The More the Merrier: Succeeding in Multi-Unit Wireless

July 2019 Cover Art Image credit: Bonotom Studio Inc. / Shutterstock / Bokica / GoodStudio / iStock / A-Digit
Image credit: Bonotom Studio Inc. / Shutterstock / Bokica / GoodStudio / iStock / A-Digit

Wireless connectivity may be a trend with staying power, but its successful installation in existing multitenant buildings can prove challenging. A lack of planning or training or a standing building’s infrastructure can stymie a smart technology makeover. Foresight and a little ingenuity will produce project success for a smart apartment, office, hotel or other multi-unit dwelling.

Harry Pascarella, consultant and project manager for Harbor Research in Boulder, Colo., said his firm estimates connected devices in multidwelling units will reach 1.6 billion by 2025, a compound annual growth rate of over 13 percent from today. This represents an estimated $70 billion opportunity for smart systems and internet-of-things (IoT)-related revenue.

“I definitely see wireless becoming predominant as the way to connect smart devices, in addition to fiber install,” Pascarella said. “The debut of 5G will further strengthen wireless bandwidth [signal] and, thereby, performance.”

“What might begin with simple applications for automation and controls, alerts and alarms, can evolve into compound applications such as an automated system that can set up rules and automate better lighting and heating control based on occupancy (as one example),” Pascarella said. “Eventually, several systems can be controlled by one. That simplifies an installation but requires a better understanding by installers and end-users. One takeaway from our study was the increasing need for third parties to enter the mix parties who can step back and see how all these different smart devices could work together as one system. Such integrators are emerging. You also see lighting and controls manufacturers entering the IoT space.”

Siemens Corp. is one such integrator, and Osram Sylvania is a lighting manufacturer active in IoT. These firms, Harbor and others, see the table being set for wireless power but also agree there are concerns unique to multi-unit spaces that need to be addressed early on in a wireless retrofit.

“Frequently, smart products are procured in a building project without proper consideration or alignment with desired business outcomes,” said Rich Novak, director of Smart Building Initiatives, Siemens, headquartered in Washington, D.C. “To succeed, you must define the outcome far ahead of procurement and properly connect the space accordingly. Know what you want to do, identify what you need to install and integrate to make that space smarter. It’s best to look at a project holistically. You are building a network that ultimately will lower the cost of the building operation or space.”

Tenants’ needs may also differ in complexity within multi-unit spaces, notably office conversions.

“There are spaces within spaces that may be more complex serving needs not just in lighting but blinds, audiovisual and communication,” said Chuck Piccirillo, head of product, IoT, Lighting Networks and Services, Osram Sylvania, Wilmington, Mass. “Device communication and system operation become more complicated. Connectivity challenges are common.”

Piccirillo added that IoT systems are not an off-the-shelf item, so ECs and project partners need to plan for longer delivery times.

The art of the workaround

“Sometimes retrofit challenges arise based on the limitations of the smart system being installed and/or signal strength in the space,” Piccirillo said. “Reliable connectivity needs to be confirmed as you install and subsequent operation. That confirmation includes the various components of the architecture speaking to each other [sensors, hubs and controllers].”

Products such as a distributed antenna system, signal repeaters and boosters can help remediate signal challenges. Sometimes a combination of wireless protocols can help, as well.

“Manufacturers are evolving radio technologies to improve connectivity,” Piccirillo said. “Sometimes devices themselves can work as repeaters. Technology has been advancing infrastructure functionality, too.”

Piccirillo pointed in part to the continued improvements in various wireless protocols. He cited ZigBee Alliance’s enhanced protocol Zigbee 3.0, which consolidates its market-specific protocols into one by avoiding additional communication and interoperability setup or by programming previously needed separately for residential, commercial and other applications. In another example, Wi-Fi continues to improve data rate speeds. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers 802.11ac Wi-Fi Standard triples speeds and improves performance in dense networks.

“In these two examples, you can see that protocols are evolving to support the proliferation of billions of connected devices everywhere,” Piccirillo said. “Bluetooth is the latest protocol on the rise due to its commonality in devices such as smartphones and laptops.”

Another hurdle to wireless is older buildings’ mechanical systems. Planners and installers may need to apply some creativity.

“We ask ourselves in a retrofit, can we add in smart technology using the building’s existing infrastructure?” Novak said. “Even if the original mechanicals in a multitenant building are less efficient than new systems, we can find ways for smart technology to add efficiency. For instance, if a tenant wants to improve the air quality of their space set against the existing building’s mechanicals, a sensor-based smart lighting system may provide a solution. It can read room occupancy and direct the air accordingly. It can also lower or completely shut off air flow to unoccupied rooms.”

One thing Novak said Siemens recommends to a client is to create a wireless system that can tap as much bandwidth as possible within budget. The benefits are better wireless, a space more marketable for an owner, more attractive to a tenant and more productive for employees using the space. Paying attention to a building’s infrastructure is future proofing.

“Most businesses are going to have some high-speed connectivity,” Novak said. “You can leverage connectivity using the security or lighting system in your space within the building. Your new IoT network could tap the building’s internal IT backbone network, too.”

Piccirillo offered another workaround if a building’s existing infrastructure offers limited connectivity or capability.

“Maybe you install a separate system/infrastructure in the space. For instance, a client may already have a wireless lighting system and a wired thermostat; however, they would like them to talk to each other. In this case, they could replace the ‘wired’ thermostat with a wireless one that connects to the internet. Though the systems may operate on separate networks, they now talk to one another.”

Finding your value-added

Novak finds electrical contractors can help envision what a smart space retrofit might look like by identifying and thinking through pathways or commonalties for customers in an existing multitenant building. It may also open the EC up to new roles. Wireless security and preventative network maintenance are two possibilities.

“Building systems today are becoming heavily IT based, be it wired or wireless,” Novak said. “These networks include remote service system capability. Many times, the EC is the installer of those systems. It helps if the responsible contractor is trained in the application of cybersecurity to those networks, the software and the products involved to protect any system. Cybersecurity is not a one-time installation and requires constant attention.”

Addressing smart system cost is another client interaction ECs may encounter.

“Understand and communicate the cost impact to making that space smarter,” Novak said. “Does adding a measurable level of operational efficiency pay for the system? How favorable is that rate of return for that space? Are there side benefits to good lighting, room comfort, remote communication that add value for the employees; promote their productivity and health? Help identify different types of savings. Many times it is possible to reduce the cost of smarter systems by converging networks and technologies.”

Tying it all together

One technology that is helping tie a smart space architecture together is LED.

“LED lighting can serve as that central power source for sensors and data,” Piccirillo said. “It provides lots of options in retrofits when adding wireless connectivity. When you think about it, lighting is everywhere in a building infrastructure. It’s a point solution to provide the low-energy, sensor-based architecture.”

Lighting systems can in fact be leveraged to be a full IoT system allowing for multiple sensor data capture to measure performance of lighting, HVAC, security, maintenance (building systems), Novak said.

“You can also reduce sensor redundancy,” he said. “For instance, if the lighting system can also read occupancy, temperature and CO2, it can then share that collected information with the HVAC system. Backup power, switchgear, security are additional inroads to discussing the value of incorporating IoT.”

Another area not to overlook are utilities offering incentives for smart lighting and wireless systems.

“Some utilities have incentives to reduce costs for sensor-integrated fixtures, which in some cases could pay for the smart infrastructure itself. The contractor could share those savings,” Piccirillo said. He shared a sampling of utilities and firms offering such programs including Puget Sound Energy in Bellevue; Wash; Consolidated Edison (Con Ed) in New York City; and National Grid, an energy company serving Massachusetts, New York and Rhode Island.

Piccirillo added one thing lacking in the IoT and wireless networks market is contractor training.

“Once you have a wireless strategy, knowing how to deploy it is a common challenge,” Piccirillo said. “Education is needed. Contractors are asking for this information. It’s now being offered by manufacturers and others involved in smart building technology, but more is needed.”

Lastly, all three men recommended electrical contractors establish a relationship between the manufacturers and third-party integrators.

“This world of smart technology and creating a wireless architecture is not one- size-fits-all,” Pascarella said. “As a contractor, you should be able to assess a space from a large property manager’s needs to an individual tenant’s. One building’s infrastructure and age will be different from another, each offering different challenges, needed configurations and solutions to make the multi-unit space(s) smart. Tap into your project partners’ expertise as they should tap into yours.”

About the Author

Jeff Gavin

Freelance Writer

Jeff Gavin, Gavo Communications, is a LEED Green Associate providing marketing services for the energy, construction, and urban planning industries. He can be reached at gavo7@comcast.net.

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