Think of this as Salesforce for air conditioners.

BuildingIQ has created a software-as-a-service application that it claims can cut energy consumption and energy-related costs by up to 10 to 30 percent in commercial buildings. And it won't cost you much up front, says CEO Mike Zimmerman.

A test last summer at the Newcastle Energy Center in Australia reduced the amount of energy consumed by the building's HVAC system during the summer months by around 30 percent. The company is currently installing the system in 15 buildings ranging in size from 80,000 to 700,000 square feet in Australia, and will try to sign deals for trials in the U.S. market later this year. (The technology comes out of the Australian Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization.)

Building control and management has emerged as the proverbial last mile for smart grid technology. Utilities can improve the efficiency of the grid, but unless consumption patterns at office parks and homes are optimized and automated, most of the gains provided by that fancy new infrastructure will be lost. Although automation systems have been around for decades, they are often rigid and subject to human override and error. A veritable army of start-ups and established companies have begun to tout new technologies to fine-tune the process.

BuildingIQ's application essentially sits on top of the standard building management systems available from companies like Johnson Controls, Siemens and Honeywell. The application takes the data from the BMS about air conditioner settings, thermostat levels, etc., and combines it with a weather feed that provides forecasts for the next 24 to 48 hours and other data like electricity rates. A computerized simulation of the building and its thermal characteristics is also added to the mix. Servers at BuildingIQ's data center then mine all this data to devise a refined building management plan that gets updated every ten minutes.

"This is an enhancement. We are not trying to replace the building management system," Zimmerman said.

Building owners can tweak the settings to optimize for reduced energy consumption, reduced cost and/or reduced carbon dioxide. The controls are on a console; users simply move the bars controlling each variable up and down to rank them in order of priority.

Much of the energy savings associated with the system come from pre-cooling. For example, assume that an extremely hot day is anticipated. In ordinary circumstances, the air conditioner would go from a steady state to overdrive in the afternoon, thereby consuming more power and working less efficiently during the hours when power costs the most.

By contrast, BuildingIQ will drop the temperature from 72 to 68 degrees, for example, close to noon. When peak power rates kick in later in the afternoon, the application would then scale back the air conditioner's power use. It may not return to normal levels until the building reaches 74 degrees, which is within the predefined comfort parameters of the tenant. However, by then it might be 6 p.m., which is generally past peak hour rates.

The controls could also be meshed with a demand response system: building owners or tenants could agree to keep air conditioning levels and overall power consumption at specific values in exchange for revenue. BuildingIQ will not likely pursue its own demand response contracts with utilities, he said, but it could be a resource of negawatts for companies that do.

Another plus: because it piggybacks on the existing BMS, BuildingIQ does not have to install sensors or wireless nodes, in contrast to the models offered by a number of competitors like Adura Technologies that do employ nodes. The only hardware BuildingIQ sells is a server that gets installed on the premises, and eventually that too may go away. As a result, the capital costs are low. The company charges an installation fee and then a monthly subscription fee. (Zimmerman assures us that it's not too outrageous, and that final pricing details are still being worked out.)

On the downside: the lack of sensors means that BuildingIQ likely won't control lights, which consume an average of 24% of all power used in commercial buildings. The vast majority of commercial buildings do not come with networked lights. Adura and competitor Lumenergi do control lights, and say they will next move to colonize HVAC. Thus, these other companies will be able ultimately to control more features and appliances in a building.

Another negative for BuildingIQ: tenants can provide feedback to the building owners, but they can't adjust the comfort level. Many others--particularly the companies with light controls--allow for occupant overrides, kicking off a set of negotiations between the computer and the people. BuildingIQ stands with the owner, who may not be even in the building. You wonder how well that will sit with tenants.

BuildingIQ's strategies and technologies mimic ideas already on the market. Cimetrics, which counts several large univerisities as clients, exploits dynamic computer simulations of buildings to adjust temperature settings in buildings. Hydropoint Data Systems (sprinkler control) and EcoFactor (home automation) both use weather feeds for fine-grain control. Advanced Telemetry prides itself on dynamic responses. Interested in pre-cooling? Check out Optimum Energy's offerings.

Despite some overlap and redundancy, this market will likely be characterized by variety in the long term. Building conditions vary widely by geography, construction and use. Thus, a wide swath of vendors will likely coexist and adopt each other's ideas for quite some time.

So how do BuildingIQ's claims add up? In the Newcastle experiment, HVAC power dropped by 30 percent. HVAC can constitute 40 percent of a building's energy consumption. That leads to a reduction of roughly 12 percent. It's important to note that Australia charges higher tariffs on power that is consumed in the afternoon, so that means that the savings associated with the system's use could exceed consumption goals.

"There is a 10-20% difference between shoulder and peak pricing," Zimmerman said.

Interestingly, the company does not sell the system to tenants, who often derive the most direct benefit from lower energy bills. Instead, it primarily targets real estate investor who are interested in installing the system to "green" their buildings, enhance resale value and boost rents. Although this component of the company's strategy is somewhat confusing, BuildingIQ is still an interesting company to keep an eye on.