A Seismic Shift: PoE, Intelligent Buildings and the Future of Systems

I used to get weary of hearing intelligent buildings would be the norm in the near future. I never believed the concept would catch on. First, it was expensive. Second, there had to be a coordinated design for all of the systems in the buildings. Third, not everything fit into the concept of “intelligent.” Fourth, the IT group rarely wanted to cooperate. Finally, the installation trades and maintenance folks had to coordinate their work to make it all happen.

ECs still had to ensure they provided electricity to all areas of the building so that, even if the fire alarm systems worked with the security system and there was an integrated building management system, the integration of all of the elements would be difficult at best and very difficult to maintain. In my mind, the concept—though admirable—would never really come together. That is, until now.

In “PoE-Enabled Computing: The next step in the digital building” (Cabling Installation and Maintenance, September 2017), Valerie Maguire and Ravi Ramanuja write,“The concept of using a single network to replace as many as eight or nine [building] systems, each having proprietary wiring, connectors and pathways, and ‘service experts,’ is a no-brainer.”

They write that, if the ethernet cabling is used to interconnect most of a building’s IP-enabled devices, such as the computers, there will be no need for electrical outlets everywhere there is a computer.

Power over ethernet (PoE) enables a single cable to provide both data connection and electric power to devices such as wireless access points, IP cameras and phones. Unfortunately, the term “PoE” is going the way of Kleenex tissues; the brand becomes the name and this may cause confusion in the future.

I recently attended a PoE research planning conference sponsored by the NFPA Research Foundation that illustrated how much the infrastructure for low-powered data, which is regulated by the National Electrical Code and other codes and standards, is changing. There are new standards we must be aware of, and we must understand how they affect our changing electrical environment.

There are several common techniques for PoE. Since 2003, two of them have been standardized by IEEE 802.3. These standards are known as Alternative A and Alternative B. Each alternative describes a different method for using PoE. Both alternatives transport power on wire pairs also used for data, hence “PoE.” All of the cabling used in the IEEE infrastructure is typically Category 6 cable.

The NFPA Research Foundation brought PoE experts, electrical experts and members of the code community from the NFPA 70 and 72 Technical Committees. The baseline issues discussed included terminology, data and analytics, hazards incurred with PoE use (if any), dynamic loading, safety factors, and product issues. The goal of the workshop was to facilitate research planning for the consideration of concepts involving PoE, identify knowledge gaps and prioritize action items for research in support of the codes and standards. Those in attendance all agreed that those of us in the code-making and code-enforcement arenas are behind the curve when it comes to PoE applications.

As stated in “PoE-Enabled Computing,” there are many benefits of PoE computer technology, including operation over the familiar Cat 6a cables. Also, there are no new training requirements or licenses required for cabling installers and technicians to pull new PoE computer extensions. This factor will directly affect your revenue and profits in the future.

Maguire and Ramanuja also believe using PoE computing will eliminate the need for electrical outlets, electrical wiring, permits and specially certified or licensed contractors. There will be a requirement for redundant power, generally an uninterruptible power supply (UPS), to provide backup power to the PoE switch, which means all connected equipment, computers, fire alarm systems infrastructure, security and building management systems will continue to operate during a power outage.

Maguire and Ramanuja also write about the issue of standardizing on Cat 6a shielded cable as the better way to ensure stable transmission performance at elevated temperatures and the cable’s current-carrying capacity. They also predict the demise of most existing desktop computers throughout many occupancies in what is known as the commercial/industrial/institutional market. 

Healthcare is one of the largest markets that will be affected. PoE-enabled systems will have varied uses ranging from nurses’ stations to patient entertainment systems. PoE computers can also be deployed in the industrial environments where electrical power can be expensive and difficult to provide.

Additionally, in office buildings with computers in every cubicle and constant changes, the PoE-computer-enabled systems will make those changes easier. Using PoE computers in this market also provides a better level of safety for the users of the equipment by eliminating high-voltage electrical sources.

In office environments, the PoE computer approach can eliminate cabling, reducing clutter. In financial markets, the PoE computers with the UPS providing backup to the switch helps to ensure data reliability. In retail, educational and airport environments, PoE would provide digital signage and kiosks that are easy to move and install. And, of course, every student will have a computer in their room without the need for electrical outlet to power and charge their PoE computers, which will avoid the extension cords that become prevalent in dorm rooms.

I think by now you are getting the picture. PoE can actually power luminaires in a room! The advancement of PoE to power computers and lighting and a myriad of other products will cause a seismic shift in how you will do business in the future. PoE is with us now, and its use is growing, so you should develop a strategy to understand the implications as well as the applications if you hope to grow your business. 

What does that mean to you? For starters, you will be buying less nonmetallic cable and more shielded Cat 6a cable. Maybe the licensing requirements for installing low-voltage systems are either different or nonexistent. How will that affect your technician needs?

Finally, how will PoE affect your business? Are you ready to meet this seismic shift in how you operate your electrical business?

Use the knowledge of how the PoE market is growing, and develop the expertise to lay out these systems. Based on my participation in their workshop, I am confident that the NFPA Research Foundation will develop information for the code-making bodies, specifically NFPA 70 and 72. Their work will help ensure an understanding of PoE and the code requirements that should be put in place to ensure the reliability and robustness of these PoE-connected systems.

About the Author

Wayne D. Moore

Fire/Life Safety Columnist

Wayne D. Moore, a licensed fire protection engineer, frequent speaker and expert in the life safety field, is a principal member and past chair of NFPA 72, Chapter 24. He is a vice president with Jensen Hughes at the Warwick, R.I., office and can be...

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