When will the UK catch up with KNX?

We Brits know a thing or two when it comes to developing new technology.  It was a Brit, Michael Faraday, who discovered electromagnetic induction, the principle behind the electric transformer and generator in 1831, then another, Joseph Swan, who first demonstrated his incandescent electric light bulb in 1878. A pedigree like this makes it all the more perplexing that the UK electrical industry stands so far behind our European colleagues when it comes to adopting a building control protocol that is more flexible, future proof and cost-effective than traditional hard wired systems.

The KNX protocol is the world’s first truly open protocol and allows specifiers to select the electrical and mechanical products they are familiar with, safe in the knowledge that they will be fully interoperable when integrated by any KNX-certified system integrator.  The protocol is now almost 20 years old and there are more than a hundred manufacturers with a combined catalogue of over 7,000 KNX components.  These products have all been thoroughly tested and certified to be KNX compliant and all operate seamlessly together, programmed by the integrator using one common software tool.  And because they all speak the same language, they can operate together across the same network, resulting in much less cabling and higher functionality.

It’s a tried and tested system that has revolutionised the way that commercial buildings are specified in our great economic rival countries like Germany and Spain, yet the UK is about 13 years behind the rest of Europe when it comes to use of the system.

So why is that?  Is it perhaps because there is no appetite for KNX in the UK?  Take up of KNX certification for engineers at training centres such as BRE and East Tyrone College in Northern Ireland along with the increase of KNX systems being installed in the residential market would suggest not.   Whilst architects and self-builders have been quick to see the advantages of a fully integrated system of building and lighting controls, in the commercial market it is usually an M&E consultant rather than the architects or end users that drive the choice of electrical installation. Current market feedback appears to indicate that consultants are less than keen to embrace the new technology.

Of course, it’s not unusual for the UK market to be cautious when it comes to changing the way we do things – we are a traditionally conservative nation.  But we are now even lagging behind other traditionally conservative countries. In the UK there are 220 certified KNX engineers listed, the Netherlands – a ‘conservative’ country with a population around a third of that of the UK has 294 KNX integrators. Furthermore if we compare the UK to the rest of Europe, the picture is even more damning: there are 7,344 integrators in Germany, 2,086 in Spain, 2,052 in Austria, and 447 in Poland!

The KNX UK Association, aided by the manufacturers, has been instrumental in raising the profile of the protocol at trade fairs and in key trade publications, which has seen a growth in its acceptance for use in commercial projects, a recent example being Media City in Manchester. Events like the KNX building controls show due to be held at BRE, Watford later this year also help. However, there is an old guard of building services engineer that continues to specify the same old products in the same old way, seemingly afraid to try something new and apparently seeing the integrator’s skills as some kind of black art.

That’s not to say that there aren’t some amongst the M&E consultancy fraternity who would like to pioneer the use of KNX.  Those of a younger, more IT-friendly, early adopter disposition can see the advantages – both practical and financial – of using the protocol.  But if they are unable to convert their enthusiasm to decision making at a senior level I don’t think there will be any significant change any time soon.

Of course, in an ideal world one would like to see CIBSE (Chartered Institute of Building Services Engineers) showing an interest in KNX as part of their remit to drive innovation in the industry. However, they appear to be unaware of what their counterparts in Europe are doing to encourage take up of the protocol, so their members are unaware that a KNX-based building control system can be used to conserve energy, and help towards achieving Part L compliance.

So perhaps it will simply be a waiting game. And, perhaps, developers and architects will simply get so frustrated that they start to seek out consultants with a more forward-thinking approach….even if they have to travel a little further afield to find them!

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