Smart Buildings Get Smarter With IoT

From building management systems to the next frontier of facility technology, the benefits of IoT abound but the roadmap differs for each organization.

By Allan B. Colombo
From the November/December 2016 Issue

Smart buildings have been around for quite some time. The need to make them smart began with a need to conserve energy. When we save energy, we save money—and lots of it over time. It’s been shown that in most cases it’s possible to see return on investment (ROI) within 12 to 18 months. This is a powerful incentive for organizations to invest in the technology necessary to install a building management system (BMS). How can a facility executive say no to that?


Building management started with a collection of dissimilar systems, often referred to as “silos.” Linking them together was not an easy matter because each one “spoke” a different language. It was a lot of work interconnecting them until the early to mid-1990s when the Neuron chip and LonWorks (local operating network) were released by the Echelon Corporation.

Before that integration methods were crudely accomplished with relays and other hardware solutions.

It was in 1990/1991 that the Neuron chip was announced. The news was exciting because this chip and its accompanying LonWorks firmware promised that it could do something that had never been possible before—it enabled cross-platform communication. By 1999 LonWorks was submitted to ANSI where it became part of a larger standard. This made it possible to network devices over media such as twisted pair, fiber optics, radio frequency (RF), and electrical systems and power lines.

Despite the fact that Echelon’s LonWorks made it much easier to connect disparate silos in single or multiple buildings, engineers continued to ask themselves the question, “Is this the best we can do?”

IoT: A New Tech for a Brave New Day

With that question still reverberating in the minds of engineers, the industry went to work and created an entirely new way of managing energy as well as a whole lot of other things. This new technology is commonly referred to as Internet of Things (IoT).

“In the context of building management applications, the IoT can be defined as a large number of data points brought into a cloud environment where analytics can be applied to influence outcomes. The IoT makes possible a variety of applications using connected devices and data-driven decision support systems,” says Leroy Walden, LEED AP, vice president, technical systems sales, automation and control solutions, with McKenney’s, a systems integration firm, based in Atlanta, GA. Walden’s company is a member of the InsideIQ Building Automation Alliance, an international network of contractors representing the building automation, energy, and security industries.

For some, the difference between IoT and traditional BMS may not be clear.

“A smart building is one that has an elaborate management system in place that controls that the building’s chillers, air handlers, AV boxes, occupancy comfort, and many more,” says Todd Krause, chief commercial officer with Blue Pillar of Pittsburgh, PA. “When it is occupied, the centralized system says, ‘I’ll handle it differently than when its not occupied.’ An IOT building, on the other hand, takes [facility management] to a whole new level.”

The IoT approach brings together a large collection of technologies, placing them at the disposal of either a centralized or remote processing system. In some instances, information can be shared on a peer-to-peer basis where needed and where the technology can accommodate this approach.

“I would say that the difference really is in the underlying technologies. Whether you have a small or big building, it’s likely that it has more connections now than it ever did in the past. One of those connectivity points is IoT,” says Robert Hemmerdinger, director business development with Schneider Electric. “It’s about devices being more natively connected to the Internet rather than having them run through a range of gateways and third-party connecting devices. As far as smart buildings go, a ‘smart’ building to one can be ‘dumb’ to another and yet equally effective to both user’s needs.”

According to ABI Research, Oyster Bay, New York, “IoT gateways, which manage and control complex connected environments by aggregating and transmitting sensor data, as well as translating communication protocols, are on the rise. ABI Research forecasts IoT gateway shipments will grow to exceed 64 million units in 2021.” (MarketWatch).

Can IoT Do the Job?

Some experts say that IoT holds the key to an even more advanced method of systems integration where it comes to building management.

“We’re going to be able to do more and more with the data we derive from a building full of IoT devices. Today we probably don’t know all the use cases, but we do know that the data is going to be extremely useful,” says Hemmerdinger. “Ask yourself why Google acquired NIST. I believe the rationale behind that decision was the need for many connected data points. Just think how much Google will learn about people with all that data. They can use it to understand how people move around in their homes and how they use their HVAC systems. They can garnish a lot of information from that data.”

As previously mentioned, traditional BMS technology relies on standard communication protocols using metallic and fiber optic cable as well as wireless technology—specifically 802.11, also called WiFi, all of which will inherently limit the number of connected points in a BMS. It also relies on the creation of drivers and specialized software designed to bring disparate silos together within the same facility under one roof. What this means is that the systems integration firm you use will likely spend more time and money to assure operability between individual silos when compared to IoT-enabled BMS’.

IoT simply leverages a growing collection of electronic sensors designed to communicate wirelessly and via hardwire over a single media—the Internet—using the TC/IP protocol. What this means is that standards already exist to which IoT devices are applied. Not only that, these devices can be made to communicate with one another as well as a common centralized management platform, either on- or off-site, with less time and effort than traditional BMS technologies allow.

These IoT sensors can be leveraged either through the use of a cloud-based data processing and storage center, through a central host at the facility itself, or a combination of both.

“Using either strategy, with IoT today you can go out into the field and control devices that were never traditionally there, thus reducing the number of disruptions,” says Krause.

Most BMS’ rely upon a local server as a central host for the storage of trends, alarming, local interaction by building engineering staff, and so forth. That said, there will most likely always be a need for a local head-end, although current trends see cloud hosting emerging for hosting the BMS off premise.

“In most instances, however, access to the BMS and any connected devices is handled via web browser in a network-connected PC, a laptop, or mobile tablet (or even a smartphone). The primary consideration for maintaining a head-end on-site is the rapid connection to, and collection of, trend/analytics data which can be burdensome and slow over a slow broadband Internet connection,” says McKenney’s Walden.

One way to assure success with a cloud-hosted system is to make sure the Internet pipeline to the facility is of the highest grade possible. DSL connectivity at 12MB/s may be adequate for sending data to the cloud, but Walden cautions that it may not be up to the task where it comes to reviewing data and conducting elaborate analytics.

IoT: Every Conceivable Sensor Type

The fact is, having a wireless network of hundreds of sensors can be of immense help even when many of them have nothing directly to do with energy management. A good example of this is a common, ordinary elevator in a multiple floor building.

“All of us are working with the Internet of Things on a daily basis without us being aware of it. When you think about an elevator control, the elevator control once used all hard wire. Now everything is wireless,” says Walden. “You have a smart controller built into each elevator cab which can actually dispatch a cab when someone walks into the lobby. They present a fob, a card, or a thumbprint to identify themselves. Through this action, the system knows who they are and which floor they need to go to.”

Another example is the ordinary lightbulb. In Walden’s elevator example, perhaps it was an IoT-connected LED lightbulb in the lobby, or even an entire ceiling of them, that detected motion, sending this information out over the network for any other IoT device or operating system to receive and utilize. Security systems could also take advantage of the motion detection capability side of IoT-enabled LED lightbulbs—but only when there’s a given number or percentage of lightbulbs that report motion.

That’s not all. According to Gary Trott, vice president of marketing, intelligent lighting, Cree, Inc., “Lighting was rarely connected to the building automation system. And now, if you look at what lighting is, lighting is a technology that is digital, especially now that we change to an LED (light emitting diode) technology. It’s typically connected like our Power over Ethernet technology and it’s a perfect physical platform for sensors because there’s no other building platform that is so universally spaced.”

What Trott is alluding to is LED digital lighting’s ability to collect and send audible signals (voices), motion detection data, room temperature, light sensors, and much more, to any number of third-party applications without infringing on the LED lightbulb’s primary mission—which is to provide clean, pure light. Along with this mission comes the ability to adjust the color of the LED light emitted, to brighten or dim that light, and to link the activation and extinguishment of that light to a limitless number of events detected and signaled by other IoT devices, as well as the ability to schedule on/off/dim/brighten/colorized events according to day and time.

The bonus here is that the information detected and transmitted by such an IoT-based LED lightbulb can be intercepted and used without paying for and installing a specific device designed to do that. Not only that, whether one or 10 other IoT devices or operating systems pick up and use that signal or not, it will not interfere with it in any manner. In fact, the LED lightbulb doesn’t even have to know that its data is being shared with 10 or 20 other building processes.

IoT Or Traditional

There comes a time in every BMS’ life when it’s necessary to revamp or replace it. How do you know which method to utilize? Should you employ IoT or traditional BMS tech? Perhaps both?


“The integrated BMS is core to the building’s operations function and contains a significant amount of building performance data. The first and most cost-effective step is to connect the integrated BMS itself as part of the IoT architecture,” says Darcy Otis, director, analytics and fault detection at the Building Technologies Division of Siemens of Buffalo Grove, IL.

Some facility executives will ask why they should bother. According to Otis, “[They should] to improve building performance (safety, quality and comfort; energy and sustainability; lifecycle cost). The biggest contributor to building performance improvement is operations and maintenance effectiveness. In other industries such as aerospace, improved operations and advanced maintenance practice enabled by analytics have significantly improved uptime and reduced life cycle costs. This opportunity exists in the building O&M world.”

It’s understandable that any fiscally responsible facility executive would be concerned about money when the organization’s maintenance department solicits the purchase of an entirely new BMS. Even the cost of revamping or converting an older system to an IoT operated system is not for the faint of heart. The simple fact is, building management systems are not made to last forever, and as we know, they do come with a verifiable ROI component.

“For what reason I am not sure, but it is assumed [by many] that the BMS is a lifetime purchase for a building when in actuality, since it employs the same technologies and hardware as desktop PCs and servers, it should be renewed at least every 10 years. Most IT teams in fact plan for complete PC and server renewal every three years,” says Walden. “Admittedly this is a large capital expense, but maintaining overall comfort and reliability should be a top consideration. Add to that the ability to quickly and painlessly adopt to the latest technologies and connectivity strategies dramatically increases the value of the property.”

If the system is really old and an update is required, there are “physical layer converters” that will allow the older RS485 to be replaced with CAT5e or 6 cable. Walden reminds us that there also are “protocol converters” that will convert older communication layers to Ethernet, such as Modbus RTU to Modbus TCP. Keep in mind, however, that the endpoint-to-host communication “language” will still remain in its native format.

“Alternately, through the implementation of a third-party network appliance (like a Tridium JACE), these legacy, closed systems can be ‘Internet enabled’ and connected to a traditional high-speed network backbone,” says Walden.

If facility executives need to start from scratch—either installing a new BMS or removing an old system with pneumatics—they should consider going with IoT.

According to Walden, “There are ways to ‘IoT-enable’ pneumatic-based systems while leaving the pneumatics in place, although I do not recommend it unless the pneumatic air system has been impeccably maintained. There also are electronic, pneumatic thermostats that can directly replace the older purely pneumatic thermostats and provide wireless connectivity for data gathering and can provide occupancy scheduling and set-point adjustment from a central PC connected to the same wireless network.”

The question whether to tear out an old BMS and replace it with a new one seems academic. Walden believes that all responsible building owners and facility professionals must begin to consider the maintenance of BMS platforms with the same regard given to desktop PC and IP network hardware. One thing is for certain, the problems you’re having with an older system can cost you more money in the long run if you fail to make the right choice.

IoTColombo has been writing about technology topics for over three decades, with more than 15 years of full-time staff experience with national technology publications.

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  1. Walden needs to do his homework. Wireless Pneumatic Thermostats are highly reliable, and a fraction of the cost of DDC. Coupled with SmartPneumatics software, the existing pneumatic system becomes easier to trouble-shoot and maintain, versus a highly complex and invasive DDC system. A 1 to 3 year payback with Wireless Pneumatic Thermostats versus typically a 10 year payback or no payback on a new and very costly DDC system retrofit.

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