Hotel Automation Goes Wireless

By Claire Swedberg | Dec 15, 2011
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Both wired and wireless energy management systems—such as those powered by ZigBee or Wi-Fi—are making inroads in the hospitality industry, controlling equipment that contributes to the high energy use in a hotel operation. Automation adoption has been fueling business competitive advantage, and reportedly, the return on investment is coming within reach for many resorts and hotels. But the numbers are still small; only about 5 percent of hotels currently have room-level automation systems. The major barrier is lack of information about the new technology. As end-users become more knowledgeable about how to automate their facilities and reduce energy consumption, some contractors with an interest in the low-voltage and wireless advantage are placing themselves in key positions to benefit.

Energy management is on the radar for building managers and engineers for several reasons, said Jeff Sobieski, COO of Milwaukee-based energy management networking company Telkonet. Sobieski said the first reason is the importance that the end-user puts on hotels to control energy usage and waste.

“Conservation programs have become a decision-point for many groups looking to book corporate conferences and hotel stays,” he said.

For hotels, taking a proactive approach to energy efficiency is important in order to stay competitive in the current hospitality environment.

The second reason, Sobieski said, is that costs for energy are one of the largest budget items for hotels, and swings in utility rates can substantially affect the bottom line.

“Many general managers and engineers are just finding that new technology out there can help put a handle on those swings and keep the costs more contained and controllable,” he said.

In 2004, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reported that the hotel industry spent more than $5 billion on energy and that the number was increasing. In addition, the average hotel in America spends almost $2,000 per available room each year on energy; this number represents 5 percent of the hotel’s operating costs, according to a 2010 EPA report. Recently, EPA administrator Lisa Jackson encouraged hotels that were not doing so to begin measuring and managing their energy use, which would allow them to qualify for Energy Star ratings.

Vendors are selling a broad selection of options to address the needs of hotel energy management, and many of the solutions are wireless, offering an opportunity to integrated systems contractors to provide installation and maintenance to systems during new constructions or renovations.

One example is Telkonet’s suite of energy management products including its recently launched EcoSmart line. The core of the EcoSmart line is its occupancy-based thermostats.

“We have wireless and hardwired versions, making it easy for both new construction and retrofitting existing hotels,” Sobieski said. The intelligent thermostats can communicate over a ZigBee wireless network, giving the hotel’s engineering team full control and monitoring of every room in the hotel. “With our EcoCentral remote management platform, shutting down a wing for maintenance is as simple as a mouse click. Built-in alerting also gives them the ability to catch problem HVAC systems before a guest call comes in.”

In 2010, Schneider Electric launched its Cassia energy management system (EMS), an intuitive in-room energy solution for hotels and other multiunit facilities that maximizes operating efficiencies. Schneider estimates the EMS will to save approximately 25 to 44 percent in energy costs per year. The system uses room automation and energy monitoring software to increase efficiencies in a hotel’s greatest areas of consumption: heating, cooling and lighting.

The system includes a customizable software interface with real-time energy monitoring and reporting individualized to the needs of the facility. Battery-powered thermostats, lighting controls and sensors are deployed in each room and transmit data using a ZigBee connection.

Cassia EMS enables guests to control their own temperature and lighting settings in each room. Once the guest leaves the room, wireless sensors restore the temperature to the original presets established by the hotel, preventing wasted energy in heating or cooling unoccupied rooms, which is the source of the majority of energy waste in hotels. When a guest re-enters the room, occupancy is detected and the Cassia EMS restores the guest’s preferred lighting and temperature settings.

“It’s amazing the range of hotel types that are now interested in the networked occupancy thermostat systems. We see economy to full-service properties adopting the system today. Many times, the driving factors are different between the property levels, but when ROIs are under 24 months, it’s hard to ignore,” Sobieski said.

The ROI can change based on the hotel location, climate zone and on the occupancy levels of the property.

One of the major changes to automation technology is the ease of installation. The older systems were more complex, and with ZigBee wireless mesh technology, setting up these new networks is quite simple. The simplicity has led to more self-installation and more technicians getting into the business. Because the systems are so configurable, the installation works on different types of a building’s systems.
The other past obstacle was creating the infrastructure to communicate with the thermostats.

“With ZigBee wireless mesh technology now, not only is pulling wires not required, but it’s built upon a standard. So hotels aren’t necessarily locked into one vendor for support and future products like they may have been in the past.” Sobieski said.

Evolve Guest Controls is another hotel energy management company that provides in-room controls and results, with the most popular solution being key card readers and occupancy sensors, said marketing manager Chris Pieper. Active or passive systems provide a variety of options, including infrared motion sensors, and the sensors are wired to the back-end office software provided by Evolve that allows hotel management to control all rooms from the desk or a smart phone. Like other systems, it reduces energy consumption based on occupancy.

Pieper said, if a hotel has 30 unrented rooms for the night, it puts those rooms in “deep sleep” mode. Occupancy reports can be sent to the software from each room, and data as to whether the room is occupied can be sent to the housekeeping department to ensure no one is disturbed while still in the room; staff can then access rooms as soon as they become vacant.

The technology is typically being installed as a retrofit, Pieper said. And while hotels with their own engineers often do the installation themselves, “we have integrators reaching out to us all the time,” he said, increasingly being asked to do the retrofit.

As with other vendors interviewed, Pieper estimated that the technology provides a return on investment in about two to three years, but that time frame includes the rebates most hotels will qualify for with greater energy efficiency. Many companies, including Evolve, also offer the technology on a leasing basis.

Pieper believes the transition is underway, not just for energy efficiency but convenience and greater guest comfort as well. For example, some systems, including the Evolve AI system replaces the digital clock in most rooms with an 8-inch color touchscreen display that sends messages, accesses the Internet and plays music. Other companies provide similar smart bedside consoles that help guests manage their experience in the room and access information outside of it.

SWEDBERG is a freelance writer based in western Washington. She can be reached at [email protected].

About The Author

SWEDBERG is a freelance writer based in western Washington. She can be reached at [email protected].





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