By Bill Maurer and Thomas Wray
Buildings today are more connected than ever. It’s not unusual to control temperature, lighting, and other mechanical components automatically or remotely. With the Internet of Things (IoT) making it possible to access data about everything from temperature to equipment effectiveness in real time, it’s easier than ever to control and monitor a facility remotely. The data collected by the IoT allows facility management teams to be more effective in preventing maintenance issues and reduces the time spent on repairs and regular maintenance tasks.
Scope Of IoT In Facility Maintenance
Every aspect of a facility maintenance program can benefit from the IoT. In the last decade or so, the term “smart buildings” referred to facilities with automation systems that allowed them to be controlled remotely. But those systems were siloed and didn’t communicate with one another. That has evolved to include a wider scope of technologies that go beyond control; the IoT allows for data collection and sharing between components.
In office environments, the most common connection is between energy management systems and lighting, energy, and mechanical systems. Facility management can automate these systems to operate in one mode during business hours, and then power down during off-hours. And even during business hours, sensors can detect building occupancy levels and dim or turn off lights and turn down HVAC components to reduce energy consumption.
You can also collect data on specific areas of the building and use that intelligence to adjust the building’s automation protocols. For instance, certain departments may work long hours more frequently. Over time, your occupancy sensors may show that these areas require different settings for business hours, and you can adjust accordingly, which allows you to accommodate those building occupants more effectively.
Accessing New Insights
The IoT also allows facility executives to tackle energy consumption that has historically been difficult to measure. In office environments, computers and monitors, smartphones, vending machines, and even coffee makers are growing in plug and process load (PPL) energy usage. While much attention has been paid to HVAC and lighting, PPL energy usage is beginning to attract more attention as the IoT allows facility managers to hone in on it.
Advanced power strips, load shedding devices, and occupancy sensors allow for remote and automated measurement and control. Facility managers can now collect data on PPL energy usage, and can even zero in on specific areas of the office. Based on the insights gathered from that data, they can take steps to reduce consumption. One of those steps is to monitor and manage PCs remotely, setting automation protocols that change their power settings when not in use. The advanced power strips can sense when a workstation has become inactive and power down the equipment at that station, allowing facility managers to capture every bit of energy savings they can.
Implementing IoT Technology
One of the main challenges in implementing IoT technology is data security. With all of those devices and equipment connecting to the internet, your network is more vulnerable to attack. Hackers are known to be creative when they manage to break into a system; they may use a piece of connected equipment to gain access to private data on your network or wreak havoc on building automation protocols just for fun. Your data should be encrypted as it’s shared between devices, and it’s important to implement an IoT solution that allows you to make regular software and firmware updates.
Speaking of networks, all of those sensors pose an issue for your networking capabilities. There are a number of options available to you, such as Wi-Fi, Ethernet, and Bluetooth. One emerging technology is Light Fidelity or Li-Fi, which allows sensors to communicate through LEDs, using light as the medium. Li-Fi can accommodate more data at faster speeds. With so many devices connected to networks these days, Li-Fi allows you to overcome the bandwidth limitations that come with more traditional networking methods.
Addressing The Cost Barrier
Another barrier to implementation is cost. For maintenance staff, the cost-benefit ratio is clear. The IoT improves operating efficiency and allows them to predict and prevent maintenance issues earlier. But senior level management may balk at the price tag. Because the cost benefits aren’t immediate, it can be hard for them to justify the investment. Fortunately, as the IoT matures, costs are going down, and it’s easier to find calculators and other tools that help you get a better idea of how much the IoT will save your company, particularly when it comes to labor costs.
One example of this is the time it takes to change a lamp in a light fixture. In the past, this task could have required maintenance staff to make three visits: one to confirm that the lamp was out, another to verify the type of lamp, and one more trip to actually change it. IoT technology allows you to diagnose the problem and remotely verify what parts are needed, so the only visit a technician has to make is to change the lamp.
Another way to overcome the cost barrier is to implement the IoT gradually. As you update your electrical, mechanical, and other systems, you can integrate them with your building analytics system. One of the benefits of IoT technology is its scalability. Building analytics systems can take on additional components as you add them, which allows for centralized control and monitoring, even if you don’t implement every system at one time.
When shopping for IoT tools, remember to look for systems that are user-friendly, beyond appearances. In the past, the IoT was based on screens with slick graphics and sophisticated displays. While these certainly helped sell the technologies, it’s become apparent that the aesthetics of an IoT interface aren’t as important as its usefulness. What’s the point in having beautiful graphs and charts if you don’t know what to do with that information? It’s important to distinguish between graphics that help sell the products and reporting that helps you operate your building efficiently. With all of the data that’s being collected, it’s essential to have a system that enables you to formulate actionable insights.
The future is bright for the IoT. As costs come down, it will become easier to implement, and more companies will take advantage of the benefits it provides. As such, maintenance technicians will need to become more proficient in turning data into actionable insights, in addition to their current skills.
In the coming years, the IoT will become the norm, instead of the exception. As companies find ways to overcome cost, connectivity, and security barriers and gradually update their maintenance systems, it will be easier to implement the IoT in commercial buildings of all types.
Maurer is a senior vice president and Wray, CLMC, is a senior sales representative at ABM Industries.