Smart Building Connectivity: 3 Myths Busted
Smart building value lies in the ability to tap into unprecedented amounts of data that empower real-time, intelligent decision making. Achieving this requires a robust and versatile communications infrastructure that can support both existing and future use cases.
But while the importance of smart building connectivity is evident, today’s bewildering variety of technology options often makes the wireless decision a challenging task for property owners. Worse, the intricate technology picture leaves plenty of room for misconceptions around the wireless architecture, specifically its design and functionality. In this week’s blog, we highlight three common myths that should be put to rest.
1. Smart Building Connectivity Is All About 5G and Wi-Fi 6
Since their introduction, 5G and Wi-Fi 6 have constantly hit the headlines across the tech world. Given the prevalence of cellular and Wi-Fi connectivity in both the built environment and our daily lives, smart buildings are unsurprisingly discussed as a key application area. All hype aside, it’s important to soberly assess what role these technologies have to play in the intelligent architecture. Certainly, 5G and Wi-Fi are essential for high-throughput, high-speed data transfer of growing digital amenities like building intranets, video conferencing, digital signages, and augmented/virtual reality services in commercial settings. However, human-to-human broadband communication is only part of the smart building story.
The drastic uptake of modular wireless sensors that deliver fine-grained visibility into virtually every aspect of facility operation is at the heart of the IoT for smart building revolution. Think of examples like environmental sensors, leak detectors or occupancy sensors. These devices primarily send small amounts of data periodically or when abnormal events arise, so high-bandwidth communication isn’t necessary. Instead, what matters much more is power-efficient, scalable and robust machine-to-machine connectivity that can support a constantly growing endpoint base that often numbers in the thousands, if not hundreds of thousands. Here, the newer Low Power Wide Area Networks (LPWAN) is quickly gaining a foothold.
Long story short, the diversity of smart building applications is vast and growing by the day. As such, both traditional broadband networks and emerging low-power IoT connectivity will need to co-exist in the wireless architecture to harness all this transformation has to offer.
2. Wireless IoT Will Replace Legacy Wired Building Systems
Almost every large, high-rise commercial buildings nowadays have one or multiple building automation systems (BAS) currently implemented. These systems are largely connected using wired protocols to control key building functions like HVAC, lighting, security, fire safety and elevators. As the IoT and the vision of limitless device interconnection come on the scene, many envisage that the new generation of IoT sensors and wireless connectivity will soon supersede the legacy cabling networks. Nevertheless, this isn’t that simple.
For decades, the physical wire infrastructure has been carefully installed and commissioned to provide the ultra-reliable backbone communication fundamental to automation and control of mission-critical BAS components. And, it isn’t likely to be ripped and replaced any time soon. Having said that, existing BAS operations are far from efficient. Due to the high cost and complexity of running cables, these systems only incorporate a handful of input devices, thus missing out on many critical parameters needed for optimal equipment regulation.
Wireless IoT is added to the smart building connectivity mix to exactly overcome this challenge. Rather than replacing the wired infrastructure, it overlays a new sensor communication network to collect granular in-building data like air quality and human presence – not previously possible. Integrating this information into legacy BAS enables responsive and distributed equipment control that takes into account dynamic building conditions and tenant behavior. This, in turn, brings new levels of efficiency, comfort and sustainability.
3. Home Automation Networks Are Easily Transferrable to Smart Building Deployment
Mesh protocols like Zigbee and Z-Wave have been widely implemented in personal or home area networks, typically for use cases like light and switch control. Their success in home automation has paved the way for their potential use in commercial buildings – with connected lighting being a flagship application. As IoT and smart building technology take off, many expect that wireless mesh networks will quickly extend their reach to incorporate numerous other connected use cases in the built environment. This bullish vision could likely be the reality, if it wasn’t for some important technical considerations that we need to factor in.
The mesh topology works perfectly in small-scale home settings where there are only a handful of connected devices. Nevertheless, in a smart building scenario, the building size and structure is more complex by orders of magnitude. Plus, there are a greater number of vastly distributed endpoints. To offset the short radio link, mesh devices must be evenly allocated close to each other and extra repeaters will most likely be required for seamless coverage. As most nodes are also responsible for passing along data of other devices, their power consumption can greatly increase, and any single point of failure threatens to impact network stability. In large-scale implementations, the setup and management overheads of mesh solutions can far exceed those of star topology networks like LPWAN.
The bandwidth challenge is another critical issue to look into. With most mesh protocols operating in the crowded 2.4 GHz band, their transmissions are subject to significant interference from legacy Wi-Fi and Bluetooth systems. Even if the network can survive the 2.4 GHz traffic for now, what happens if new sensors are constantly added over time? Amidst fast-evolving technology landscape and tenants’ needs, the scalability and futureproofing of smart building connectivity must be thought out from the get-go.
To sum it up, with so many technologies on offer, it’s often challenging for property owners to grasp what the communication architecture should look like. Besides the established backbone wired infrastructure and traditional enterprise wireless broadband communications, low-power wireless IoT is joining the smart building connectivity mix to target an entirely new host of high-value intelligent use cases.
LPWAN, in particular, delivers deep indoor penetration, easy implementation and ultra-low power consumption needed to scale with a new breed of low-computing and battery-operated IoT sensor devices. As opposed to intricate mesh networks with trees and sidearms, a robust LPWAN solution requires as few as a single base station to connect thousands of dispersed endpoints across the entire building – using the simple star topology. What’s more, LPWAN’s use of sub-GHz frequencies helps circumvent heavy interference from legacy building wireless systems in the 2.4 GHz band, to better ensure network reliability in the long run. At the end of the day, the wireless decision can make or break your smart building architecture.