Finding Opportunities: Bringing Automation and Intelligence to the Table

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Published On
Aug 16, 2019

C ustomers want low-voltage systems that run the gamut from building controls and occupancy sensors to internet of things (IoT) wireless technology and mobile apps that manage whole buildings or homes.

For some electrical contractors, these automation and sensordriven systems serve as an added value that can enhance the core electrical installation business. The potential is there for recurring revenue and a foot in the door for other mainstream projects.

Contractors today will find opportunities in a growing number of systems, such as controls, automation, fire alarms and notification, humidity, light and occupancy sensors and timers. Increasingly, mobile apps accompany and manage these systems.

There is an expanding pool of technology installers, such as the sensor companies themselves and subcontractors that focus on the automation systems. The advantage for the EC is the company’s presence on-site at the start of a construction or renovation project, and that means an EC can sell itself as a single source for electrical and controls installations, which removes one more headache from general contractors or building owners.

The choices that decision-makers face are growing in complexity, including choosing how to integrate with current systems and figuring out how to pay the high cost of set up and implementation, according to the Canada’s Continental Automated Buildings Association (CABA), an Ottawa-based organization that promotes advanced technologies in homes and buildings.

“Contractors should be aware of the builders and developers in their community that are placing integrated systems in their facilities,” said Ron Zimmer, CABA president and CEO.

Schools and institutions, government buildings, labs, smart and net-zero buildings, and sport stadiums are all adding building intelligence, he said. The strong growth stems from lower-cost sensors and devices, high-performance networks, real-time data for data management, and artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, Zimmer said.

Where each contractor fits in depends on their vertical market. For instance, residential work now includes entertainment systems, security cameras and app-based controls for lighting and HVAC. Similarly, office buildings must consider the sensor-based management of the lighting, HVAC and health of building equipment. Commercial and industrial buildings need wired and wireless systems for real-time awareness of the site conditions, such as temperature and heavy equipment vibrations and for predicting potential equipment failures.

In the meantime, software and apps are enabling building systems to compare data, such as weather forecasts or energy-grid events, with the building-equipment conditions to predict problems and help understand equipment functionality over time.

Most of the work is being handled by low-voltage integrators, Zimmer said. Some companies work directly for telecommunication or cable companies, while some are contractors for technology firms such as Honeywell, Johnson Controls and Siemens. But many building intelligence installers and integrators are independent contractors since ECs already provide the high-voltage work.

“There is an increasing trend where electrical contractors have employees that can also do low-voltage work,” Zimmer said. “This is important for the builder and developer as they can then just hire one subcontractor to handle all of the AC/DC work.”

With that in mind, there is more opportunity ahead for ECs who also specialize in low-voltage wiring and cabling.

“More builders, developers and facility managers are adding integrated systems to their buildings and facility,” Zimmer said. “This trend will continue as the technology improves and more end-users become aware of the benefits.”

Multiple nationwide trends are accelerating building intelligence adoption. For instance, this year, the Department of Energy and its Building Technologies Office released a sensor and control program to boost the transition to controls in buildings and building equipment for greater energy efficiency and occupant comfort. The DOE found two challenges still facing the building market when it comes to this kind of technology installation, the agency reported. The centralized automation and control of building operations haven’t been fully adopted; when they are, they focus on managing HVAC systems rather than on lighting and plug loads.

That means systems are being customized. The DOE has released the Sensors and Controls Research and Development report to move past these challenges. The report states sensor and control systems that succeed need to be low-cost and high-performance, with plug-and-play and automated performance features. A working system will monitor energy use, offer control strategies and increase efficiency and comfort.

While advanced sensor networks are increasingly meeting the recommendations laid out by the DOE, monitoring is necessary to detect and diagnose building and equipment failures that result in inefficiencies. ECs, integrators and technology providers all can and should offer support for building owners in this area, too.

An EC that is knowledgeable about system technology offers an advantage over the siloed approach of technology providers. They can advise customers about a building-wide approach to intelligence, even recommending a phased approach starting with a few sensors and expanding over time.

The conversation about what sensor networks will be used and how they will be managed needs to happen in the planning stage of a project. Contractors at the table during design-build, design-assist or even simple renovation projects can recommend the systems, said David Parden, owner and manager of DBP Electrical Consulting, Perdido Key, Fla.

“Sell the general contractor or end-user on building controls [or other automation or sensor technology], and it will be easier for them to only manage or coordinate one contract,” he said.

The rate at which intelligence technology is evolving is another challenge for building owners that ECs can help address. The rapid pace of system upgrades and new generations of software and sensors make some systems obsolete within years of installation.

A savvy contractor can educate customers about the longevity of some systems and deploy a solution ripe for upgrades or expansions.

“I expect these systems will become outdated quickly with how fast technology changes,” Parden said.

That’s good and bad news. It means an EC should provide long-term support to provide the maintenance and upgrades as needed but try to keep costs down for their customer.

Low-voltage systems will never replace existing electrical work but will grow as an additional source of revenue for those that take it on.

“I don’t see a potential risk because there will always be the need for non-low-voltage traditional loads, which will require electricians to install,” Parden said.

Selecting a manufacturer is a critical. Established companies that don’t make “bleeding-edge” claims can be the most reliable for the contractor and the building owner who will be using the technology and hoping not to replace it too quickly.

“Contractors will have a role in wireless technology as IoT continues to grow at dramatic rates,” Zimmer said. “This is because the cost of sensors has dropped dramatically and the value proposition is being understood, especially as more organizations are understanding the value of data capture and data mining.”

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