Who’s afraid of the IoT (Internet of Things)?

A few weeks back I blogged about the IoT (Internet of Things) and its historical ties to and implications for the building automation industry. Given factors I discussed there and in another blog where I talked about the democratization of building controls, the intelligence of building automation systems is expected to grow exponentially in the coming years, creating an integrated network of points within buildings and beyond that could help us reach the holy grail of our industry: a building (or network of buildings) that controls and monitors itself without human intervention other than preventive maintenance/repair.

This is totally awesome right? Well, it is an awesome vision and one that I hope we see come to fruition sooner rather than later, but there is a chink in the armor. Ironically, this reality’s Achilles heel is also the very same thing that makes it so powerful: internet connectivity. You see, for building intelligence to reach the point I speak about above, systems will need smarts (and varying degrees of autonomy) down to the device level and the power of these smarts is only realized when the devices are allowed to communicate something about themselves and/or their environment, or better yet, do something beneficial for themselves or others with the information they gather. So why, you might ask, is this a bad thing? Well, device “empowerment” is not bad, but once Pandora’s box is opened….You know the story.

Security (i.e., control) in a world where more “things” are already connected to the internet than humans has long been seen as a significant (if not ultimately self-destructive) problem for the IoT.  In an example that hits very close to home for those of us in the building automation industry, I read today that Google recently learned (rather publicly) that a Tridium based BMS at one of its Australia based offices was breached by a couple of white hat hackers.  Fortunate for Google, these “ethical” hackers simply exposed the issue and didn’t exploit it.  In the hacker’s own words, “We didn’t (override the system to control the building automation system and gain access to any other systems on the same network)…but we could have!” Scary stuff when you think of not only the sensitive data that could be breached, but ways in which our physical world could be altered by someone with malicious intent.

So where does this lead us?  Should we shun the power of device-level embedded intelligence the IoT affords and steer customers away from this technological trend? No, of course not. To do so would surely be futile and to our financial detriment if not demise.  Plus, as much of our industry’s history has been, I see this as a story of curiosity and hope. Curiosity about the possibilities that lie ahead and hope for the benefits our buildings (and ultimately their occupants) will realize. Many in the IoT world say that the IoT’s applications are only limited by humanity’s ingenuity. In other words, they are limitless.

Security is and will remain a major consideration when designing building automation systems under the IoT revolution.  Inherent in the term “connected building” is the fact that these points of connectivity are two-way streets and ones that must be secured just as diligently (if not more so) than existing points where not only can information be breached but “things” can be controlled.  The IoT must help humanity achieve greater security and well-being not hinder it.

Please let us know of security issues you see with the coming IoT and/or hopes you have for the building automation systems of the future under this coming reality.

Spring Return Fail Safe Electric Motors

Consideration must be taken when designing a control system as to what happens when controllers fail or if there is a loss of power. This is referred 
to as fail-safe or spring return. Devices, like valves and dampers, can be made to fail in a position that provides a minimum amount of comfort control or, more importantly, protects expensive mechanical equipment and building integrity.

One example of this is an outside air damper on an air handler. Most outside air dampers are configured to close when there is a power failure. This protects water coils from cold air. Cold air can freeze coils and cause them to burst, leading to expensive repairs and further system down time.

Another example is on a hot water valve. Hot water valves can be set up to fail open to help protect coils from freezing and provides some degree of comfort control. Conversely steam valves are often set up to be fail closed. This is to protect equipment and, more importantly, people.

Achieving a fail position, being open or closed, is usually achieved by one of two methods: mechanical return or electric return.

Mechanical return usually involves a spring. Basically the electric motor works against a spring. When power is removed from the motor the spring contracts and moves the actuator to the fail position. Fail open or fail closed is usually dictated by the mounting orientation of the actuator.

Electric return, or capacitive discharge return, involves an electric storage device that is built into the actuator. The storage device, most likely a capacitor, discharges when power is lost and drives the actuator to the fail position. Usually the direction that electric return actuators fail in is determined by a selector switch.

Battery backup return is very similar to capacitive discharge return. The main difference is that a battery is used to store the electricity needed to power the actuator to the fail position. Due to their size, battery backup units are usually only found on very large valves.

That is pretty much the basics of spring return, fail-safe electric motors. There is a great amount of debate as to which is best. Spring return is proven technology that many still swear by. Electric return lost a good bit of credibility early on because the early units were unreliable but that has changed. Electric spring return units now benefit from improved design and are available in higher torque ratings than their spring return counterparts.

The Democratization of Building Controls

Yesterday I read an interesting article that focused on a cleantech startup’s recent venture capital funding success story. The company, Enlighted, provides smart lighting sensors and software that reduce a building’s power consumption. This concept is nothing novel to the building automation industry, however, according to the article, Enlighted has taken a bit of a different approach in that much of its system’s “smarts” are located in the sensors themselves. Their sensors not only control lighting fixtures much as a traditional lighting control sensor would do, they also monitor light levels, temperature, occupancy and power consumption for the 100 sq. ft. of floor space directly beneath them.

I raise this up as an interesting point in that historically a building automation system’s intelligence has been a monopoly for the central controller (or controllers if the mechanical and electrical systems were controlled independently). With the rise of systems and sensors like Enlighted’s, we may be seeing a major evolution toward decentralized, distributed “smarts” where sensors are tasked with more (and potentially disparate) duties and embedded with sophisticated decision making capabilities themselves. Tomorrow’s sensors may very well be analogous to what we call “controllers” today.

Another exciting trend we may be seeing, as I alluded to above, is a further blurring of the lines between historically separate building controls systems (e.g. HVAC, lighting, fire, security & access). This “systems integration” isn’t exactly new in our industry, but with smart and powerful multitasking sensors like Enlighted’s, integration of a building’s controls systems could be accomplished much cleaner (and hopefully less expensively) where each node (i.e., point) accomplishes what might be required of three separate sensors and their respective controllers today.

We’ll keep an eye on this technology and on the ever evolving nature of the building automation industry to make sure our customers have the best solutions for their clients. Please let us know of trends you see affecting our industry today and in the future and how Kele can better help “make it easy” for you!