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4 ways to teach old buildings new technology tricks

Nov. 29, 2021
Adding intelligence to existing buildings requires overcoming the obstacles of insufficient pathways, signal-killing building materials, building-to-building connection difficulties, and outdated cabling.

Integrating modern smart technologies into older buildings comes with a host of challenges that you must overcome. Aged building materials, floor layouts, and a lack of cable pathways can make building modernization projects more challenging compared to contemporary counterparts. Let’s look at some common legacy smart building integration issues and provide some tips on how to solve them.

Insufficient cable paths and telecom room space. Making a building “smart” requires a unified wired and wireless network, on top of which smart building hardware and software will be deployed. Modern building designers have accounted for this network deployment need and include ample vertical and horizontal cable paths as well as telecommunications rooms that are strategically spaced to adhere to Ethernet cable distance limitations. Older buildings built in pre-network and internet times, on the other hand, do not have these well-planned cable paths or spaces.

A lack of sufficient cable passage and telecom rooms can prevent portions of a building from connecting to a centralized LAN. There are, however, some creative ways to address this problem. The first is to redesign some of the internals of the building so that cabling can be run to challenging locations and network switches can be deployed in those areas to serve users and smart building IoT components. Additionally, long-reach fiber-optic cabling can be run as an alternative to copper, which commonly has a distance limitation of 100 meters. Finally, point-to-point wireless as a network backhaul can be strategically deployed to interconnect parts of a building without the need for any cabling at all.

Building materials hinder wireless signal propagation. Brick, concrete and plaster walls, thick metal/wood doors, ceramic tiling and metal machinery are commonly found within older buildings. These materials can significantly obstruct WiFi signal propagation. In environments like this, a thorough WiFi site survey should be performed both pre- and post-WiFi deployment. In many cases, WiFi access points (APs) will have to be positioned closer together to account for the shorter distance an access point can transmit and receive the wireless signal. The key is to identify areas where signal will be blocked and provide additional APs on the other side of those obstructions to account for this lack of propagation.

Lack of cabling/conduit between buildings. When dealing with a campus consisting of multiple older buildings, a lack of conduit between them can prevent property owners from interconnecting all the buildings onto a single LAN. While trenching and running copper or fiber cabling may be possible, this method can get expensive, and in some cases, is nearly impossible to achieve. In these situations, point-to-point wireless shots between buildings may suffice for backbone connectivity. For example, enterprise-grade point-to-point WiFi equipment can transmit and receive at multi-gigabit speeds with wire-like low latency. In many situations, this will be more than enough uplink bandwidth capacity for years to come.

Buildings with old/out-of-spec cabling. Believe it or not, there are plenty of older buildings with Category 5 or even Category 3 cabling run throughout. This type of cabling was not designed to transmit or receive data at today’s speeds. The obvious solution to this problem is to extract the outdated cabling and replace it on a one-to-one basis with new cabling that is rated Category 6A or higher. However, keep in mind that WiFi technologies have gotten to the point where speed and latency numbers meet or exceed some copper Ethernet capabilities. Thus, owners of aging buildings could save tremendous amounts of time and money by repulling only the cabling that’s absolutely required while leveraging WiFi for everything else. Keep in mind that wireless is a far more flexible access-layer medium that, if professionally deployed and managed, can be just as fast and reliable as wired counterparts.

About the Author

Andrew Froehlich | Contributor

As a highly regarded network architect and trusted IT consultant with worldwide contacts, Andrew Froehlich counts over two decades of experience and possesses multiple industry certifications in the field of enterprise networking. Andrew is the founder and president of Colorado-based West Gate Networks, which specializes in enterprise network architectures and data center build-outs. He’s also the founder of an enterprise IT research and analysis firm, InfraMomentum. As the author of two Cisco certification study guides published by Sybex, he is a regular contributor to multiple enterprise IT-related websites and trade journals with insights into rapidly changing developments in the IT industry.

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