Smart building technology is picking up at a rapid pace, driven by a global need for increased sustainability, decreased waste, and more efficient use of resources. Smart buildings leverage the technological advancements of the internet of things (IoT) to manage assets, resources, and services efficiently, improving building operations, energy consumption, and resource management along with the overall resident experience.
With buildings responsible for a staggering 38 percent of global CO2 emissions and 40 percent of U.S. energy consumption, remodeling buildings’ energy consumption and sustainability are paramount to meeting global climate goals. This priority has already been made clear by the Biden administration, who announced the Buildings Performance Standards Coalition in January, a first-of-its-kind partnership between 33 state and local governments dedicated to delivering cleaner, healthier, and more energy-efficient buildings.
While optimizing energy consumption in the building sector is a massive undertaking, it can start at the smallest level: in the tiny chips that power the IoT. Smart buildings incorporate IoT technology into a multitude of areas – from digitizing people flow and space utilization to reconstructing water supply networks. One of the largest opportunities for smart buildings is in revolutionizing energy consumption, starting with smart energy distribution systems and smart HVAC equipment.
Smart Energy Distribution Systems
Traditional energy distribution systems are set up in a unidirectional fashion, where energy is expected to flow from generators into loads. In these systems, power plants generate energy and deposit it into urban centers. With renewable energy sources like solar and wind, the energy distribution picture is now completely different; energy distribution systems now need to allow for omnidirectional energy flow. A building that previously only consumed energy could now integrate rooftop solar panels, producing and returning excess energy into the grid. Smart energy distribution systems enable this omnidirectional energy flow and allow the integration of renewable distributed energies to deposit energy back into the power grid.
This not only reduces energy consumption by increasing the system’s efficiency but also unlocks a distributed energy generation model. Buildings become energy producers instead of consumers, allowing a shift towards green energy. The advancements in sensor and wireless IoT technologies are setting the stage for the smart energy grid transformation, where smart buildings play a major role in enabling a greener, more connected power grid that will shape a more sustainable future.
Smart HVAC Systems
Smart HVAC systems are another exciting evolution in smart buildings, which tie into energy efficiency, air quality, and resident comfort. Across the United States, cities, states, utilities, and nonprofits are increasing efforts to electrify the buildings sector, where the burning of fossil fuels for space heating, water heating, cooking, and other uses accounts for 13 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gases (GHG) emissions.
With the COVID-19 pandemic driving major developments in air quality and purification technologies, vendors are looking at a shortened HVAC upgrade cycle. Dealers and distributors are organically moving towards adding newer, smarter technologies to their HVAC equipment. In the era of digitization, building residents now expect granular control of HVAC settings in every room and zone in their buildings. This is where the IoT steps in to add a new depth to the comfort experience inside the buildings. With motorized vents and dampers, paired with wireless connectivity to phones and tablets, residents can set the temperature as well as the CO2, humidity, and air quality settings with just a few swipes. Building managers can also leverage IoT connectivity to automatically detect room occupancy and reduce energy usage to that space accordingly, optimizing energy use throughout the building.
Monitoring Building Health
Monitoring building health is another smart building growth area. More environmental sensors beyond the traditional temperature and humidity sensors are being added to buildings. These sensors are enabling smart dampers for better airflow and outdoor air exchange, connected equipment for predictive maintenance, flow meters for leak detection, gas sensors for air particle detection, and much more. Fire and smoke detection have always been connected, but we are seeing more wireless connectivity with long-range wireless and Bluetooth to create an installer interface. All three applications – energy management, building health monitoring, and fire safety – are all adding more connectivity and digital capability.
The Importance of Reliability and Cybersecurity
All benefits considered, there are still some challenges to smart buildings that will require skilled engineering and problem-solving. The primary challenge is technological: wireless networks of such complexity need to be extremely reliable and stable. While the wireless mesh network technology available today is fully capable, vendors and manufacturers need to ensure the reliability of their products to realize the true potential of wireless networks in building environments.
Integrating wireless networks also exposes buildings to cyber vulnerabilities. To combat such threats, silicon vendors and product manufacturers have been stepping up their cybersecurity game. Continued focus on security when developing and distributing smart solutions will be critical to transforming the building sector.
A Smarter, Greener Future
What makes these opportunities exciting is that smart buildings are not limited to brand new structures; buildings can be retrofitted with smart technology as well. The ability to simply implement wireless connectivity in existing systems simplifies adoption and can accelerate the overall adoption of wireless communications in buildings.
With both public and private sectors dedicated to improving energy use in the building sector, we can expect the coming years to be fundamental to smart building adoption. In a decade that is critical to reducing CO2 emissions in all sectors and maximizing energy efficiency and consumption, advancements in technology and the use of IoT in buildings can lead the way in promoting sustainability and increasing quality of life at the individual and group levels.