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The Tech Behind “Smart” Buildings

From lighting to HVAC, new real-time data offer savings, energy efficiency and improved productivity to building managers
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The Internet of Things (IoT) is often the subject of criticism. It’s easy to point to a WiFi-enabled toaster as a shining example of the superfluous nature of some of the innovations coming out of Silicon Valley.

But away from the consumer side of the market, IoT is beginning to have a real impact for many businesses. Companies like Senseware and Monnit, among others, are designing arrays of sensors and software that allow decision makers to monitor exactly what’s happening inside a building from moment to moment. This allows building managers to make changes to improve a building’s efficiency and, in some cases, even monitor the health of various building systems.

The biggest cost associated with operating a building—especially a big one—is almost always running the heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system. Keeping the air in a building comfortable and fresh can account for as much as 60% of the entire cost of operation. Any way in which managers can reduce HVAC costs is therefore a prime candidate for making savings.

Real-time data

Duane Kobayashi is the Chief Strategy and IP Officer at Senseware, a company that bills itself as an “out-of-the-box smart building solution that delivers submetering, indoor air quality and HVAC commissioning data to you in real time”. Kobayashi told the story of a government building in Washington, D.C., where during a cold snap, concerns began to grow that the building’s pipes might freeze and burst.

The company’s solution was to run the HVAC system around the clock to make sure the temperature never got too cold. “What ended up happening was, at the end of the month, they saw that their utilities were 20% higher than they had budgeted for”, Kobayashi said. “One of the comments was, ‘Well, wouldn’t it have been great to be able to see in real time how much energy had been being consumed in the building?’”

According to Kobayashi, it’s the real-time nature of these technologies that give them so much promise. Energy bills can be delayed by a month or more, and they don’t provide the kind of granular insight that an array of sensors around the building can provide. With products like Senseware, an HVAC system can even be monitored for efficiency. Is this heating element performing optimally? Does a component need to be replaced? Where are the inefficiencies?

“It gives you an opportunity to know what’s happening now and take corrective measures”, Kobayashi said. “There are certainly efficiency gains on the table. That’s something we’re seeing across industries”.

Enhancing worker productivity

For that same Washington, D.C., building, the IoT could’ve offered an even simpler solution, in the form of a temperature probe on the pipe. Had building managers simply been able to monitor how cold the pipes were, they could’ve known exactly when to turn the HVAC system on and off in order to ensure that the pipes stayed warm enough. The entire process could’ve even been automated.

In addition to HVAC, lighting is another other area in which IoT is enabling significant energy savings.

Companies like Signify, formerly Philips, are launching smart LED lighting systems that turn lights on and off based on when they’re needed. Additionally, the company is implementing other Internet-based technologies that save money by enhancing productivity.

Anita Santos, Signify’s Chief Marketing Officer, points to new technologies designed to optimise the internal lighting of an office building to workers’ circadian rhythms. The body is highly sensitive to light, especially in terms of its colour. Santos said that by slowly increasing the brightness of lights during the morning hours, they’ve been able to more accurately mimic the sun’s natural influence on our biology, increasing workers’ productivity and well-being.

Controlling UV

There are also other, indirect, ways to improve lighting in buildings to save money and energy. Just by making it possible to tint the glass in windows, companies like SageGlass are letting managers control how much UV radiation enters into a building, lowering temperatures and reducing the need for air conditioning in the summer.

“The basic summary is this: The glass can be tinted or cleared by applying or reversing an electric charge”, said Jordan Doria, SageGlass’s Senior Channel Marketing Manager. “You get tint by applying voltage; you reverse that polarity to get it clear again”.

But as Doria puts it, tinting glass is just a “parlour trick” unless it’s done intelligently. SageGlass offers the sensors and building-level intelligence to monitor how much light is hitting the building and from which direction, allowing the amount of light entering into any given room to be controlled autonomously.

The latest iteration of the product even allows different sections of a single pane to be tinted to different levels. Doria said that, in some cases, the energy savings from the technology have allowed building managers to downgrade their HVAC systems. So far, the company’s glass has been used in projects like the Mohammed Bin Rashid Library in Dubai and Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Washington, D.C.

The new way forward

In a world where energy savings and carbon cost are at the forefront for many building managers, IoT technologies provide a way to save money, reduce emissions and improve worker productivity.

If you can see the data in real time, “you can take the energy consumption and translate it into carbon cost”, Kobayashi said. “That’s another way they can cooperate in a greater societal sense to demonstrate some level of sustainability”.

As building managers become more aware of the value of this sort of data, Kobayashi predicts that we’ll see more buildings connected to the Internet in a way that ultimately saves energy—and money.