New technology — old lessons
Steve Harrison reflects on the latest development in technology and points out that connectivity requires co-operation.
The Internet of Things (IoT) reflects a level of technology where it is not only computers that are networked via the Internet. The IoT means that almost any object could be connected to the Internet and would therefore have the potential to receive and send data.
If you read the news then it seems that the IoT could embrace almost any inanimate object you care to name, from smart clothing that records the performance of athletes, to televisions that can receive regular software updates. We are in the era of connectivity. The number of devices that could potentially be connected reaches into the billions, according to research from IBM. Within the next five years, sensor data will hit a crossover point with unstructured data generated by social media.
Of course there is some way to go before this theoretical level of connectivity becomes reality. But for those of us in building services, trends in our own industry are already reflecting this move to a connected world.
We have already seen the rise of ‘intelligent’ building-services equipment that has controls built-in. Add the ability to link an AHU or a boiler to the cloud and suddenly you have taken building services to a new level. These products have been on the market for a few years now.
From an end-user perspective, particularly the facilities-management team, web-based controls that can be easily integrated into a single system offer real benefits. It is possible to access data on building performance through a web-based interface that is familiar and easy to use. Automated messages can warn of non-standard operation, allowing for rapid response and early preventative maintenance.
However, while the spread of connectivity is ultimately a positive development, experience from the controls sector highlights some important caveats.
Not least of these challenges is the issue of security. If an entire building energy management system (BEMS) is accessible via the web, then security is no longer a nice-to-have; it must be regarded as a central part of that system. Security does not simply prevent hackers from attacking a system; it can also be used to set levels of access. This can be very useful for multi-site users, such as supermarkets, for example, where a central FM team requires all the data but managers of local stores may only need headline energy-use figures.
Leading manufacturers of BEMSs ensure that their systems offer robust security levels, but of course these only work when they are applied by end users. For example, if a maintenance team is given access to the password for a short time, a new one must be issued afterwards. In fact, it is safest to regard your BEMS as a business-critical IT system and treat it with the same caution as your organisation’s intranet or email system.
A second important consideration is how to handle the data that will inevitably arise from greater connectivity. With the days of meter reading and a clipboard now long behind us, waves of information are heading towards the building-management team, which must find a way to make it useful.
The best approach to deal with the issue of Big Data is to consider it at the early stage of designing your BEMS. If the BEMS is viewed as another business IT system, this can help. As with financial data, not everyone will need the same data. Sales and marketing require different information than, for example, the credit-management team. The same can be said of information coming out of the BEMS. Information on building performance and energy use can be a very powerful motivation to energy efficiency, but it must be collated and presented in a way that the end-user can understand and respond to.
A final question to ask when faced with the growing potential of connectivity is just what needs to be connected? It may be possible for the lifts to ‘talk’ to the lighting controls, but is that something that will enhance the experience of building occupants, or save energy costs?
Greater connectivity and access offer exciting developments for building controls and building services. And if technology is moving closer together, then so must all the experts in construction that are expected to make this happen. The Building Services Summit in London on 27 November is aimed at helping to achieve greater understanding of client requirements and how contractors, consultants and experts in controls and commissioning can harness new technology for the benefit of their clients.
Steve Harrison is president of the BCIA (Building Controls Industry Association) and global product manager for Belimo.