The Internet of What?
Beyond the jargon; there is an opportunity for mechanical professionals who embrace IoT.
The Internet of Things (IoT) is a technological wave that aims to further connect people to innumerable devices. Phrases such as sending ‘big data’ up into ‘the cloud’ are not uncommon when discussing the IoT. The idea of a thoughtful building, or one that takes a holistic approach towards functioning are adjectives that are tossed around like they are common sense – but it is these expressions that help to make the IoT an intimidating topic.
A contractor recently suggested that steering into the curve of the Internet of Things would be like digging his own occupational grave. His reasoning was that once set-up, an IoT system can diagnose problems within their own mechanics, communicate them, and oftentimes fix the issue without the need of a contractor. Therefore, by installing these systems in homes and buildings, contractors will have a surge of work, but it will then fizzle out as the machines begin to do the HVAC contactor’s job. As expected, this particular contractor was hesitant to jump on the IoT bandwagon.
His concern was posed to Jonathan Holloway, strategic marketing director with Danfoss North America, who replied, “I expect the scope rather than the scale to change, including a focus more on diagnostics and electronics.” Holloway further explained that specialized skills will be in high demand and noted that, “highly skilled contractors equipped to use technology to complete work faster and provide additional value to their customers will command higher service fees.”
Just like so many other jobs in the 21st century, the medium of HVAC work is changing, and keeping up with this shift will mean staying on top of interconnected technology.
The rate at which the IoT technology is multiplying is expected to increase. In fact, by 2020, Gartner Inc., an information technology research and advisory company, projects there to be over 26 billion connected devices. Navigant Research, a market research and consulting team, expects revenue from home energy management systems to grow from $512 million in 2013 to $2.8 billion by the same year.
“Every 10 to 15 years we get waves – the internet was one, then cell phones were another. The IoT is one of these waves,” said Paul Barter, adjunct professor of Techno Strategy, Schulich School of Business.
So what exactly is the IoT? At the World Energy Engineering Conference (WEEC) in Orlando, FL. in October 2015, Neil Maldeis, energy solutions engineering leader, Trane, said that an IoT building uses technology to gather, analyze, prioritize and make data available to building owners, operators and maintenance personnel. It does this by using sensors, algorithms and automation technologies to automatically maintain building conditions within prescribed parameters, such as temperature, humidity and indoor air quality. From here, the system can collect a wide range of data, which can be analyzed and used to improve overall building performance.
While this big data (information) is being sent up into the cloud (a holding tank) for analysis, IoT building occupants can expect a seamless work experience. Ryan Sen, director of sales support, Distech Controls, described the typical work day for IoT building occupants at the Connecting for the Internet of Things Building conference, which HPAC covered in greater detail in the October 2015 issue, p76.
Sen said, “buildings will be able to detect an occupant’s presence though their smart phone.” He explained that upon entering the building, the occupant’s office will be set to the temperature he likes and the window blinds may fully or partially lower to reduce the morning sun – efficiently and naturally cooling the room and reducing building energy expenses. When the occupant attends an office meeting, the room will be programmed to ensure that there is enough fresh air for the number of people within the meeting room.
These described actions are not just intelligent, and Gene LaNois, head of professional channel, Nest Labs, goes so far to say that buildings are actually transitioning into thoughtful structures. LaNois defines the thoughtful building as a building that cares about the occupant, “they can think in advance as to what you will want and need at certain times.” According to LaNois, we are in the infancy stage of the thoughtful home, but are working towards devices that can talk to and work with each other instead of relying upon human instruction.
This is where the term holistic comes into play. Just as holistic medicine treats the whole human body, IoT is looking at the “whole building and the way it is performing as a group of integrated/interdependent systems rather than a bunch of independent pieces,” said Maldeis.
In his WEEC presentation Maldeis noted that, “The HVAC industry is among the early adopters of what has come to be known as the Internet of Things.”
Over the last decade, technology advancements and the availability of HVAC system data has enabled HVAC manufacturers and service providers to create new levels of value for their customers. Furthermore, in a recent interview with HPAC, he said that, “Accepting and understanding IoT products is critical. As there continues to be a shift in the demographics of facility managers and building owners, the expectation to have building information readily available on a wide variety of devices will continue to increase.”
And who is to blame, err, thank, for this high expectation?
“Young people,” said Ahmed Hirani, executive vice president, sales and energy services, Distech Controls, “They want data now, and when they come into the workforce, that’s what they expect.”
Hirani explained that millennials are programmed to want unlimited access to information at their fingertips and they also understand the need for a more energy efficient work environment. According to a Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data, millennials are now the largest generation in the American workforce, and whether they know it yet or not, they will want IoT building systems. However, there is a slight contradiction.
“It is estimated that approximately 50 per cent of contractors in the field today will retire over the next 10 years, creating a significant gap in the available workforce,” said Holloway. This means that as IoT systems continue to be on the incline, those that can service them are on the decline – this generation is not filling the shoes of the retiring HVAC contractors.
As a contractor, how do you equip yourself for these technical and social changes to the industry? “Train, train, train. The biggest challenge for contractors today is ensuring their technicians are trained and skilled to install and maintain the sophisticated building systems that are emerging,” said Holloway. He added, “engaging with industry to help attract new talent also is crucial to preparing for this shift.”
Similarly, Maldeis suggests that talking to manufacturers and service providers who are designing the IoT products will help prepare and familiarize contractors with IoT.
“Another way to access information on IoT is through associations such as the Association of Energy Engineers (AEE) and ASHRAE who publish articles on the topic,” he said. Alternatively, there is the Information Technology Association of Canada (ITAC), that compiles and posts white papers that have been written for the government, however the ITAC also posts other people’s white papers and reports for review.
The world is not going to go to sleep one night and wake up to a city packed full of IoT buildings – “this is a long-term objective,” said Maldeis.
Technology is constantly changing and improving, and Maldeis believes that a well-executed plan over a period of time may be the best approach to implementing the IoT. Installing a few items at a time, such as a wireless building automation system (BAS) is one way to give equipment the ability to connect to the internet, and then grow the technology from there.
With the industry’s workforce base thinning out, learning and sharing IoT skills now will positively impact the HVAC industry in the near future.
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