As the world becomes more digital, connected, and automated, the case for wireless technology in buildings has never been stronger. The Internet of Things (IoT) megatrend, along with rising user expectations, has driven wireless tech and automation forward.
The barrier for adoption is low, the technology is affordable, and the benefits are numerous. Because of their inherent nature, wireless devices offer ease of installation and startup. Control of HVAC systems can be remote, making it convenient and efficient. Visualization of performance is effortless, and advanced analysis can be performed with more data. Efficiency gains lead to cost savings for commissioning, operation, and maintenance.
Furthermore, future flexibility and adaptability is enabled. Changes to the system can be made easily without wiring restrictions. Finally, the system can be built upon to add further functionality. I’ve mentioned a lot of things here, but let’s scratch a little deeper below the surface.
Wireless Mesh Infrastructure
Using proper mesh technology, you can achieve a wireless network with a high degree of redundancy and robustness. In this system, each device acts as a signal booster in a “mesh” network. The signal travels through the least resistant path to the gateway. This is especially useful in large, old buildings, where signals can get obstructed through concrete or brick.
If for some reason a device falls off the network, the remaining devices automatically reconfigure to reroute communication paths. As you add more devices to your network, you are strengthening it by creating more redundant pathways.
With a traditional wired system, network failures can occur when wires are damaged. The risk of failure is lowered considerably with self-healing wireless mesh networks.
Once a wireless network is established, it acts as an enabler, allowing future technology improvements to be enacted quickly and cheaply. Having a problem with a chiller compressor? Install some wireless vibration and temperature sensors on the compressor and start tracking its performance through a predictive maintenance program. With a wireless network infrastructure in place, these are simple projects to complete.
Some of the things that are enabled with wireless are:
- A predictive maintenance program;
- Improved fire detection and response;
- Energy tracking;
- Improved security systems; and
- Better understanding of occupant health.
Quick Install and Checkout
Wireless sensors are quick to install and relatively easy to commission. On the front end, engineering and design are simpler when the design package does not require hundreds of wiring diagrams. This simplifies the planning process for the procurement team, the engineers, and the electricians.
During install, no more running wiring throughout the building for a simple temperature sensor. Once a wireless gateway is up and running, the process is simple. In most cases, the procedure goes something like this: mount or fasten the device, install a battery, turn it on, and connect it to your wireless gateway. In this way, labor costs can be reduced significantly — you don’t have to pay for all of that wiring time. Wall penetrations are decreased, which lowers the exposure potential of dust and contaminants from the building.
In a recent example, a Canadian school retrofitted with a fully wireless control system. In doing so, it reduced electrical installation costs by 61% and controller costs by 32%. This method allowed for meeting all project requirements under a fixed budget. As an additional bonus, the installation took place during class hours, yet there was no downtime. Also, no walls or ceilings were open, so there were no dust hazards.
Costs on the commissioning end may be reduced even further. Because the devices are not wired, the painstaking process of checking each input and output one by one is becoming a relic of the past. Instead, software is used to aid in the device connection and configuration. Some companies are even offering “smart commissioning” solutions that help to reduce configuration time by automating some of the process.
One of the clear financial benefits of wireless HVAC infrastructure is in associated energy savings. Buildings use up to 53% of the world’s electricity, and that number is expected to increase.
Energy reduction will continue to be a hot topic as the pressure to conserve electricity should increase with population growth. The cost of electricity has steadily increased and is expected to increase again next year, so investments in electrical reductions are almost always sound.
Undoubtedly, there is room for improvement. As Schneider Electric writes: “Small and medium-sized buildings can save 20% on their energy bills through more effective monitoring. Additionally, large commercial buildings using a collaborative IoT platform can improve building operations and cut energy use by 29% per year.”
The initial energy savings come from the fundamental concept of turning systems off when they are not being used. Occupancy and temperature sensors are the obvious solution, but there is the potential to dig deeper with humidity, ambient light, direction of travel, and carbon monoxide, for example.
As Tom Griffiths wrote, an “Internet of awareness” can be relied upon to interact with a building control system. This way, the building can use location information along with smartphones to automatically adjust the building to our needs. For example, when an area is unoccupied, the HVAC system can reduce its effort in that area.
Further energy savings opportunities deal in adjustments to ambient conditions. Smart solar film adjusts a window to change the amount of sunlight it lets in. According to an ACEEE report, this technology can help reduce cooling load by 10%-20%.
Flexibility and Adaptability
The flexibility of the wireless system is a huge benefit. Because the devices are not wired, they can be moved or adjusted with relative ease, and you will not have to change any wiring, penetrations, or conduit. Devices can thus be repositioned for maximum effectiveness in the system. Design is not as critical because adjustments can always be made based on the needs of the building.
Once a wireless system is in place, building managers can make appropriate changes to the building system remotely. Multiple buildings could then be managed simultaneously.
Some experts in building management predict that, in the future, facilities may communicate with each other based on common occupants. This concept could lead to disparate systems (transportation, manufacturing, etc.) in communication with the building to optimize based on overall trends. This could mean a truly personalized experience for everyone.
Wireless technology lowers the barrier for predictive maintenance programs. It is a much simpler process to understand the health and performance of each asset when it can be measured via wireless sensor data. All the data being collected about processes can be used to predict failures before they occur. When failures are predicted, they can be planned for and corrected by the maintenance team.
This concept does not simply apply to emergency failures — it can be used to help prioritize regular maintenance tasks. More sensors in a wireless network means more data collection. With more intelligent data about the processes in a building, maintenance can more effectively prioritize their work.
Regular preventive maintenance tasks, such as inspections, can be greatly reduced via wireless sensor and data collection.
Additionally, troubleshooting becomes easier when wiring problems are eliminated. For example, the process of checking wiring for continuity is no longer needed.
As people are demanding more of their environments than ever before, user experience is now a driver in building IoT technology. Alan Varghese of Berg Insight says: "A major change is starting to happen now especially in new construction, where the primary driver is changing from cost reduction to features that enhance the user experience and change how users and buildings interact. Instead of there being a single killer-app, we are starting to see a combination of use cases."
The Museum of the Bible has a location system that can track customers as they move throughout the exhibit. It adjusts to their presence and enables lights and videos to play. The software also follows up with customers based on where they visited.
As you can see, the benefits of wireless of building HVAC and automation are numerous and wide ranging. They include improved efficiency, lower operating costs, and better use of maintenance resources. Wireless buildings also tend to be greener, safer, and more secure.
These new features are becoming standard as more buildings are adopting the technology. Today’s users are starting to expect the sophistication that a wireless HVAC and automation system allows.
As we move to the next step of building automation — personalized user experiences — a wireless infrastructure will be necessary.