With the proliferation of connected devices in our industry, everyone needs to understand the basics of a Wi-Fi set up and the common challenges involved.
March 16, 2020 by Curtis Bennett
It does seem like this topic has been covered, and it does seem like I am beating a dead horse, but this topic is so important that I think it needs to kicked a few more times. Wi-Fi is everywhere now. There are hotspots to connect to free Wi-Fi here, free Wi-Fi there, your house has it, your car might even have it. But how does it fit into HVAC? And what are some of the hiccups that using it can create?
To be fair, I know a lot of people clump “wireless” into Wi-Fi, but they are not the same term. Wi-Fi does use a “wireless” RF signal to move information, but there are many other “wireless” protocols like Bluetooth, ZigBee and LoRa for example. Then we have all these other terms floating around like 3G, 4G, LTE, 5G, 2.4GHz and 5GHz. Yes, I know, start pulling your hair out right now. Is the average Joe supposed to know this stuff? The short answer is no. You don’t have to know them, but you should. If your plan is to continue in this industry, or any industry for that matter, alleviating common confusion is always a good place to start.
So let’s start with terminology before we move on to common problems. I think the biggest issue right now is understanding the different Wi-Fi networks we have now . Currently, 2.4GHz and 5 GHz networks are the norm. These terms describe the frequency of the carrier, or the wireless portion that carries the Wi-Fi protocol. For simplification sake I won’t say protocol anymore, just know that it means the organization of information into something that both ends can understand.
The 2.4GHz network has been around for a long time. Bluetooth and Wi-Fi both started with 2.4GHz, but what has happened is that as more 2.4GHz devices begin communicating the more chances there are for collisions and the information not getting to its intended spot. Too many voices drown out the one you are listening for.
Now let it be known that the devices out there are very good at weeding out what they are listening for, but it is very crowded. In comes 5GHz. Now 5GHz has been around for a long time, just not in our routers and our devices. 5GHz has the advantage to carry more data faster but at a detriment to signal propagation—or how far the signal can travel. Now this is a big mistake among people right now. Mistaking 5GHz network with the new 5G networks for cell phones. THEY ARE NOT THE SAME THING. You will have more hair on your head in the future if you understand that.
Like I said above, 5GHz is the frequency at which the Wi-Fi network runs, but 5G is the term now used for the fifth generation cell phone data technology. I get why the cell industry chose 5G, I just think it would have served the public to call it something else. Even its predecessor 4G networks weren’t called 4G, it got the name LTE for Long Term Evolution very quickly after being created. Anyways I digress, just understand they are not the same thing.
Now there are a lot of devices going into buildings in our industry. Some of them are also coming with Wi-Fi enabled technology. There are boilers, thermostats, sensors, valves and even pumps now. This is just the beginning. The Internet of Things (IoT) will allow us to look at all sorts of different areas of buildings. This could mean these devices also have technology to connect and interact with other devices in your home, like voice-activated Alexa, Google Home, Apple HomePod or in some cases other home automation systems. It can also mean that it has an App for setup or and app for full use of the product. It can mean so many different things, but before you can even get there you need to get that device onto your network. In some cases this is not too hard, depending on how the company has decided to do this or how the device communicates with the outside world, but sometimes the process is a little more complex
So why doesn’t the device work when you plug it in? Now yes there are devices like Amazon Echo and Apple iPhones that seem easy to hook up to your home network, but the devices that we use in our industry take a little more effort. I do think this is getting better, but here are some things to look out for anyway.
The biggest issue was part of the discussion above. “Most” IoT devices in our industry are still going to be 2.4GHz. They will NOT run on a 5GHz network. So if an IT guy come in to set up the WiFi network, they will most likely set up a 5GHz network and disable the 2.4GHz. This will be a pain for you to figure out, as you will think, “well my phone is working on it so it has to be good?”, but your phone can work on both 5GHz and 2.4GHz networks. So watch out for this one!
The second thing to note are the port settings on the router. Oh no, I said “router”. Yes I know the ins and outs of the router can seem daunting, but you may need to dabble a little. Some devices out there need to talk on a specific port. What this means is that devices have a specific pipe that the information can go into or out from through your router. Now most of the time these are open, but there are times where they are shut. This is where the manual comes in handy both for the device and the router. The port settings can also be tied to the security settings of the router. These settings are there to protect your building or house, but sometimes they over protect and won’t let the traffic you want delivered to get out. So make sure to check these as well.
These settings usually block suspicious behaviour, and you know how suspicious thermostat info can be. The security settings tend to be on integrated router/modems, so just keep that in mind. There is usually a setting that is easy to get to that says: security settings, very high, high, medium and low, or something like that. You may need to set it to medium for some IoT traffic to get through properly. But again, check the manual.
The third most important consideration is the whole adage that since it’s Wi-Fi, there must be an app for that. Well if there is an app, make sure your phone is updated to the latest software. It is becoming increasingly difficult for developers to keep up with backwards compatibility on devices, so they are not going back as far any more. Also, when you install the app make sure you say OK to ALL the permissions that the app is asking for. Phone developers are tying more security measures into the phones and therefore if the user is not giving permission to use a certain aspect, then the app may not work properly.
I know that’s only a small portion of info, but I hope it helps out one or two of you . Sorry I didn’t include the story about how Wi-Fi almost killed me. Maybe next time.
Curtis Bennett C.E.T is product development manager with HBX Control Systems Inc. in Calgary. He formed HBX Control Systems with Tom Hermann in 2002. Its control systems are designed, engineered and manufactured in Canada to accommodate a range of hydronic heating and cooling needs commonly found in residential, commercial and industrial design applications.
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