Protecting Facility Equipment, Operations With IoT Sensors

Sensors placed throughout buildings and sites help prevent and predict potentially damaging conditions. An expert from Chubb’s IoT team discusses how this technology aids facility management.

Increasingly, more facility management teams are using Internet of Things (IoT) technology as a proactive risk mitigation strategy that can help predict and prevent property damage before it occurs. Recently, Facility Executive connected with Hemant Sarma, senior vice president of Internet of Things at Chubb, and asked him about how his company’s clients are employing IoT in this way, and the possibilities for the buildings industry. Chubb is the world’s largest publicly traded property and casualty insurer.

Hemant Sarma
Senior VP of Internet of Things

IoT is a game-changer for facility managers responsible for maintaining complex properties such as college campuses, hospitals, banks, and commercial real estate properties. Chubb helps facility managers deploy IoT- enabled sensor technology to monitor buildings for vulnerabilities to water damage and changes in humidity and temperature. IoT sensors can identify potential damage before it occurs, avoiding disruption of business and operations as well as the cost of time-consuming repairs. IoT technology makes building management easier and more effective by adding intelligence and real-time data feedback to a manager’s toolbox of a proactive property maintenance strategy. Following is the Q&A between Facility Executive and Chubb’s Sarma.

Facility Executive: How do IoT sensors operate, and how do they make life easier for busy facility managers?

Sarma: Small, battery-operated IoT sensors are installed at critical locations within a facility, including boiler and mechanical rooms, and around HVAC and fire sprinkler systems. These sensors monitor and detect the slightest changes to temperature, humidity, and water leaks, as well as factors that could indicate an increased risk of water damage. Using a high-security cellular gateway system, sensors send 24/7, real-time alerts directly to an app on the facility manager’s smartphone. The intuitive dashboard pinpoints the location of the sensor and the reported issue. The sensor system is monitored by a 24/7 call center available to trouble shoot any tech issues and follow-up on alerts with texts, emails and phone calls.

Chubb installs battery-operated IoT sensors at critical locations within facilities.
Can you share examples of IoT sensors in action?

Absolutely. One of our clients, a major east coast hospital, had suffered significant water damage that originated from a roof hatch, which was located immediately above the pediatric unit. A year later, when Chubb offered this client the opportunity to use IoT sensors to help prevent such leaks from happening again, they were very receptive. Shortly after installation, the sensors demonstrated their value, immediately alerting facility management and Chubb risk engineers to leaks on three occasions. The sensors detected water flow above an electrical panel, a leak in a drainpipe and a leak in a roof hatch — the very same hatch that had been the source of the earlier leak. In each case, the issues were fixed before there was any damage, potentially saving millions of dollars as well as the loss of use of sensitive hospital equipment.

Another client, a liberal arts college in New England, opened a major new research facility, which was equipped with Chubb-installed sensors. One day, not long after the facility opened, a drain valve was inadvertently left open. Water began pouring into a laboratory on the fourth floor. Facility management was alerted instantly, and they were able to quickly isolate the source and shut off the waterflow.

As you can imagine, this could have been a devastating loss. Had the leak not been detected and contained, water cascading down from the top floor would have inundated sensitive laboratory equipment throughout the facility, causing millions of dollars of losses. This kind of risk is magnified while campus facilities are empty or underutilized as a result of pandemic.

Has the lockdown raised the stakes for facility managers?

It certainly has. In the current COVID environment, with many buildings unoccupied and fewer personnel on site, IoT sensors are like virtual watchdogs, and they are more important than ever.

During the pandemic, several of our clients, including the aforementioned New England liberal arts college, have come to rely on IoT sensors as the first line of defense while many buildings were left suddenly vacant, and in the absence of normal on-site facility staffing. With new IoT “eyes” on campus, the school was able to focus on a higher priority issue: their students’ health and safety.

What’s an example of a hidden risk that IoT sensors capture?

One example is the presence of mold. Sensors have the remarkable capacity to provide a report on potential mold growth, a significant issue that even the most experienced managers might overlook. If it goes unchecked, mold can cause air quality and health issues, creating a more complex environmental problem within the building.

How does the facility manager know where to place these sensors?

Chubb has a team of IoT experts, and we collaborate with facility managers to help design a bespoke plan, one that meets the unique needs and challenges of each institution. This specialized plan includes: selecting the optimal sensor product for your needs, identifying the right quantity of sensors and where to place them, and ensuring that the right type of sensor is installed at each location.

The facility manager has access to an online portal that includes the installation guide and other helpful documents, and a call center staffed with technicians is available to help address any questions.

Here, Adam Mohammed, Senior P&C Risk Engineer Field Consulting for Chubb, installs an IoT sensor.

Common areas of concern, include: boiler rooms, mechanical rooms, HVAC systems, electrical rooms, storage rooms and network rooms.. We’ve seen water damage events in unheated and poorly heated areas, such as loading docks, as well as other areas where water can accumulate.

What kind of alerts might a facility manager get on his/her smartphone?

The alerts are tiered according to severity, ranging from advisory to actionable.

Take, for example, a pipe freeze condition. The facility manager may get an advisory alert that the indoor temperature is dropping and is abnormally low, indicating that a heating system may have failed. If the temperature drops further, which could lead to a potential leak, the facility manager gets an actionable alert. All actionable alerts provide an email, text, and are followed-up with a phone call from our customer service team

How significant a problem is water damage?

Chubb’s claims data shows that non-weather related water damage is the second most common cause of loss. The average water damage claim cost is upwards of $90,000 for commercial properties. Financial costs are only part of the story; consider the disruptions associated with having to close classrooms, evacuate tenants, or shut-down a hospital wing due to flooding.

Any final thoughts on the value of IoT sensors?

Facility managers have a weighty responsibility to protect property as well as maintain a safe environment. This is the next generation of risk mitigation, and we want today’s facility managers to be aware of the capabilities of IoT technology.

Hemant Sarma can be reached by e-mail:
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