The Smarter the Sensor, the Smarter the Building

January 28, 2016 By Carl Weinschenk

office buildingA key reason why the building automation market is growing quickly is that the benefits are broad and all-encompassing. There is far more than a single “killer app.”

The key to all this – the most important factor in how smart a building will be — is the sensor. Sensors are, in essence, where the rubber hits the road. Tanuj Mohan, CTO and Co-Founder of Enlighted, suggested that there is a distinction between a sensor that simply triggers an action and one in which information that is gathered is used to influence the future.

“[A] way to think about a sensor that is not smart is to think of an automatic door opener in a building,” Mohan told Energy Manager Today. “There might be a motion detector above the door, and when the light pattern above the door changes, it assumes there is someone there and opens the doors. This is useful, but not ‘smart.’ There is no central data repository and no application layer that allows the building to be optimized dynamically. It’s Pavlovian – stimulus A always causes response B. No learning over time.”

The world is moving towards extending sensor intelligence. This week Navigant Research released research that predicts that the market for advanced building sensors will reach $1.2 billion this year and more than double – to $3.2 billion – in 2025. The rise of smart sensors, the report says, is being driven by an “aging workforce, changing expectations from tenants and employees, and new pressures on sustainability and efficiency.”

Advanced sensors are keys to supporting the smart building business case. “In commercial buildings, the C-suite expects transparency in energy consumption and systems operations as they begin to better understand how these aspects of doing business tie directly to their bottom line,” Casey Talon, a Senior Research Analyst for Navigant and author of the report, told Energy Manager Today. “As a result, intelligent building solutions that provide actionable insight into specific facilities and across portfolios are gaining traction in the market. Advanced sensors have a pivotal role to play in this market because these devices capture, communicate, and (in some situations) analyze crucial energy and operational data.”

The key is that smart sensors open are part of platforms that open vast possibilities – some of which haven’t even been thought of yet. “The advanced sensor is an effective device for supporting improvements beyond just energy efficiency,” Talon wrote. “These devices are a vital component in the process of transforming a facility into an intelligent building. These devices will support a transition in how commercial facilities are managed, moving from automated scheduling and equipment management toward optimization.”

Mohan wrote that smart sensors enable both real time control and longer term assessment that can lead to fundamental change. “The data is stored to a central repository and then harvested by apps to both 1) show building operators what is happening in their buildings at every minute of the day and 2) optimize the building in real-time to reduce energy and meet the needs of occupants. These processes create a feedback loop. When the sensors are installed, data is generated that is used to optimize the building. As it is optimized, people use it in different/better ways, which provides new data and new opportunities for improvement. And so on.”

Talon listed six key areas for which advanced sensors are used. Together, he writes, these and others support the business case for intelligent buildings. They include support of energy efficiency, operational efficiency, optimal space utilization, creation of healthy buildings, occupant satisfaction and safety.

In September, Enlighted Chairman and CEO Joe Costello wrote a commentary for Construction Executive that focuses on how smart sensors are used. He pointed to space utilization, HVAC and safety and security are three other benefits that smart sensors help make possible.

The latter two are relatively well understood by the facilities infrastructure. Space utilization has a somewhat lower profile. Costello writes that the advanced sensor in the lighting system can track occupancy motion. If space is not being used as intended – the example he offers is a conference room that is rarely utilized – it can be reallocated or steps taken to make it more useful. This idea can be applied to multi-building campuses.

The point is that tracking motion over time and taking action based on the intelligence that is gathered can be seen as simply one incremental side benefit of an intelligence sensor system that is primarily aimed to more directly save energy.

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