or cooling.
  • Function: Objects sometimes represent a granular concept to complement a device, such as heating or cooling setpoints for a space-temperature sensor or device status.

These categories can be consistently applied across an entire built environment, from simple terminal units to complex physical plants, heating and cooling, lighting, and access control. A standard naming convention that incorporates these categories makes it simple to identify each object by its name alone. Even when consistently categorized, however, verbose object names can present issues for users and technical challenges.

Abbreviations aid in memory recall and simplify quick recognition of complex concepts. Intuitive abbreviations allow users to consistently and accurately understand data without the need for verbose object names, comprehensive data maps, or indices. In an effective standard naming convention, each verbose concept is replaced with an intuitive abbreviation. For example, verbose object names might be created using standard categories.

  • Eighth-floor VAV-08 room-temperature cooling setpoint
  • Administration building AHU-02 supply fan status

Replacing verbose names with predefined standard abbreviations is the basis of a standard naming convention. For example, the description “room temperature” is replaced with the abbreviation “RMT,” and “supply fan” is replaced with “SF.”


A standard naming convention that consistently uses abbreviations for system elements makes it simple for an operator to search for all the supply fans or space temperatures in a facility. Industry-standard abbreviations are intuitive elements for a standard name; working standard object names are assemblies of abbreviations from multiple object classifications.

No amount of planning or preparation is likely to accommodate every possible database name in the initial design. A sustainable standard naming convention supports ongoing extension through the addition of new abbreviations. If the scheme is not extensible, it will not evolve with technology and will eventually fall out of practice.


BACnet properties: Ready to help

Properties represent attributes of a BACnet object. Essential to understanding and characterizing objects, properties incorporate specific pieces of information, including the present value, name, engineering units, alarm configuration, priority array, and status.

Several standard properties are prescribed in BACnet to facilitate a system for identifying data that is both backward compatible and extensible. These purpose-built properties should be used with a standard naming convention to provide transparent and consistent interoperability between service providers and vendors for operators, owners, and portfolio executives.


Semantic tagging

Understanding a complex system well enough to optimize it requires the ability to easily navigate, organize, and retrieve specific pieces of information and sets of data. Poorly defined or enforced standard naming conventions and a failure to implement the standard BACnet properties for intuitive object identification result in systems that are unwieldy and unnecessarily complex. When a user cannot consistently analyze objects with common traits, the burden to recognize actionable insight increases significantly. This has in part led to the popularity of semantic tagging in the facility automation industry. Semantic tagging is a mechanism for association of an object with metadata that describe specific data points and the conceptual relationships between all data.

For example, a facility might have hundreds or thousands of temperature sensors. Effective operation relies on the user’s ability to easily find all space-temperature sensors, or all space-temperature sensors that serve a specific type of terminal unit, or even those within a specific area of a facility. Structured classification means an operator can easily retrieve and aggregate data from parts of an enterprise to perform comparative analysis and better appreciate the performance of a building or area of a facility, specific systems or equipment, and individual processes.

Semantic tagging classifies concepts into common categories and then assigns tags, or simplified terms and abbreviations, that identify concepts and relationships. The tags are stored with the object as complementary metadata to facilitate easy retrieval of an object or set of data. A space-temperature sensor, for instance, might have tags that describe it as a specific type of sensor located in a specific room, connected to a specific fan-coil unit and serving a specific purpose. The potential benefits from semantic tagging are compelling. However, without an openly developed and maintained industry-standard definition of semantic descriptions, conceptual domains, and data relationships, broad adoption and interoperation is challenging. Without standard definitions, the tags and schemes vary from vendor to vendor or project to project. If the definitions and tags are not carefully aligned, mismatched semantic descriptions make data aggregation more complex rather than less. If the standards are not publicly maintained, the controlling body might at any time change access or rights, deprecate existing models, or use the models for commercial benefit at the cost of facility owners and operators.

To provide the benefits of semantic tagging in an open, interoperable, extensible model, ASHRAE proposed standard 223P. Designation and Classification of Semantic Tags for Building Data will integrate Project Haystack tagging concepts and Brick data modelling schemes with the BACnet communication protocol. The resulting ISO standard will enable interoperable semantic information across the built environment (Hayes 2018). A foundation already exists in Reliable Controls devices to leverage this standard once formalized.

Much of the benefit of semantic tagging is realized with a standard naming convention that is thoughtfully developed and stringently deployed. Particularly in new systems, objects can be named according to a rigid scheme that identifies concepts key to aggregation, such as location, equipment, component, device, and application. Intrinsic BACnet properties complement standard names with metadata invaluable to the identification of data and optimal performance of a facility. Solution providers and facility executives have and can continue to provide and prescribe the significant benefits derived from semantic tagging today in an interoperable scheme absent any specific technology beyond BACnet and a standard naming convention.


Better by design

Better by design means a disciplined focus on continuous improvement. A standard naming convention, whether developed for the first time or reestablished after disuse, is an excellent example of this philosophy: a simple process that lays the foundation for success. To aid in the pursuit of constant progress, we are excited to announce the newest addition to the Reliable Controls application engineering library: the Reliable Controls Standard Naming Convention.

This best-practice guide uses the Reliable Controls application engineering standard-naming convention to describe a scheme that is simple, flexible, and sustainable. This  resource is available for download now in the Engineering Manuals section of the Reliable Controls Dealer Support Center and is appropriate for sharing with consultants and facility executive (logon required).


Lead the way

Like searching through shelves of products without labels, extracting actionable insight from a facility automation system can be an overwhelming endeavor. An ever-increasing number of technologies and services in the marketplace offer to slap labels on database objects and promise context and understanding. The Reliable Controls Authorized Dealer is ideally positioned to deliver solutions that are truly simple, flexible, and sustainable. The mechanics are built into the BACnet standard and every Reliable Controls device. Reliable Controls has taught and recommended the process for decades. This solution is so easy.

Although on the surface it might seem unrealistic or overwhelming to implement a standard naming convention, organizations implement countless other processes to improve efficacy and efficiency. Few hesitate to mandate when employees report to work, how they account for their time, and how they use company resources. A standard naming convention is just one more process that improves short-term efficiency and long-term efficacy. A standard naming convention should serve simplicity rather than simplicity becoming a casualty of process. If implemented in this way, a standard naming convention reduces burden and increases sustainability.

A rigid standard naming convention is a basic requirement for sustainable facility automation systems. Once local standards are established, Reliable Controls Authorized Dealers are encouraged to work closely with design professionals, facility executives, and portfolio managers to assist in the development and maintenance of a standard naming convention. This is a mutually beneficial resource. Facility operations teams and executives receive systems that are more intuitive and easier to optimize. Design consultants provide a higher level of service to their clients with reduced risk and greater sustainability. Reliable Controls Authorized Dealers are trusted to influence design and deployment standards to be more consistent with their own processes. Ultimately, it means better systems and less work for everyone. A standard naming convention represents one more way we can continuously improve as people and technology you can rely on.

Hayes, Allen. “ASHRAE’s BACnet Committee, Project Haystack and Brick Schema Collaborating to Provide Unified Data Semantic Modeling Solution.”, February 28, 2018.

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