Smart Building Sensors Today and in the Future
By Nai Kanell
Vice President of Marketing
In 1954, inventors Lew Hewitt and Dee Horton created the first automatic door for commercial use. It worked by stepping on a mat, which concealed an actuator that triggered the door opening mechanism. It was a marvel of science and engineering in its time, and soon gave way to the optical door sensor that we still see today at grocery stores and other retail establishments. Smart building sensors, however, have grown by leaps and bounds over the last 65 years—specifically in the last decade.
Our jaws don’t drop at automatic sliding doors like they might’ve 65 years ago, but smart building technology today still has the power to wow us. As smart building sensors become more commonplace in offices, the capabilities of these mechanisms will redefine how we interact with our workplaces.
Get to know smart building sensors
What are smart building sensors? Well, they’re not unlike Hewitt and Horton’s clever actuator mat. Building sensors use stimuli to trigger an action. Which stimuli depends on the type of sensor. Stepping on the actuator mat triggered the door to open, so it’s logical to say that it was a pressure sensor. Today, motion might trigger an occupancy sensor, which feeds data to an Integrated Workplace Management System (IWMS) that marks the room as “occupied.”
The action and reaction relationship between sensors and the workplace has opened the door to all types of smart building sensors. Each relies on unique stimuli to trigger it, but all of these sensors are the same in that they’re part of the Internet of Things (IoT):
- Temperature sensors: Monitor temperature changes and trigger above or below a specific threshold. Usually paired with a central thermostat or HVAC components.
- Humidity sensors: Measure water content in the air and activate once it reaches a preset threshold. Usually linked to HVAC or a dehumidification system.
- Air/water quality sensors: Check the integrity of air or water and activate with the presence of contaminants. Often linked to an alert system or reporting program.
- Electrical sensors: Measure active electrical current, often in voltage or amperage. Often linked to an alert system or maintenance ticketing program.
- Status sensors: A diverse type of sensor that acts as a simple on-off (I/O), changing status from one to the other in the presence of specific stimuli.
- Motion sensors: Activate in the presence of movement to trigger a peripheral action, such as turning on lights or changing the status of a variable (I/O).
- Optical sensors: Light-activated sensors that trigger an action, usually compliant with on-off (I/O) standards.
This list only scratches the surface of current and future building sensor technology. Right now, engineers around the world are also experimenting with numerous custom sensors, including gyroscopic sensors, proximity sensors, and accelerometer sensors. These types of sensors don’t currently have widespread applications in commercial buildings, but it’s likely we’ll see them in time.
As sensors get traction in different commercial buildings, they become more refined. First, they need to find their niche. It’s all about how facility managers can capitalize on them. That question usually comes down to whether they can provide viable data or automate a specific action.
Gathering data vs. automating actions
Selecting smart building sensors depends on what you want to accomplish with them. Do you need a sensor to gather data so you can make ongoing decisions in an informed way? Or, do you need the reaction of a smart building sensor to trigger an automated workflow? Take a look at some simple examples:
- Motion sensors turn the office lights on when someone walks past. (action)
- Status sensors show when a desk is occupied vs. not. (data)
- Temperature sensors control zone temperatures in the building. (action)
- Humidity sensors gauge the moisture content of air in the server room. (data)
It’s important to realize that most smart building sensors are capable of providing both data and automation. The motion sensor can activate the lights and provide a report of how frequently they’re activated. The humidity sensor can provide real-time readings and activate a dehumidifier if moisture content reaches a certain level. Look for sensors based on your primary need, then explore secondary capabilities.
Do your facilities need building sensors?
When Hewitt and Horton began mass-producing their automatic door in the 1960s, not every business jumped on the bandwagon. For many, the investment didn’t make sense. Why would an old-time malt shop need sliding doors to sell penny candy and pop? Today, many businesses need to ask themselves a similar question: Do we need building sensors?
The answer depends on how they’ll meaningfully contribute to the success of your business by bolstering your workplace. Can you create real savings through data collection or automation via these sensors? How long will it take to offset their cost? What’s the cost of maintenance vs. the top- or bottom-line savings they generate?
The moral of the story is simple: technology has the power to amaze and impress, but it also needs to benefit. How will your business benefit from smart building sensors?