by Robin Hegg
Take a minute to think about all the energy and electricity that gets used everyday in your home and your school. Lights are turned on throughout the day and night, air conditioning cools the air inside during the summer and heat warms it in the winter, water is heated and cooled, appliances and devices like refrigerators, stoves, computers, and televisions run, and mobile devices like cellphones and tablets are charged.
An incredible amount of the electricity we use every day comes from the buildings where we live, work, and learn. The United States Department of Energy reports that 4.8 million commercial buildings and 350,000 industrial facilities in the US are responsible for about half of the country’s total energy use, and buildings consume about 70% of the electricity in the United States. Not only do buildings account for a huge percentage of our energy and electricity use, the DOE estimates that 30 percent of that energy is used inefficiently or unnecessarily. According to the Royal Academy of Engineering in the UK, “smart buildings will be crucial to maintaining quality of life as urban populations rise and natural resources dwindle.” Making buildings more energy efficient has the potential to incredible amount of energy.
Smart buildings aim to do just that. By connecting building systems and appliances and collecting and analyzing data about energy usage, occupancy, and external conditions like weather, smart buildings have the potential to save energy, money, and make people more comfortable in the process. A building could adjust window blinds according to the sun’s position in order to optimize natural light, limiting the use of electrical lights and heating the house without the use of electric heating systems. It could use patterns of room usage to heat and light areas of the building only when in use or in anticipation of use. This collection of networked objects is referred to as the Internet of Things (IoT).
Smart buildings can respond to the data they collect and use this data to anticipate the needs of its occupants. For instance, if a building’s occupants wake up at the same time every day, a smart building might have the blinds open at that time, or have the lights slowly brighten. It could turn on the heat before everyone wakes up and get the coffee machine started.
A smart building’s systems and smart devices are controlled by a building management system or BMS. The BMS is the building’s owner or manager centralized way to manage the building’s activities. The BMS gathers information from the building’s sensors and makes decisions about how to adjust the building’s systems.
In addition to lighting and heating systems, smart buildings can also monitor and adjust security and fire alarms, elevator systems, and plumbing. Smart buildings can also be set up to monitor their own structural safety, alerting occupants if a pipe leaks or a wall becomes structurally unsound.
While new buildings are being designed with smart technology, it’s also important that existing buildings be retrofitted with smart technology. Since existing buildings account for such a large amount of energy consumption, making existing buildings more energy efficient could save an incredible amount of energy. The initial cost of upgrading a building could be quite steep, but owners would save money in the long run.
The existing buildings in the United States that account for almost half the country’s energy use total about $202.3 billion in energy costs. In addition to general energy cost savings, there is the potential for communication with energy companies that could allow buildings to sell back energy they produce, or to sell energy savings to companies. Energy companies, anticipating an upcoming heat wave and influx of energy use, could offer to pay buildings in exchange for a decrease in their energy usage. EDF Energy, a UK utility company, aims to have installed smart meters in 100 percent of its customers’ homes by 2019. Homes will be outfitted with kits that include gas and electricity meters, an in-house display, and a communications hub that will allow customers to view data remotely and link with the utility company’s systems. Increasing communication between utilities companies and buildings like this means a smarter power grid is needed. A smart grid would allow utility companies and buildings to communicate directly and in real time.
All of these reasons are why the Obama administration launched the Better Buildings initiative in February of 2011. The Better Buildings initiative “aims to make commercial, public, industrial, and residential buildings 20% more energy efficient over the next decade.” The initiative partners private and public sector organizations to share energy saving technology and successes. Green Button, a government and private energy industry-led effort, focuses on utility companies and consumers, working to increase energy efficiency by making energy use data available to owners and building managers in a user-friendly manner, helping them to set and meet energy saving goals.
There are many challenges to reaching the full potential of smart building technology, however. All the data being collected from building systems and appliances means a lot of information needs to be uploaded and processed, which requires wireless networks that can handle the increased data affordably and effectively. In order for appliances and devices to be able to communicate with one another and with the building’s management system, they also need to be designed in a way that allows them to work together cooperatively and be swapped out and upgraded as needed. Recent IEEE standards have helped set a foundation for this type of networking. The adoption of open standards such as BACnet, Modbus, and LonWorks have made it possible for every manufacturer and contractor to make a contribution to a smarter whole.
Security is also a major issue facing the future of smart buildings. Hacking is an issue, meaning smart building systems need to be built with security in mind and with the ability to be updated to address new threats. Smart buildings and the Internet of Things also raise concerns about privacy. A large amount of data will be collected and this data has to be stored and treated securely. Consumers need to be able to trust that their information is safe.
The more human challenge to smart buildings is making sure that the people who will occupy these buildings feel comfortable and are able to trust the technology around them. People need to feel that they are still in control of their environment, interfaces must be user friendly, and systems must be reliable.
Smart buildings offer the possibility of a more comfortable, streamlined living environment while at the same time promising energy and cost savings. The movement toward smart buildings could have a very positive impact on the environment, helping people to stop wasting energy without losing comfort.