Technology and FM: The Internet Of Things

By Tom Condon, RPA, FMA
From the April 2013 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

For many years, facility managers (fms) have heard that in the future the components of their facilities would talk to each other. We have all heard about this vision of facility components working together in unison to increase efficiency and make fms’ lives easier. Building automation systems (BAS) did this, but these only account for a portion of the components in the average facility. But, like so many other technologies, the Internet is about to change all that. Welcome to the era of The Internet of Things (IoT), a phrase coined by MIT’s Kevin Ashton in the 1990s.

He foresaw a future where we would connect physical items and components to the Internet on a huge scale. Everything from boilers and elevators to products on grocery store shelves would have a unique address on the Internet, and they could all communicate. It was not possible to do this in the 1990s, because there were not enough Internet Protocol (IP) addresses in the world to connect all the potential components. An IP address is the unique identifier of a computer or device connected to the Internet, similar to a serial number. Each component in the IoT would need its own IP address, but the old IP version 4 (IPv4) did not provide nearly the quantity of addresses required to connect the trillions of components to achieve the vision of the IoT fully.

This is now changing with IP version 6 (IPv6), which is being transitioned in as IPv4 is phased out. IPv6 provides greatly expanded capacity for assigning IP addresses—about 100 addresses for every atom on the face of the earth! (Don’t worry about needing to upgrade equipment or software. The transition is seamless to end users.) Another major challenge was that, up until recently, connecting devices to the Internet required a fairly costly investment in technology, making it impractical to try to connect many components. But as computer technology gets cheaper and better, it is now becoming practical to connect components as inexpensive as thermostats or light fixtures to the IoT. Today, a computer more powerful than the Apollo spacecraft had in 1969 costs about $20, and wireless communication chips that connect components to a Wi-Fi network are available for as little as $10 each. These costs will drop even more as soon as the IoT gets rolling, and fms can expect Internet connectivity to be built into almost anything that contains electronic circuitry.

Today, the main benefit of the IoT will be the ability for components to communicate with each other and with master control systems, both locally and through the Internet. This is called machine to machine (M2M) communications, and it will allow multiple components to work together proactively to reduce energy costs and be more efficient. A recent report by 501(c)3 organization Carbon War Room estimates that M2M communication could save 1.6 billion metric tons of CO2e (equivalent carbon dioxide) by increasing energy efficiency of heating, cooling, and ventilation; lighting; electronics; appliances; and security systems. The benefits for fms in ease of management could also be significant. Imagine copiers and printers sensing when they are low on paper or toner, and automatically entering a work order or inventory request into CAFM and CMMS systems. Elevators will be able to tell you when they get stuck; HVAC systems will tell you when their filters need changing; and components like pumps would tell you when they start heating up, indicating there is a problem. Even individual lights, outlets, or thermostats could be connected to the IoT and controlled.

But don’t expect the IoT to arrive in facilities for a few years. While the technology is in existence now, most of the M2M technology is being used in industrial components in manufacturing and similar industries and is not yet incorporated into components commonly found in facilities. While experts expect the IoT to become huge in the next five to seven years, other than some forward-thinking BAS vendors’ products, the IoT is rarely found in facilities today. Hopefully, the IoT would help fms deal with the ever increasing flood of technology coming into their facilities, and the ongoing demands for efficiency and higher levels of service. The ability to control facility components through a single automated system should alleviate some of the fm’s workload as well as provide better data. But there will surely be challenges as fms are forced to adapt to a new world of talkative machines. Who knows? In the facility of 2020, when an fm’s phone rings it just might the office copier saying that it’s out of toner.