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From Sensing to Knowing

Making decisions based on your building’s temperature


We all understand that buildings, like people, have senses. Thanks to the ubiquity of sensors that can be deployed in a property, buildings have the ability to understand what is happening inside them like never before. But, what is still evolving is what can be learned from the input that these sensors report. Like any new technology, the applications and software often lag the hardware and often use cases arise that were never even thought of during the development process. 

A good example of this is temperature. It is one of the main senses for any building is thermal. The first thermostat dates back to 1620 where a Dutch inventor named Cornelis Drebbel found a way to use the expansion and contraction of mercury to regulate the temperature for his chicken incubator. This process, having a fluid material turn a heater on and off based on its expansion, didn’t change much (although wax became the go-to material instead of mercury for obvious reasons) until the digital era. But even then, most buildings had a few thermostats that measured ambient temperature on each floor.

Now we are able to understand temperature on a level orders of magnitude more granular than before. One of the companies helping create this increased temperature awareness is Disruptive Technologies. They have designed a sensor that isn’t only small (about the size of a postage stamp) but incorporates amazing connectivity (they can cast a signal up to 130 feet indoors) and battery life (almost 15 years!). This allows property owners to easily spread sensors throughout a building to help create a picture of what is happening throughout each day and optimally understand why. 

While a more detailed understanding of internal temperature is the obvious benefit from large scale deployment of sensors, it is far from the only one. Seeing that a zone is outside of the allowed temperature range is nice, but often doesn’t help fix the situation. Buildings have amazingly complicated HVAC systems that consist of multiple heating and cooling units, a web of interconnected ducts and an army of dampers, blowers and registers that control the flow within it. By putting sensors on the heating/cooling system itself a lot can be learned about where problems might lie. If one area is getting good heat to the duct but not in the room then a register might be the culprit, for example.

A building’s electrical system can also benefit from a better understanding of its temperature. Electrical load creates heat and the increased heat from extra load can be a sign of a problem with a component or foreshadow a possible failure. Knowing what is happening, temperature-wise, on major building components can be compared against electrical usage to help diagnose any current problems or prevent any future ones.

Occupancy can also be better-understood thanks to sensors. If they are put on seats they can help offices understand when a seat is occupied and they are so sensitive that they can even determine when a room is being used based on the heat given off by the bodies inside of it.

As we think about the amazing new sensor technology that is coming out we need to remember that sensing something is only the first step. More important is finding a way to make informed decisions based on the data collected by the sensors. Some of this will be obvious but others won’t. Plus, there are likely ways to use the high-density deployment of fine tuned sensors that we have likely not even thought of yet.

Propmodo is a global multimedia effort to explore how emerging technologies affect our built environment.

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