Buildings are getting smarter: AV needs to get on board

Energy efficiency remans a top priority for smart building projects. But as Tim Kridel found, Covid-19 is among the factors driving additional applications.

When the pandemic is finally over, between 16% and 20% of employees will continue to work from home, according to recent surveys by Harvard Business School and the global freelancing platform Upwork. Bad news for AV firms targeting the smart building market?

Not necessarily. For starters, even if the surveys turn out to be spot on, it still means at least 80% of employees will be back in the office. 

Many of their companies will be looking to add smart building technologies that help with everything from enforcing social distancing to improving air quality. Those new goals are in addition to longstanding smart building applications such as improving energy efficiency. 

Some of those applications and technologies fall neatly into pro AV’s wheelhouse. Take people counters, traditionally used to track room utilisation so companies know whether they had too much or too little conference space. 

“That’s been a heavily asked-for feature to put in enforcement,” says Dan Jackson, Crestron senior director, product management, for digital workplace. “If you had a 12-person room, and you made it a six-person room, and now a seventh person walks in, that’s not supposed to happen. How do you know? I just heard that insurance companies might start charging different rates based on if they can prove they’re social distancing.”

People counters and even basic occupancy sensors also can enable housekeeping staff to work more efficiently by alerting them when a meeting is finished and that the room needs to be cleaned. Clients might have these capabilities but are unaware, so it’s worth reaching out to alert them and offer to help configure them. 

“The newer videoconferencing systems often have not only presence detection but also [people] counting,” says Mike Brooman, Vanti CEO. “So you’ve almost got additional functionality buried in existing systems. You can present that to people to get better results without having to install additional specialist hardware that just counts people in a space.” 

Clearing the air
Energy efficiency usually tops the list of smart building applications because the ROI is clear and quick. Those savings sometimes are used to fund subsequent applications, such as improving air quality to boost employee productivity or academic success. (For a deeper dive, see “Using AV technologies to promote wellness in the workplace”.)
“Kids are falling asleep in the classroom in the afternoon,” says Karl Walker, market development manager at Beckhoff Automation, whose business partners include a company that makes air quality sensors. “It’s because you’ve got 20, 30, 40 kids in there, and inadequate or no ventilation. They were measuring [CO2 levels of] 1,500 ppm.” 

Covid-19 is prompting some businesses and schools to move air quality up their list of smart building project priorities.   

“Many times preventing the spread of infection depends on indoor air quality components,” says Marjut Rautavaara, Siemens Smart Infrastructure head of digital buildings. “Tracking, controlling and purifying air quality becomes more critical. That increases the demand for indoor air quality sensors such as humidity, CO2, PM2.5 and VOC. Examples of our solutions are Desigo room automation and Symaro sensors.”

People counters play a role here, too. 

“One thing we’ve seen more demand for is footfall counting,” says Vanti’s Brooman. “There are now additional benefits in that technology, such as when they hit certain thresholds that are the limits of systems such as fresh air handling.” 

All together now
The size of the HVAC opportunity depends on an integrator’s willingness to add the skills necessary to work with those systems, such as knowledge of the BACnet and KNX protocols. Those skills also help build credibility with the client’s facilities management team, just as IP skills are key for working with their IT department. 

“BACnet would be very useful, [but] it’s not easy,” says Tom Haskell, Vanti software director. “Most control systems now have ways of controlling it natively, [such as] Creston. We wrote a module so you can do it from AMX. There’s ways from all of the main AV control systems now to support KNX.”

Vanti also is spearheading the Smart Core Foundation

“The Smart Core Building OS is an operating system (like Microsoft Windows or Apple’s MacOS) specifically built for buildings,” the organisation says. “It promotes a distributed architecture, an abstraction layer and common tools through which to deploy applications offering specific functionality to people who use or need to maintain physical spaces. The focus of the OS is to enable integrations to happen quickly and consistently rather than offering libraries of pre-built and potentially unsuitable drivers.”

“We want to approach this as a community,” Haskell says. “We’re not saying that we have all the answers or that we have the best place for people to do this. But we do think other AV integrators will be seeing challenges that we also see. 

“So if there are technical people who want to contribute to thinking this out and making it better, that’s the call to action we’re keen to get across. We’re not here to sell anything.”

Another Vanti partner, Beckhoff, is making its automation platforms as flexible as possible, such as with interfaces for Creston and Control4.

“We don’t care what comes into our systems and what’s connected on the other end of them,” Walker says. “More often than not, it’s intelligent sensors: people counting and closing the loop with the ventilation and filtration systems to make sure the air is as clean as possible – but without running them 24/7 and wasting energy.

“Everything is PC-based. So if you want to run your AV media server software on our controller that’s also controlling the HVAC, you can do that. That’s a really alien concept for a lot of people.”

From gee whiz to agile aging 
Smart building applications are increasingly common in the residential market, including in multi-dwelling units such as senior living communities. For example, being able to simply say, “Alexa, turn the AC down to 21” or “Okay Google, turn on the porch light” can be attractive to someone with limited mobility.

As in the commercial market, wellness was a growing priority even before Covid-19. Residential also is maturing away from gee-whiz applications such as changing light colours with your voice and having the doorbell camera feed routed to the TV. This maturity includes taking a holistic approach rather than a piecemeal one.

“It should be viewed much more than just a bunch of gadgets,” says Dan Eades, CTO of Global Home, a startup with offices in the UK and California. “It should now be more about delivering real meaning through convergence with other systems. 

“For example, wellness: How you bring health care into the home? There’s also the whole ‘agile aging’ phenomenon. Governments are highly motivated to keep people living in their own homes for longer. Technology holds a lot of the answers.”

Many network options, including cellular
A solid network is key for knitting together disparate smart building systems such as lighting, shades, HVAC and security. Category cable is a common choice, especially if many of the applications use Power over Ethernet – including the new, 90W 802.3bt version.

“That infrastructure is going to be there for 20-30 years, maybe even more,” says Bob Allan, Siemon global business development manager for intelligent buildings and strategic alliances. “We highly recommend a Cat 6a shielded or F/UTP solution from day one. The last thing you want is 10 years into the life of your building to have to contemplate a new app because you have to run new cable infrastructure.”         

Eades agrees. 

“The good news is we are not talking about massive bandwidth requirements here. Simple, readily available cables such as Cat 5 have plenty of bandwidth for inter-device communications, and wireless communications are getting more reliable all the time.” 

But fibre can make sense if the client plans to add high-bandwidth applications down the road, such as HD video surveillance or 4K telehealth, or if it wants enough headroom that the infrastructure won’t need to be replaced for decades. Some AV firms prefer to work with category cable because they view fibre as a hassle or too expensive in terms of installation equipment. 

“It has the status that it’s difficult to use and hard to terminate,” says Bob Ferguson, Belden channel account manager. “Technology has changed. Belden just released a new fusion splicer that’s super simple to use. If you can learn how to solder an XLR on, you can do a fibre optic termination. 

“Fusion splicers used to be $30,000-$50,000 [€25,000-€42,000]. They’re now in the $5,000-$6,000 range [€4,000-€5,000].” 

Wireless is another option, with current choices such as Zigbee and Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) eliminating the cost of running cable to low-bandwidth sensors and controllers. Cellular is an emerging option, including private indoor 4G and 5G networks, also known as “small cells” because their architecture is similar to Wi-Fi.

“If you want to deploy small cells, the backbone cabling of those is very similar, if not the same network topology, as we have for Wi-Fi,” says Ron Tellas, Belden technology and applications manager. “If you’re planning a network and want to bring outdoor wireless indoors, you have options.” 

Although many Crestron smart building systems use Zigbee, such as its ZÅ«m lighting products, the company sees a bright future for cellular. 

“Within three or four years, we see LTE and 5G having a big impact,” Jackson says. “It may get to the point that you don’t need Wi-Fi.” 

Data deluge points to managed services opportunities
Smart buildings churn out a lot of data that enterprises can use to make informed decisions about room utilization, energy efficiency and more. Or at least that’s how it’s supposed to work.

The research firm Omdia recently surveyed 248 smart building technology end users, including facility managers, IT managers, senior executives and security managers. 

“Seventy-seven percent keep the data generated by their facilities, but 42% of them do not analyse building data from their buildings to identify variations and patterns that can improve the buildings’ operation and management,” Omdia says. “Despite this figure, the results also show that the building sector and end users are willing to invest in smart building technologies and are ambitious with regards to the goals they want to achieve with their solutions.”

There’s a potential opportunity for integrators and consultants to offer managed services that unlock insights in all that data lying fallow.

“A few of the largest integrators are actively going down this road [such as] AVI-SPL and AVI Systems,” says Crestron’s Jackson. “The smaller ones, I haven’t seen that drive. They should be, in my opinion. 

“Some consultants are, as well. Nobody wants to see your AV drawings any more. They want to see how you can better help them manage their workplace.”

Consumers also could be interested in help making sense of their smart home data. One key for both the residential and enterprise markets is showing that the data will be protected.

“Once you’ve installed the technology, and people trust you, then the sky is the limit in terms of the services you can deliver,” says Global Home’s Eades. 

“Security is an important and a huge concern when ‘everything’ is connected,” says Siemens’ Rautavaara. “While connectivity is very important for smart buildings, vulnerability assessment skills, hardware and software security, and data security skills are critical.”

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