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What is IoT? How Smart Building Technology is Changing Facilities Management

July 12, 2018

What’s holding you back from exploring IoT applications? Evaluate potential investments carefully to pick the right one.

What’s holding you back from installing Internet of Things (IoT) devices in your facility? For many facilities managers, IoT’s wide spectrum of possibilities is precisely the problem. It can be tough to know where to start with smart building technology when there are IoT applications for nearly every building system.

Facilities managers who haven’t invested yet also may fear being replaced by automation, notes Joe Herbst, Vice President of Controls for Revolution Lighting Technologies. That concern isn’t entirely unfounded—a 2017 report from McKinsey Global Institute predicted automation could eliminate as many as 73 million U.S. jobs by 2030.

However, building automation isn’t a replacement for a facilities manager’s ability to lead a team or develop smart maintenance strategies. It exists to make your job easier by keeping an eye on performance and pointing out potential issues that would be difficult (and in some cases, impossible) to detect with conventional hands-on management.

“There’s the financial benefit of reducing utility spending and equipment costs, and there’s also a productivity or behavioral benefit to IoT devices,” explains Logan, Founder and CEO of Aquicore, an asset management software platform. “You can enable your building staff to have more context for what’s going on and they can act more quickly and be more responsible when they have the right information about what’s going on in the building.”

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IoT devices are able to deliver the right information at the right time to the right person, which has previously been unavailable for physical assets, Soya notes.

What is IoT?

In the simplest terms, the Internet of Things is a network of sensors, meters, appliances and other devices that are capable of sending and receiving data. In other words:

  • A CO2 meter that can estimate the number of people in a room and tell your HVAC system to increase the ventilation rate in response
  • An occupancy sensor that can order a bank of lights to turn on when it senses a presence
  • A dashboard that can analyze a building’s worth of sensor data and turn it into actionable insights

They tend to fall into four categories, according to Soya:

1. Energy: Includes popular applications like wireless energy consumption monitoring.

2. Equipment: Those that optimize lighting and HVAC use.

3. Environmental quality: Devices might measure particulate matter or CO2.

4. People or spaces: Devices that can measure occupancy, space utilization or how many people have passed through a certain entrance.

The chief benefits setting IoT devices apart from other smart building technology are flexibility and observability. To understand the value of these qualities, think of the monthly electricity bill you get at home, Herbst suggests. It may tell you how much power your home used and tell you that you owe $300, but do you know where the $300 was used?

“Most people will say, ‘No, I just pay my bills and I’m done with it. I don’t know how much my refrigerator uses vs. my air conditioner vs. my PlayStation 4,’” Herbst explains. “Having insight into where my energy is being used is probably the greatest opportunity for IoT to help you manage a building and better understand where energy is being consumed.”

3 Ways to Evaluate IoT Investments

Choosing which IoT provider to partner with is a crucial decision in implementing smart building technology. As you investigate providers and smart building solutions, think about what you’d like to accomplish with your initial IoT investment and ask yourself questions like these.

Opt for a provider with experience in scalability so that you can expand to other floors, building systems or facilities in your portfolio after your initial successes.

1. What are you trying to solve?

Understand where the finish line is before you start running the race. If you’re starting with lighting, for example, do you need a system that only monitors energy use and turns off lighting in unoccupied areas, or would you also like to adjust the color temperature? Could you benefit from adding fault detection and diagnostic capabilities?

2. Is IoT the answer to solving my problem?

If you’ve been thinking about phasing in an IoT solution as your legacy infrastructure reaches the end of its life, Soya recommends looking for opportunities to start that transition into an IoT-based approach. “Often people need to upgrade their energy management system or replace lighting, and rather than using that opportunity to pivot into an IoT solution, they fall down the path of continuing to do more traditional methods,” Soya explains. If legacy equipment is involved, find an IoT vendor who is experienced in integrating new technologies with legacy solutions.

3. How much can this save me compared to the investment?

A good IoT solution should have no recurring charges and should enable a quick payback, Herbst says. “For example, lighting controls typically cost about 20% of the lighting budget, so installing lighting controls should save you about 30% right off the bat in addition to a conversion to LED,” Herbst adds.

Soya suggests first asking if you have a solution that’s holistic in nature. “Start there and then worry about the specific IoT technology you want to select. Make sure the platform is generalized so you can include data from any kind of IoT device.”

A challenge of IoT implementation is that there’s still a lot of separation between hardware and software, and you might need a variety of hardware vendors and software to implement IoT. “Look for vendors that can fully integrate with each other so you’re not stuck trying to put the pieces together on your own,” Soya says.


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Get Started with Smart Building Technology

A good deployment and setup strategy is the next key to launching a smart building technology initiative in your facility. Don’t try to monitor every piece of equipment for every building system at first—that’s an easy way to become overwhelmed.

Start small – say, monitoring the performance of one air-handling unit or the energy consumption of the lighting on one floor – and scale up as you get used to using the system. Soya recommends starting strong with areas that will yield a payback almost immediately and using the savings to expand the IoT implementation.

“If you don’t have real-time monitoring on your utility meters to reduce overall consumption, there is a ton of financial and behavioral benefit available from doing that, and the cost is much lower than a traditional energy monitoring solution,” Soya says. “You can get started for just a couple thousand dollars and the ROI has been proven time and time again.”

An initial IoT implementation could be as small as a wireless device added to an existing meter to collect data, Soya adds. Starting with just a couple of devices keeps your upfront costs low – a few sensors could run between a few hundred dollars to a few thousand, depending on their complexity – and makes it easier for your facilities staff to get the hang of interpreting and acting on the data before the system is expanded.

When you’re ready to expand, determine what the logical next step is based on the data you’re already collecting and what other information you need to gain the insights you want.

“The method that works best is information layers and creating multiple steps of discovery,” explains Herbst. For example, when you buy a cell phone, you can add apps on top of it. You need more information to solve a problem, so you find an app for it.

“That natural curiosity and the need to solve a problem results in understanding,” Herbst says. “You can’t just throw everything at a facilities manager and expect them to understand it all within two weeks—it’s much more effective to have someone actively looking for information because there’s a natural process of discovery that you can navigate through with software.”

Lesser-Known IoT Applications

IoT devices and other types of smart building technology are already well established for applications like lighting and HVAC controls, but were you aware that just about every device with an on-off switch could incorporate IoT in some capacity? Explore these lesser-known IoT applications and see if any of them could be useful in your facility.


IoT devices are practically tailor-made to enable easy navigation, so it’s surprising that wayfinding isn’t more popular among IoT applications. “We’re talking with a number of retailers who want people to be able to walk in, know where the Cheerios are and navigate to aisle 12, section 4,” explains Herbst. “In the airport, I want to know how to get to a gate or where I parked my car.”

Asset Tracking, Inventory and Order Fulfillment

Warehouses are a great fit for smart building technology. If you keep a sizable number of parts on-site, think about making the warehouse one of your first IoT applications. “If all I know is that I’ve got an order and the parts are in the southwest corner, I’ll basically spend way more time picking through things and putting that together,” Herbst says. “You can have an IoT application that gets parts to me quickly and efficiently. Amazon is using robots to do the picking for you and dynamically having the warehouse shift location of the products overnight so they’re optimized for delivery.”

Healthcare facilities can slash waste from lost or pilfered equipment by attaching IoT sensors to the items that most commonly go missing, like small telemetry packs and surgical supplies. IoT applications for healthcare can also include simply using the sensors to locate needed mobile equipment nearby.

Air Quality Monitoring

Keeping an eye on carbon dioxide or particulate matter levels can help you figure out whether your ventilation system is bringing in too much or too little outside air.

Space Management

Incorporate IoT devices into meeting rooms and other common spaces to track occupancy and space utilization.


IoT capabilities can be integrated into surveillance cameras, smart locks, credential readers and other physical security devices. The same geofencing barriers that app developers use to target customers in certain locations can also apply to IoT-enabled locks and access tracking. An invisible barrier that alerts you of breaches lets your security staff respond much more quickly.

Fire and Life Safety

IoT devices linked to your emergency alarm and mass notification system can temporarily disable lighting controls that would otherwise shut off the lights, allowing people to evacuate safely, Herbst notes.

Vibration Sensing

IoT sensors that monitor vibration can be used to reduce noise during a building expansion or monitor the health of fans and other machinery.

Avoid Analysis Paralysis

A mindful approach to scaling up your smart building technology initiative will keep your team from becoming overwhelmed by the data deluge as your implementation grows. An intuitive analysis platform will also help by channeling the raw data into a form you can actually use.

You could look at the performance of every light fixture separately, but wouldn’t it be easier if you had a platform that examined each one for you and alerted you about which ones aren’t working?

Monitoring the energy consumption of your chiller is a good first step in identifying how to lower cooling expenses, but you could accomplish that much faster if your platform knows to look for unexpected spikes in energy use that can’t be attributed to higher occupancy or a day that’s significantly hotter than normal.

“Use a platform that knows how to do some synthesis of the data for what you need it to do so that you’re not just looking at raw data on your own,” Soya recommends. “Some platforms don’t know what the end value is, and if you don’t, you can get lost very quickly. Know what the end value of the data is that you want to collect and pick a vendor who knows how to turn that data into something meaningful.”

Make analysis easier by choosing a monitoring solution with data quality capabilities built in, Soya adds: “Make sure it can handle outages, spikes and sets of missing data that may come so that it can correct for anomalies automatically and doesn’t burden your team with getting distracted by noise.

[Read also: Hand Dryers: What You Need to Know About Maintenance, New Tech]

“Choose a solution with robust capabilities around monitoring the status of the equipment and whether there are any maintenance requirements. A solution that generates uptime reports can also be useful—something that can show you the uptime of your devices on a weekly or monthly basis and reminds you not to wait if an anomaly occurs in your device.”

Implementing smart building technology the right way isn’t about which sensors to start with and how many data streams to analyze at first, Soya says. It’s partially about attitude, too. Approach your IoT project with a focus on solving problems and using tools to achieve a goal.

“IoT is a new way to solve an old problem,” Soya explains. “That’s going to help you transition so much more easily than if you think of it as its own big project you have to deal with.”

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About the Author

Janelle Penny | Editor-in-Chief at BUILDINGS

Janelle Penny has been with BUILDINGS since 2010. She is a two-time FOLIO: Eddie award winner who aims to deliver practical, actionable content for building owners and facilities professionals.

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