Wireless Trends: The Case For Wireless

By Brian Kraemer

Published in the November 2005 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

The evolution of technology has become inevitable. Each year, a new system or product is released that overshadows what used to be the latest and greatest technology on the market. There’s no avoiding it anymore. However, adopting these technologies has been a challenge for some facility managers. Believing that the technology is unproven or that the building isn’t equipped for the new technology, facility managers can be slow to effect changes.

Building automation is a prime example. Hesitation concerning infrastructure and reliability has slowed the advancement of this field. This reluctance, however, should not be construed as a total aversion to new installations in buildings.

In fact, one area where facility managers are beginning to embrace new products is in the realm of wireless technologies. A wireless system offers unprecedented flexibility to a building that may have been, until recently, landlocked.

Web-based systems have been introduced and are doing well in the field, but this type of interface is decidedly terrestrial. It requires a building staffer to be stationed in front of a computer with an open Web browser to receive a message from some part of the facility. The more advanced systems may allow the user to respond to the problem from the computer terminal, but not always.

For example, in order for the HVAC system to be incorporated into a Web system, wires and cable have to be run from the central hub to the system. This is going to require the purchase of cabling, and then someone is going to have to run and connect the cable to the system before it can function in the browser. The same is true for the door locks, lighting, and any other system that a facility manager wants to include.

Take into account the material—those cables aren’t free—and the manhours to run, install, and connect everything together, and the cost of this system continues to go up.

A wireless system, on the other hand, is just that—wireless. This translates to less overhead. Fewer manhours will be needed to install the system and get it running, and less material has to be purchased. Rather than having to buy hundreds of yards of cable, all that is needed is a sensor. The trickle down of cost savings will speak directly to a facility manager’s constrained budgets and help affect the overall bottom line.

Building An Infrastructure

Like any installation in a building, a few basic issues have to be addressed. For a wireless network specifically, coverage area, building construction, and equipment all have to be taken into consideration.

Paul Grossman, of Freehold, NJ-based Access Control International, breaks installation down to its basic requirements. “Infrastructure for a wireless system is deceptively simple. The primary requirement is a set of building power lines at each sensor/transmitter location.”

John North, general manager for Suwanee, GA-based Kenwood Communications Systems, provides a further description. “Generally, the infrastructure will consist of repeaters or a rack of repeaters located in a central point. The system will be engineered so that the antenna placement or the bi-directional amplifiers are strategically placed to offer adequate signal strength within the area of coverage.”

Once these basic requirements are in place, the wireless system begins to take shape. Tests can be run to determine where the signal strength is lacking, and adjustments or additional installations can be used to fix the problem.

Mark Crosby, president of Enterprise Wireless Alliance based in McLean, VA, says that when a wireless system being installed as a retrofit project, may benefit from installing additional antennas.

“Depending on in-building coverage requirements and the construction materials used within the building, there may be a need for several antennas and bi-directional antennas in order to secure sufficient coverage throughout the building and adjacent areas.”

Problems such as insufficient coverage, he continues, are easy to solve for a facility manager. “The system manufacturer or a service shop used by the vendor are quite capable of handling system testing and optimization.”

New Construction Or Retrofit?

Depending on the type of system that is being put in place, opinions on when a wireless system should be installed vary. Factors such as building size and material can play a factor in whether or not a signal will transmit throughout the facility.

Gary Hobart of Morristown, NJ-based Honeywell Building Solutions, says, “Wi-Fi is limited to a range of about 100 meters, so repeaters may be necessary for some applications. But beyond a transceiver and repeaters, no special equipment is usually required for a standard installation.”

Lester LaPierre, marketing manager for Forestville, CT-based Ingersoll-Rand, says, “Older buildings can benefit from the reduced disruption to the physical structure [that comes with retrofitting a wireless system].”

Instead of having to dig into the walls or the core of a building, wireless transmitters can be retrofit onto the existing structure. This will reduce worker disruption while providing employees with a new, functional system, which will allow the facility manager to perform maintenance and not have to close the building down for any length of time for significant work.

Hobart echoes that statement, saying, “Wireless equipment is so flexible and easy to use that it can be installed during or after construction.”

But for a facility manager who happens to be involved in the construction of a building from the beginning, proper planning and execution of the architecture and structuring of a wireless system can enhance day to day operations. By constructing a building with an eye toward how a wireless system will be installed, the system can achieve maximum efficiency.

By integrating wireless capabilities from the outset, critical building systems can be incorporated from the beginning, says Grossman.

“Wireless is fast becoming one of the best ways to monitor and report system alarms, HVAC failures, or emergency occurrences such as frozen pipes, water in the sump area, carbon monoxide, fire, or medical emergency.”

In the case of new construction, these systems can be built with a wireless connection in mind, which will directly affect a facility manager’s budget. Manhours can be reduced, because a physical inspection is no longer needed. With wireless in place, the HVAC, for example, is always hooked into a program that can be easily monitored. Now instead of having to make a weekly or monthly inspection in person, a facility manager will only have to send someone out to eyeball a system when a problem is reported.

How Reliable Is It?

One of the problems with adopting any new technology is the question of reliability. And rightfully so. For a facility manager to spend money out of a tight budget on a product and have it fail is unacceptable. Not only could a system failure result in a frozen pipe exploding, but it could also cause the entire building to be shut down. If, for example, the wireless system that is connected to the door locks fails, then the people who work in the building wouldn’t be able to enter the building. This would result in lost revenue for the day and could cost a facility manager his or her job. A smart facility manager will be sure to take the proper steps to ensure redundancy in the system to avoid this type of scenario.

“A facility manager has the option of installing a redundant system at the central station,” explains Grossman. “This could be composed of a second receiver and monitor.”

Crosby adds, “Extra transmitters will assist in the event there are component failures. Spare mobile units in voice systems are essential when units are out of service, due to regular maintenance or when units may be out of operation for other reasons. Planning for backup batteries for portable units and backup power will facilitate a seamless operation.”

Another option, offers Hobart, depends on the type of system that is installed. “A company can install a mesh system—where the signal can switch between multiple transceivers—to provide redundancy.”

Of course, the different types of fail safe options will depend on the specific system that is installed and how the network of receivers has been set up and configured. In the case of a security system, some of the worry can automatically be removed.

“Cache is a feature that locally stores credential IDs when the online system grants access for that specific opening,” says LaPierre. “In the event of a power or system outage, the wireless locking device will act locally to validate the card ID and will unlock when the credential matches the card ID stored at the door.”

This means that even if the whole system should happen to go down, building occupants will still be able to get into the facility because of local redundancies. Rather than having everything stored in a central location, by making use of a cache, facility managers can be sure that employees will still be able to come and go.

Reaping The Most Benefit

Once a wireless system has been designed and installed, it has to be connected to the primary building systems like access control or lighting system. This is where a facility manager will realize the biggest benefit of having wireless installed.

“In most cases,” says Grossman, “access control and key infrastructure protection are the major beneficiaries for a wireless-based system. Intrusion and equipment sensor monitoring provide the most tangible potential benefits for facility managers.

“Using wireless for access control or to activate or deactivate devices also provides cost savings and convenience, and can help stem lawsuits, environmental hazards, and further damage to equipment or facilities.”

Once the HVAC, access control, and lighting systems have been incorporated into the wireless system, the building can begin to run much more efficiently. Costs from having maintenance staff on hand can be reduced, and rather than having to access the lighting system from a terrestrial computer station, a facility manager can access it wirelessly and shut the lights off from anywhere. This contributes to energy conservation and reduces costs.

“There are wireless systems specifically manufactured for facilities management to monitor building vital signs,” says North, “such as HVAC, refrigeration, water control, lighting, etc. These systems enhance response time to failures.”

Quick and efficient response to key systems emergencies is going to make everyone in the company happy. Less downtime coupled with higher efficiencies is going to go straight to the bottom line of the company. These systems allow facility managers to work smarter, not harder.

“Usually a system can assist in reducing overtime or staff presence,” says North. “Proper monitoring of the building infrastructure—heating and cooling systems—will increase the life of that equipment, reducing maintenance costs. It could reduce facility management company liability.”

Grossman agrees with North and adds, “Facility managers should propose a wireless system or wireless enhancements because they have become so reliable, secure, and scalable, that as long range investments, they will significantly outperform—and certainly complement—most other platforms that are available today.”

By capitalizing on the technological advances offered by a wireless system, facility managers can run their buildings more efficiently, reduce costs, and make sure all their systems are working properly all the time and running at peak performance levels.

Disaster Recovery

Because wireless typically has a battery backup system, it can still be useful when disaster strikes a facility. In a traditional network, when the power goes down, the system goes down. Of course, there may be backup generators that will keep the building systems running, but how useful can they be?

With a non-wireless system, access can only be achieved from specified places—the computer terminals in the building, for example. In the case of an emergency, how helpful will this be? People in the building will be able to access the Internet and perhaps send out requests for help, but that is where the usefulness of the system comes to an end. Police or other rescue workers cannot tap into the network from outside the building, and therefore cannot be as effective in facilitating a rescue effort for a building that is experiencing a disaster and in need of help.

Perhaps the most important aspect that wireless brings to the table in a disaster is the ability to communicate. Without communication capabilities, a facility may as well not exist. Who is going to come to the aid of a building if no one knows there is a problem? If phone lines and land-based Internet connections are severed, a facility and its occupants are in serious trouble.

But a wireless system provides an extra lifeline for a building in a crisis. Building staff and the facility management team will still be able to reach out and voice the need for help while simultaneously coordinating rescue efforts in their own building.

“During a disaster,” says North, “emergency response teams can be deployed efficiently. Resources can be directed where needed, and the status of the situation can be instantly communicated. This adds to the perception of control and does not create panic.”

Additionally, the wireless system can be preprogrammed to send signals to local police and fire officials notifying them that the building is in need of help.

“There are a number of approaches including pre-set emergency alerts, security breach messages, and others that can be employed to alert authorities immediately in the event of a disaster or security breach,” says Crosby. “It is also possible to provide local authorities with access to the building’s voice system, so communications with on-site personnel can be initiated.”

But the benefits of a wireless system in a disaster don’t end with being able to communicate with the outside world, explains Grossman.

“A wireless system is highly superior in a disaster. Sensors/ transmitters are generally not affected and continue to perform and connect back to the central station, providing data on a continuous basis through the crisis.”

Because the system continues to operate, not even something as catastrophic as a hurricane or earthquake will force the the wireless system to stop working.

Natural disasters aside, a wireless system offers a major advantage over a network based on cables in the event of a man-made attack.

“There is no ‘cutting’ a wireless network or infrastructure,” continues Grossman. “By contrast, a Sonet ring or cable can be physically damaged or severed, thus interrupting terrestrial connectivity.

“A wireless infrastructure is only affected when backup power fails, or possibly, when a public power outage lasts for an indeterminate amount of time.”

Installing a wireless system can be the first step in upgrading the technology in any building. Verifiable return on investment coupled with higher efficiency and better preparedness for disasters may help facility managers introduce their buildings to new technologies and better performance.

Information for this article was compiled through interviews with LaPierre, Hobart, Crosby, North, and Grossman. For more information, visit www.kenwood.net.