It’s easy to get bogged down in complex issues and costs when looking to bring intelligence into corporate real estate (and put genuine control into the hands of facilities managers). Making a building smart doesn’t have to be a tortuous process. It also doesn’t need to be so expensive that it takes years before the return on investment is realised.
As with all technologies, there must be a solid reason for adopting them, particularly considering how disruptive their application can be and how much time and money needs to be spent on them. With the market worldwide for smart buildings technology forecast to be worth $8.5bn in 2020 and nearly three times that by 2026, it’s clear how important it is to get this right.
So, let’s just remind ourselves of the key benefits that connecting buildings via the Internet of Things (IoT) can deliver:
- greater control over HVAC systems
- better management of lighting, security and health and safety systems
- improved office efficiencies through real-time management of building occupancy and room usage
- access to up-to-date data to ensure pro-active maintenance and building management
- happier building users who are far more productive than was previously possible
Having established the benefits of creating a smart building there is also possibility that could sour the logistics of smart buildings. This is not an exhaustive list, but they include:
- how to choose a system that is inadequate for the needs of building users, owners and managers
- installing technology that becomes outdated quickly and requires regular upgrades
- using hardware such as sensors and gateways that are restricted in location and make further expansion difficult and costly
- systems can be over complicated and time consuming
- installing a communications system that has limited reach around a building and between buildings
There are so many options – and anyway, aren’t they all the same?
There are indeed many options out there, but they are by no means all the same. To begin with, while some pieces of equipment in an IoT network benefit from being hard-wired, it makes more sense for these sensors to be battery-operated. This not only offers huge flexibility in terms of where they should be placed in a building but – with a working life up to 10 years – battery-operated sensors ease one of the major headaches of maintenance. Regardless of the issues with installing miles of cabling there is also the problem of trying to find a system fault, resembling much of a needle-in-a-haystack, that can be avoided using certain wireless technologies.
Another notable difference with some smart building systems and devices is reach. We’ve mentioned this before, but it is crucial. For a communications network to be reliable, facilities managers to have faith in the data in front of them, and for personnel to work in a building with minimum disruption and maximum efficiency, it is absolutely vital that the signals used are able to pass through thick walls, through several storeys and even across many miles to interact with another building’s network (and another and another). One more essential factor is data security – sensitive commercial data needs to be watertight when it is being passed around any network and between structures.
So, what are the options in terms of smart building solutions?
- NarrowBand-IoT (NB-IoT) – this has good power efficiency, strong coverage, inexpensive hardware and, of course, low bandwidth. However, NB-IoT is a cellular-grade wireless technology that uses orthogonal frequency-division multiplexing (OFDM) – which means greater complexity and more power consumption. At the same time, NB-IoT is best suited to handling small amounts of data (file transfers are a problem) and is more suited to very straightforward IoT installations with simple devices that produce no more than a few hundred bytes in any 24-hour period. Also, the technology is limited by the distances that it can cover.
- 5G – certainly efficient and easy to manage, 5G has been said to offer major potential for IoT applications and to provide strong connectivity but the cellular technology has issues in terms of coverage, reliability, privacy and security of data. There are also concerns about whether 5G can achieve consistently the speeds that it professes to offer and there are high costs associated with the infrastructure that it requires.
- LoRa - the de facto low-power wide area network (LPWAN) technology, based around the LoRaWAN open protocol, solves the problems of data security (through end-to-end AES128 data encryption) and the long range distances that data can travel (up to 10,000 square meters from a single gateway and up to 30 miles through dense urban environments). With this system, wireless sensors measuring no more than 38mm (1.5 inches) can be installed wherever they are required – whether in a new smart building set-up, an upgrade to one already in operation or a total retrofit of an existing ‘dumb’ building. Also, LoRaWAN deployments use open standards, which means running costs are kept to a minimum, and they can operate separately from corporate IT networks.
The intelligent thing to do
It’s clear, then, that introducing and installing intelligence into corporate real estate – while giving facilities managers the level of control they need – is much more straightforward than many may have portrayed or imagined. A great deal has been discussed about the IoT and the various options available but one thing is certain: the hard work has been done already by those who have developed the technology and there is no need to have extensive knowledge of it to reap the significant benefits that are available.