The buzz around Smart Buildings has ramped up in recent years, especially with commercial buildings. Given all the hype, it can be tricky to distinguish the truly transformative innovation taking place, how it can be of benefit, and to whom.
Smart buildings promise not only vast improvements in Energy Efficiency, but also more comfortable, appealing and responsive human environments. So what technologies are out there, where and when are they relevant, and how can we measure their value?
Let’s start with some definitions. The term smart building is used in a number of contexts. For the purposes of this discussion, it can be taken as a building that incorporates Devices, Sensors, Systems and Interfaces. These elements can ‘talk to’ each other via the Internet of Things, which is basically a network of devices and objects connected via the Internet. Since such devices tend to gather vast amounts of information, smart buildings also often incorporate Artificial Intelligence to process the data, analyse it, and respond in real-time.
Typically, smart buildings feature one or more smart systems. In general, a smart system is computer-powered, able to sense and control situations and use the data it gathers to make decisions and respond accordingly. According to a 2017 study by the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, there are seven technology categories that can be part of a smart building.
- Smart Heating, Ventilation + Air Conditioning
Employing numerous sensors that monitor and control temperature and air quality, smart HVAC systems restrict energy use when parts of a building is not in use. In addition to the hardware, complimentary software analyses the input and makes adjustments to create optimal comfort for users, while using resources efficiently. In terms of savings, a smart thermostat system can reduce energy usage by up to 10%. A variable frequency drive, which controls the speed of the AC motor, can save up to 50% of the energy required to power the motor.
- Smart Lighting
Smart lighting comprises systems that make the most of natural daylight, using sensors to provide light based on the amount already reaching a space, as well as other aspects such as occupancy at a given moment and what the space is being used for, to which users can input via web-based applications. Advanced lighting control systems typically use around 45% less energy than the ‘unsmart’ equivalent.
Philips is the best-known producer of smart lighting systems, having been one of the first brands to market back in 2012, with the Hue System. Their technology is at home in both single residences and large, modern offices.
- Smart Plug Loads
Buildings need to be able to provide power to many types of portable electronics, from laptops and other office paraphernalia to vending machines and more demanding equipment. Smart plug load controls access scheduling information as well as lighting and BMS, motion sensors and/or load detection to cut power to equipment that does not require it at a given point in time. Such technology can bring energy savings of between 50% and 60%. Some smart multiplugs can not only detect the primary load, but also control secondary devices, conserving energy by an estimated 25% to 50% compared to a standard multiplug.
TP-Link’s WiFi Smart Plug offers a range of features for use in the home, and can be connected to voice assistants such as Amazon’s Alexa. Similarly Bosch makes smart plugs for the home, and can scale their systems to create a connected commercial building. The enModus smart BEM system enables detailed measuring, monitoring and management of energy use.
- Smart Window Shading
Managing the amount of natural light and heat that enters a building and responding to it as part of an integrated system is an efficient way to harness energy directly from the sun, thereby reducing the amount of electricity required. In fact, retrofitting a smart shading system is one of the best ways to save energy in buildings with single glazing. Smart glass—which features responsive glazing or film—can offer energy savings of up to 30%. In addition, automatic shades, programmed to move throughout the day to control solar gain and light levels, bring savings of up to 38%.
For new buildings, Sage Glass has developed electrochromic glass, sometimes called smart glass or dynamic glass, for windows and facades that are electronically tintable and controllable by building occupants. For retrofitting, Lutron’s Serena Shades can be integrated into a number of third-party smart control systems.
- Building Automation System Optimisation
Traditionally, building automation systems require a degree of manual input, such as scheduling and location settings. Optimising such systems uses real-time feedback via smart sensors, leveraging specialised software to analyse performance of operations and energy use. It also allows for processing of external data, such as occupancy patterns, weather forecasts and utility rates. This monitoring can be done through the cloud, so facilities managers can track building performance on web-based platforms. BAS optimisation is estimated to save between 10 and 25% of energy usage across the building as a whole.
Boss Controls specialises in optimising HVAC systems, and SSE Enterprise Energy Solutions offers an overhaul of the entire BAS, with a nationwide network of engineers. Priva’s intelligent BMS is a smart, integrated system for climate control and energy saving in commercial buildings.
- User Interfaces
Increasingly, it’s possible to interact with smart buildings via a digital dashboard. Building and facilities managers can visualise and analyse entire datasets through an accessible interface in most cases, specialist training is required for staff to use such software. On the occupant side, smartphone apps allow users to control aspects such as lighting and heating.
Increasingly, producers of smart building technology provide their own digital dashboard, as well as allowing for integration into the wider BMS. Some products, such as Smart Building’s Smart-VUE, however, are also tackling the so-called ‘protocol problem’, which is basically about integrating disparate, and often closed, hardware and software into a seamless system. is one example.
- Distributed Energy Resources
DER is a catchall term to describe renewable energy sources and storage, such as photovoltaics and batteries. Paired with a smart inverter that can communicate with the resources themselves, the grid and the building’s needs, a smart DER system can efficiently distribute energy and respond in real-time to changing power requirements.
Schneider Electric offers a vast array of integrated smart building technology, from solar and PV solutions to waste reduction systems. The company’s work on groundbreaking smart office, The Edge, resulted in a net zero energy building.
Putting it all together
Any one of these technologies can be installed into a building to make it smarter, and more energy efficient. With technology rapidly developing, integration between systems is becoming both smoother and more worthwhile. Plus, as smart heating, lighting and load delivery systems are integrated, energy saving benefits are compounded.