February 2018

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IoT for Smart Buildings Isn’t What You Think It Is

Are IoT and smart buildings all marketing hype or can they actually provide value to building owners and operators?

Matt Ernst
Contributing Writer
IoT for all

originally published Jan12/18
IoT for all


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Traditionally, there hasn’t been any reason to connect the internet to building automation systems. The HVAC, lighting, fire protection, and other systems work on their own. They directly read inputs (sensors) and directly control the outputs (valves, dampers, fans, locks, lights, etc) to keep a building comfortable and secure.

Why should a facility manager care about the “Internet of Things” when virtually all existing buildings operate just fine when not connected to any external network?

So are IoT and “Smart Buildings” all marketing hype or can they actually provide value to building owners and operators? Why is the internet valuable to controlling and managing buildings? Here’s a building automation industry veteran’s perspective.

“In the context of buildings and BAS [building automation systems], on the one hand, we have a facility (or many facilities) that are self-contained in the sense that their BAS already operates and manages the facilities. What we would like to do is to allow programs outside of the facility to have access to information, and possibly even provide high-level goals, to controllers within the facility. In other words, to allow external programs to make use of our treasure of information. There are many applications for this kind of access: data mining, maintenance, optimization, planning, etc. The point of IoT is not to say what those applications are, but to enable the use of the Internet to gain access to it. By mitigating barriers of time and place, IoT enables the creation of new classes of applications that would have been extremely difficult or impossible before.”
— Dave Fisher, Polarsoft

However, the IoT industry at large has a radically different viewpoint on IoT. The textbook definition of IoT is “the interconnection via the Internet of computing devices embedded in everyday objects, enabling them to send and receive data.” (And here’s a simple explanation for further reading)

For many industries, the value of the Internet of Things is in the connecting and controlling what is not already connected and controlled. However, most existing buildings today have robust internal networks communicating to devices that are performing useful functions.

So, why do IoT advocates include “smart buildings” as a typical use case? To most in the facility management industry, buildings don’t seem like a very good fit for IoT.


Bill Pardi, Microsoft

IoT growth predictions tend to show buildings as a key component to the predicted exponential growth of connected devices.



These predictions engender mostly suspicion in the world of facility managers. What are all these internet-connected sensors going to be used for?

Unlike of the use cases across the rest of the IoT landscape, the “things” that make up the mechanical and electrical components of buildings are not dumb. They are all connected and being used to do useful activities. The internet is just not involved in any way. As Dave Fisher puts it,

“[Buildings] have expensive, energy-using equipment, and lots of it. That equipment contains many individual microcomputer-based control devices that control and manage all kinds of different physical, mechanical equipment, lighting, security, life-safety, laboratories, etc. All of these devices need to be carefully purchased, installed, commissioned, operated and maintained. Humans are involved in all of these steps, and that’s not going to change anytime soon…. There’s a common misconception about IoT that somehow it’s a replacement for existing BAS. That’s simply not true, and would be an epically bad idea”

Reliable Controls So if all is well and good, then why the exponential growth in connected devices? What problems could they possibly be solving?

Well, the first question that needs to be asked is, what are those problems that need solving? Do most buildings meet their goal to provide healthy, safe, sustainable and enjoyable working and living environments for their occupants?

The answer in a lot of cases is no. There’s a ton of ways buildings can improve.

Occupant Comfort:
Most buildings are still uncomfortable for their occupants. Recent surveys and studies suggest that most buildings do not meet the industry standard for occupant comfort (ASHRAE 55). If you have ever worked in a commercial office building that is somehow too cold in the summer and too hot in the winter, you may have come upon this same conclusion.

Mechanical and electrical equipment breaks and remains broken for long amounts of time, sometimes without the facility staff even knowing it’s broken. This compounds into a variety of issues.

Equipment in disrepair can potentially create health and safety concerns, especially for critical facilities like hospitals and labs. Some studies even suggest that reactionary or corrective maintenance overwhelms so many maintenance folks that it takes up to 98% percent of their time, leaving only a small fraction for doing preventative maintenance.


Reliable Controls
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