The IoT and the EC: How Contractors Can Adapt to and Install the Latest Connected Technologies

The IoT and the EC Photo Credit: istock / lisafx / shutterstock / chesky
Photo Credit: istock / lisafx / shutterstock / chesky

“The internet of things (IoT) means different things to different people,” said Bernie Shaeffer, partner at Wm. A.J. Shaeffer’s Sons Inc., King of Prussia, Pa. “In the residential world, it is thermostats, appliances and lighting you can control and monitor with your phone. In the commercial projects, it is having smart electrical equipment, lighting and more that you can control and monitor for problems and/or failure remotely. It’s kind of a broad-brush term that could be used for all kinds of new technologies today.”

Shaeffer’s company is implementing a wide range of technologies in the construction of PennFIRST Pavilion, an inpatient hospital at the University of Pennsylvania. It is an IoT project that involves connecting all of the hospital’s systems into one control-and-monitoring platform.

How is the evolution of IoT technology—basically a network of devices and connectivity that enables the devices to communicate with each other—affecting ECs’ businesses? Some are focused on applications ranging from lighting controls to asset tracking, wayfinding and office infrastructure. Speculation on future applications varies.

“Since 2016, almost every job we have done has involved IoT to some extent,” said Jeremiah Nieman, preconstruction manager, Collins Electrical Co. Inc., Stockton, Calif. “We are mostly using it in lighting control so that we know the lighting load but also in power monitoring.”

Application of the IoT is escalating quickly, presenting economic opportunities to ECs while raising questions for which they don’t yet have answers.

“The biggest IoT challenge an electrical contractor is faced with today is managing customer expectations, because the IoT is so vast and the possibilities of IoT networks are infinite. Yet, without a specific scope of work and bill of material required to be installed, it is almost impossible to design or build an IoT network that will achieve the owner’s vision,” said Charlie Spencer, director of engineering and productivity, Morrow-Meadows Corp., Industry, Calif. “If it’s unknown, you wind up potentially with unhappy customers, depending on what they’ve read or heard in seminars or at trade shows they’ve attended.”

For example, a customer may want the EC to install both wired and wireless lighting control devices with Bluetooth or Wi-Fi capability in every fixture.

“If you do that, you have an opportunity to gather a whole lot of data, and you have countless opportunities to do what you want to do with that data—to either turn on air conditioning if the room is occupied or turn off the lights because of vacancy sensing,” Spencer said. “There’s a host of things you can do with IoT, and lighting controls seem to be at the center of it today.”

So, what’s the problem?

“We are seeing very vague terms on projects that include Bluetooth in a light fixture,” said Forrest Petersen, engineering and preconstruction executive, Morrow-Meadows Corp. “If the client tells us what they want to do, that gives us a lot of information. What we get now is an order to include Bluetooth capability in every fixture or a specification for lighting control IoT connectivity. And that’s it. But as an EC, we need to know how they’re going to use the IoT so we can design it to specify and install components that are required. When the request is vague, it’s very difficult to both design and manage the customer’s expectations. The problem we have is that we are required to test the system before we finalize the project, but if we don’t know how it’s going to be utilized, it makes the testing very difficult.”

Peterson said IoT architects can guide customers through the scope and requirements, discover and understand the end-user’s IoT needs, and translate them into actionable blueprints. However, he said experts like that are missing in his area.

“There is also a shortage of prewritten ‘software in a box’ that can easily be uploaded to a computer for startup, commissioning and controlling the IoT network,” he said. “I think that, as soon as the DOE and other groups like AIA, TIA/EIA and IEEE establish the basic menu of IoT items that should be installed in all buildings, it will be readily accepted and implemented.”

Peterson said other popular areas for IoT technology application are asset tracking and wayfinding.

“Asset tracking applies to staying on top of the location of wheelchairs in an airport or gurneys in a hospital,” he said. “With wayfinding, store officials can track people in a supermarket or store via their cellphone and note where they stop, in what aisle, to discover perhaps why any number of people might stop there.”

Using the IoT to study the behavior of customers in a store enables owners to better create a successful business. Small changes, such as a color placement, could pay big dividends.

“Retail designers often place something red in the rear of the store to draw people to the back of the room,” Spencer said. “The point is to learn about customer habits and preference in order to apply marketing techniques to further engage and influence the customer’s buy decision.”

Many areas related to IoT applications prompt questions.

“Everyone hears about the IoT, and it sounds like a powerful thing,” said Adam Shelly, project manager, Shelly Electric Co. Inc., Philadelphia. “It will be a powerful thing one day, and in some cases, it is today. But, I think everybody, especially in the construction industry, is grappling with what is that real power? What can we use now? What will we invest in the future once it develops?”

In Philadelphia, a city with many older structures, clients’ readiness for IoT implementation varies.

“Everything has the ability to be put on the internet. It’s determining what will work and be effective in the future.” —Adam Shelly, Shelly Electric

“Some clients have applications for it already and are planning ahead,” Shelly said. “Thirty years ago, we didn’t see the internet coming at all. Today, some clients want more space for teledata and are spending more on infrastructure. As a result, a lot of building owners are scrambling, trying to update their services to attract tenants, saying ‘The internet of things is coming. What do we have to do now while building this building to make sure we’re future-proofed?’

 “One of the things the tenants are looking for is a really strong network in the building—a telecommunications backbone so that the systems they install will be working in their workspace and so, when they move in, they can install whatever it is they want and have a variety of systems they can tap into. We see a lot of people overdesigning their systems for today or right-sizing them for the future, which is a great thing to do, but it is very client-specific. Some clients are more advanced than others. We can only predict so much. We can only future-proof so much because we don’t know what the future will be,” Shelly said.

To tap into this market, Shelly recommended ECs pay attention to every client’s unique needs.

“We usually talk to clients early on if it’s a new building, establishing what their needs and wants are, what they are looking for and how we can help them achieve that goal,” he said. “That’s also the time when the engineers and architects talk to the clients and incorporate their needs into the design.

“There’s definitely opportunities for us to go directly to the owner and say, ‘We’re doing this lighting upgrade for you now. Why don’t you consider switching everything over to IoT and have a communication system that is wireless?’ We’d take that opportunity to market since it’s a good thing for the client, but it depends on the situation. Sometimes, it’s something they need to plan for budgeting purposes—yet not as much as you think because of the potential energy savings for things like light fixtures and window shading and different energy features in the building,” Shelly said.

Some of it is more efficient lighting equipment, and other times, it’s more efficient controls. Based on schedule, occupancy or user preference, many of these building systems can be controlled through the IoT.

There is also the question of the now- unknown power of emerging technology that will affect future IoT connectivity.

“One really important thing for the IoT coming down the pipeline is the 5G network,” Shelly said.

While 5G has not been rolled out yet, it is supposed to be 100 times faster than 4G, the current wireless standard.

“People are starting to think that all our streaming devices will come through cellphone connections instead of coming through the home or business internet connection, because it will be so fast,” Shelly said. “I think you’re going to see an increase in the IoT when not everything has to be connected to a Wi-Fi network: extremely high speeds to connect everything from your cellphone to a thermostat, anything you might need an internet connection for. In 5–10 years, communication can all go through this real 5G network without having any real wiring for fiber optics in place in the building.”

With the 5G wireless network, the popular expectation is the IoT’s potential will be unleashed.

“Everything has the ability to be put on the internet,” he said. “It’s determining what will work and be effective in the future.”

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