Smart Home vs Smart Building: What’s the Difference?

BehrTech Blog

Smart Home vs Smart Building: What’s the Difference?

Much has been talked about the transformative values of the Internet of Things (IoT) for home and building automation. The growing pervasiveness of low-cost sensors and wireless technologies are drastically changing the indoor environments where we work and live, enabling higher levels of efficiency, comfort and safety. Given the many common use cases between a smart home and smart building including climate control, lighting automation or security and fire safety, some would assume that IoT technologies for these two architectures are highly converged.

Indeed, IoT vendors providing home solutions like Ecobee are trying to expand their product offerings to the commercial markets. But, can we really use the same thermostat at our home to measure temperature and humidity, at our office? The truth is, besides functionality, scale and cost are also part of the equation. It’s often not the devices themselves that dictate the latter two factors, but the supported connectivity behind it. One thermostat might be sufficient in the home environment, but large-scale industrial and commercial facilities will require a much larger number of distributed metering points for micro-zoned HVAC regulation to optimize energy savings and occupancy comfort.

What’s more, while it’s true that home and building automation networks share certain common goals, the use case matrix in the latter is much more complex. Space management, equipment maintenance, asset tracking, waste management and intelligent parking are all compelling smart building applications that remain irrelevant in the home settings. The wider array of use cases means that there are substantially more granular endpoints to be connected.

So, even when smart home and smart building networks could leverage the same type of end devices like temperature sensors, occupancy detectors or smoke alarms, they’ll most likely need different communications infrastructures to make the business case work. Prevalent Wi-Fi and Bluetooth technologies alongside established mesh solutions for lighting control such as Zigbee, Thread and Z-Wave are a perfect fit for home automation networks. However, they are often less than ideal for an integrated smart building architecture with widely distributed endpoints. Here are three reasons why:

1. Building Size and Structure

The physical environment has a significant impact on the quality of the wireless radio link. Small-scale home environments with simple structures and few obstacles present minimal challenges to signal propagation in short-range technologies. Even if you might have Wi-Fi connection issues in some parts of your house, this problem can be quickly resolved with just one extender.

On the other hand, when it comes to high-rise commercial buildings, geographically dispersed campuses or structurally dense industrial facilities, short-range solutions fail to deliver the coverage and penetration ability needed. Though the use of mesh topology can help extend network reach, it doesn’t come without complications. Given the limited physical range of mesh protocols, you need to make sure nodes are allocated evenly and extra repeaters are added as required to establish communications between two data points. In a vast-scale implementation, infrastructure and engineering costs of mesh networks can quickly inflate.

2. Power Requirements

For home automation networks, low-power wireless connectivity is a nice-to-have but not necessarily a requirement. This is because most devices are conveniently located near power outlets and there are eventually just a handful of endpoints. So technically, you can connect all your smart home gadgets to the Internet using the existing Wi-Fi infrastructure – without worrying about its power-hungry nature.

On the contrary, wireless sensors at commercial and industrial facilities often number in the thousands – with many of them positioned nowhere near a power supply. Even if they do, wiring that many sensors, is simply too expensive and cumbersome. At manufacturing sites with complex running equipment and systems, trenching cables is dangerous and conducive to costly production shutdown. As such, for a smart building network to be economically viable, devices must be able to operate on independent batteries for many years. In this context, ultra-low power connectivity, coupled with low self-discharge battery technology, is paramount.

While most mesh protocols are built with low power in mind, the mesh topology itself is inherently power intensive, as devices must constantly listen for and relay messages through them. For nodes that carry heavy relaying traffic, battery life will severely suffer.

3. Legacy Radio Systems

In-band radio interference is a major challenge for wireless communications systems that operate in the license-free spectrum. Due to its global availability, the 2.4 GHz frequency band, in particular, is widely adopted among existing radio technologies – including Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Zigbee and many mesh protocols. The bandwidth issue might seem less evident in a home network, given the small number of connected devices. Nevertheless, for commercial and industrial IoT deployments, the risk of electromagnetic interference is substantial.

At most enterprise buildings and manufacturing plants, 2.4 GHz channels have already been extensively used, so you will need to accurately assess how saturated these channels are. Also, even if your building automation network can survive the 2.4 GHz congestion for now, what happens if you deploy new devices a few years down the road? Scalability can’t be seen as an add-on element in your IoT network; it needs to be planned from the get-go.

Long story short, despite their similarity in certain use cases, the smart home and smart building architecture entail very different technical and engineering requirements. For smart buildings, the challenges in network range, power and scalability mean that companies need to look beyond established short-range and mesh solutions in the market. New technologies purpose-built for large-scale wireless sensor deployments like Low Power Wide Area Networks, though being relatively new in the building automation industry, present enthralling opportunities. At the end of the day, the connectivity choice can make or break your IoT architecture. 

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