Smarter Ideas & Insights

Is your building smart enough to stay cool this summer?

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The proliferation of sensors and other technologies has allowed us to collect data about buildings in cheaper and unexpected ways.

Dave Bartlett is Vice President of Smarter Buildings for IBM.

Triple-digit temps in the Northeast? Now that we're officially in the summer months in the Northern Hemisphere, and in the warmest year on record east of the Rockies in the U.S., it's time to think about how to save energy during the "A/C months."

But it's not as simple as turning down the air conditioner or making sure the A/C is not so cold you have to turn on the heat. The best approach is understanding the environments we work and live in at a more comprehensive level and how they contribute to our well-being.

Today's buildings are capable of learning and retaining best practices that can make us more productive, comfortable and healthier. They can also be more responsible to the surrounding environment, emitting less pollutants into the air and water. Sadly, the vast majority of our buildings have not even made it through the first grade.

But that’s all starting to change. Because today, with the proliferation of sensors and other technologies, we are able to collect data about buildings in cheaper and unexpected ways.

Data, combined with analytics, turns dumb buildings into "smart" ones. With analytics and data, buildings can report back on how they’re doing. They can regulate themselves. They can automatically predict and react to problems within their own walls -- and within the buildings and neighborhoods around them. They can be more responsive to individual needs and the performance of tasks. They can monitor everything from occupancy to air quality and security, and even how to respond to weather patterns in more efficient ways.

Consider for a moment how far automobiles, mobile phones and tablets have advanced in the last 10 years. We now have the same opportunity to see the same rapid advances in buildings.

That’s how buildings are beginning to emerge as a "cool" member of our communities. By constructing and retrofitting today’s structures so that they’re intelligent, we’re creating the building blocks, or ecoblocks, for more sustainable, more efficient metropolitan ecosystems.

The first step, where much of the work is happening now, is in making individual buildings smarter. By pairing analytics with the data being collected by sensors, organizations are pinpointing inefficiencies, such as leaky pipes or chillers "on the fritz," more quickly.

The next step, though, is understanding how interconnected all of these systems are and linking the data from them together to wring out even more efficiency gains. For instance, by tying analytics to badge readers and elevator use, a building can see how much of a floor is occupied and assign spaces and adjust lighting and heating as needed, rather than just letting the systems run wastefully. This is especially true at night when so many office buildings remain lit and cooled even with no one in them. None of us would ever consider leaving our car running all night with the A/C and lights on in the parking lot with no one in it.

Once we start mastering the system of systems within buildings, we can then begin to understand how each building’s systems are linked to the buildings and the environment around them. Communities can start to build more intelligent buildings and cities by integrating them more efficiently into the public ecosystem of transportation, the electric grid and safety response services.

For example, when a building is alerted by the electric grid that a blackout is threatening a city, it can automatically “sense” which internal energy uses are not critical and turn them off, such as swimming pool pumps, vehicle rechargers, lighting or banks of elevators, depending upon current usage. A building can also respond by raising the temperatures set for air conditioning. Buildings that help better manage peak power conditions not only keep pollutants and prices in check, but also defer the need to build additional power plants.

The ultimate goal is having the systems inside a building and a community respond intelligently and autonomically to situations.

Rather than using set rules, such as turning on electric chillers when the temperature hits a certain degree, these systems will analyze what’s happening, why certain steps were taken in the past, and what actions make sense now. For example, a federal standard determines how much air exchange that air handling units need to do. It’s a broad standard based on assumptions, such as average number of occupants. But if a building knew at any given moment how many people were inside and what the actual CO2 levels were, it could result in fewer air exchanges, which require less cooling.

We're not going to achieve more sustainable-built environments anchored by smart buildings overnight. But the technology is there now to begin to propel us down this path. There are many low-cost ways to start. By 2025, buildings around the world will be the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases.

One example that really underscores the movement towards achieving smarter buildings is the Los Angeles School District. Last year, the school system started inviting its 700,000 students to help pinpoint ways to improve energy efficiency and maintenance in its 14,000 buildings. Students use a smartphone app with geo tagging to achieve 'crowdsourced-like' reporting of malfunctions and inefficient practices that are sent to a central database to prioritize which jobs to tackle first.

These are just some simple examples, but they are ones that show how the most basic data, used smartly, can transform a previously "silent" building into one that really "learns" and communicates. More importantly, it underscores how technology is putting buildings on track to perform better individually, as part of their respective neighborhoods, and become building blocks of a smarter city.

Photo: Los Angeles School District students use mobile phones to identify problems, such as leaky faucets and graffiti. They send text messages and photos about the 14,000 buildings in the school district, including Thomas Jefferson High School in South Central LA, built in 1916.

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