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Next Generation HVAC: How IoT Makes Comfort Systems Smarter

March 12, 2018
Over the last decade, comfort and control systems have been undergoing serious changes again in advance of the Internet of Things revolution.

by Sudhi Sinha, Johnson Controls

Technology is forever progressing. Think of your smartphone – you might even be reading this on it right now. The genesis of that was the landline, which went from manned exchanges, to touchtone, to mobile, to mobile data, to the abundant freedom of communication we now enjoy.

Similarly, the technology managing comfort systems has gone through a series of major transformations, working through a rough 20-year cycle. The pneumatic controls of the 1960s moved to digital controls in the 1980s, which further transformed into the modern building automation systems at the turn of the millennium. Now, over the last decade, comfort and control systems have been undergoing serious changes again in advance of the next revolution: Internet of Things (IoT).

HVAC and building automation systems have been taking and analyzing sensor data to run systems more efficiently and provide more comfortable environments for many decades now. However, recent developments in IoT technologies are enabling a lot of new capabilities that make comfort systems even better. These new advances include increased affordability of edge computing, the miniaturization of processing units, inexpensive and massive scale cloud storage, and increasing communication bandwidth through protocols like NarrowBand IoT or 5G.

To boil it down, there are three distinct ways in which IoT is already helping make comfort systems better.

Firstly, embedded computing and communication with edge devices are allowing more intelligence and local controls for HVAC devices and systems. Previously, due to constraints of bandwidth and computing power, all information and decision-making had to flow through hierarchical network structures, making the process less adaptable, less responsive and more complicated to manage.

The components which constitute local hydronic systems, such as valves, actuators, dampers and diffusers, can now be smart and make local optimization decisions instead of relying just on command and control from higher level control networks. As more local computing is available, the comfort systems can react to changing environments more efficiently.

Secondly, like a lot of technology platforms these days, comfort systems are looking skywards. Cloud and edge technologies, coupled with machine learning and artificial intelligence, is enabling better automation and management of comfort systems. Building automation and energy management systems have been around for some time. But now, various building technologies such as HVAC, lighting, security and more are converging. This allows new insights to be derived from a combination of different data sources.

With these new capabilities, we can perform improved fault detection and diagnostics, asset management, maintenance and enterprise integration. For example, now we can apply model predictive controls and reinforcement learning to optimize how to best run central plants for cost and energy efficiency based on the design of the plant equipment and their optimal performance zones, occupancy, emerging weather patterns, changing utility rates, access to energy storage and applicable facility constraints. The theoretical underpinning for this has existed for a long time, but new IoT technologies are enabling this type of advanced usage. 

CLICK HERE to learn the foundational elements of an Internet of Things System

Finally, customers now expect customized solutions. "Off-the-peg" will simply not cut it in many areas now. To accommodate this, comfort systems can now be more finely personalized, and occupants can interactively engage with them. This is enabled by an increased proliferation of mobile technologies and immersive experience delivery mechanisms such as augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), and natural language capabilities. Occupants can now feel more in control of their environments, while comfort system maintenance professionals can now prioritize the most important issues to solve them faster.

Modern comfort systems are not just being driven by cost and sustainability considerations anymore. There is increasing realization around their impact on the productivity of people and spaces, which creates an exponentially greater value for enterprises.

To take advantage of these new capabilities, contractors and other ecosystem players must balance factors like cost and partnerships. This includes weighing the initial cost versus lifecycle cost and considering arm’s length transactions versus deep partnerships with original equipment manufacturers.

The building technology industry is at the cusp of major transformation and the possibilities for creating better, smarter and more efficient comfort systems are endlessly exciting.

Sudhi Sinha is vice president and general manager of the Data-Enabled Business of Johnson Controls. You can find additional smart buildings commentary by Mr. Sinha HERE.