Enabling the Building Internet of Things

by Erik Fehl
Environmental Control Solutions, Inc.

The realization of smart building infrastructure can bring a range of benefits, including lower operating costs, enhanced functionality and increased productivity.

We live in a world of acronyms, continuously expanding our vocabulary to include the important and trendy abbreviations used in our everyday lives. Many of them can be found in trade magazines, on a business card, or in an email signature: PE, CEM, AP, VRF, RMP… and the list goes on. Even our text messages with friends have become littered with acronyms, such as LOL, BRB, and TTYL.

So why not add a couple more to your vocabulary?

You may have heard of the “Internet of Things,” or IoT. Now those technologies are making their way into the building industry. This trend, called the “Building Internet of Things,” or BIoT, can maximize the functionality of today’s building infrastructure… if we plan accordingly.

An IoT Primer
To some, the term “Internet of Things” might sound made up. But I can assure you it is a very real, unstoppable technology trend in the world today.

Most everyone is familiar with the internet, but to begin to understand the concept of IoT, we need to know what constitutes a “thing.” Simply put, a “thing” is any device that can be connected to a network with the purpose of sharing and processing data. A decade ago, the list of devices capable of connecting to a network (or the internet) was much shorter than it is today. In fact, it can be difficult in today’s world to find a product that cannot be connected to the internet.

You’ve actually been a part of this evolution if you have purchased a new TV recently. Within minutes—and without a prepared “home technology infrastructure plan”—you can mount the TV, power it up, connect it to your home wi-fi, press a few buttons on the remote, and watch Season 2 of Parks and Recreation on Netflix. Even simple things, such as FitBits or Apple Watches, worn by many Americans each day, are considered “things” on the IoT as they can be used to share data (through a paired cell phone) with the web. In fact, a recent news story explained how the data received from a FitBit is being used in a murder trial in the state of Connecticut.

To help illustrate the IoT further; let’s use a simple at-home, “smart home” example. With the use of an Amazon Echo, my father-in-law can adjust the settings on his home thermostat, play his favorite music at a preferred volume, record a favorite TV show, and find out how much gas is in the tank of my mother-in-law’s Ford SUV. And all of this can be done with voice commands while drinking coffee at the kitchen counter. All of these devices are “things” connected wirelessly to the internet with the intention of sharing data and becoming part of a smart infrastructure.

Now in most cases, the primary function of the device connected to the IoT is not utilized by the IoT. In the example above, the Ford SUV was purchased primarily because it could fit six passengers and easily haul a trailer to Florida—not because it could share its current fuel level with an Amazon Echo. In fact, it is almost always a secondary (or tertiary) function that is leveraged by the IoT.

Introducing the BIoT
This leveraging of functionality and accessible data is the foundation of the “Building Internet of Things” (BIoT)—and should be considered when making decisions about new or upgraded building infrastructures. Yet building owners and operators traditionally purchase systems or devices to perform their primary functions—without considering or exploring the benefits of having them connected to the network.

A building may be getting a much-needed lighting upgrade that includes new LED fixtures and zone control. This certainly meets the immediate need: to provide an energy-efficient solution with improved light level and control. But if the system can be connected to the network, the lighting control system can also share valuable data with the electrical distribution and/or temperature control system, helping to increase each system’s functionality and overall performance.

For example, the status of an occupancy sensor in an office is used by the lighting control system to turn on the lights. It can also be shared with the HVAC control system, across the building network, to provide additional temperature control functionality, which helps promote energy efficiency. While the sensor’s primary function is required for the lighting control system to function properly, the existence of this data point on the network can be leveraged by the HVAC control system to enhance operability.

While existing buildings may not currently contain systems capable of creating this type of functionality, that shouldn’t prevent an owner from selecting a system with smart infrastructure features. These days, we must look forward to the possibilities of networking building operations to produce efficiencies, data analysis, system learning and adaptation.

BIoT and Security
Cyber security is big business today and can play an important role in potential smart infrastructure decisions. The IoT can be seen as a threat to those who are responsible for overseeing and protecting a business’ vital data, and recent stories of IoT hacks have only helped to expand the natural paranoia that resides in most IT departments.

One appealing feature of the BIoT is that the data shared between devices or “things” rarely needs to leave the secure confines of the internal IP network. That means system-to-system communication within a building (or company network) can increase functionality without threatening cyber security. This configuration is well received by network security professionals and can eliminate a common roadblock in the procurement process.

Today’s rapid technology advancements aren’t exclusive to personal-use devices like tablets and smartphones. While many traditional building infrastructure pieces—such as electrical panels, door access, elevators, water heaters, HVAC equipment and more—can be seen as stand-alone systems, they can also be connected in order to share valuable data and enhance functionality. Going forward, we should always consider the ancillary functions of a product when it is connected to the web, and contemplate how it may function with other smart infrastructure components to make itself a “thing.” iBi

Erik Fehl is an account executive at Environmental Control Solutions, Inc., the field office for Automated Logic serving central Illinois and eastern Iowa. For more information, visit ecsi-alc.com.