Wireless commissioning is easier, faster in smart buildings: Part 2

Buildings are seeing an uptick in wireless adoption. Wireless technology is adding massive value to building dwellers while driving revenue for installers and OEMs. Instead of selling only once, manufacturers and distributors in the building market are looking at ways to expand their revenue by selling data and security services to their users even after the original transaction. This shift toward wireless is steering the industry away from the conventional installation process.

Traditionally, installations were the only point of contact between a seller and a buyer in the building space. Today, distributors are helping users maintain and update their buildings continuously. This means that distributors focus less on the installation and more on the maintenance and upgrading, forcing distributors and operators to look for ways to optimize costly, time-consuming installations.

Figure 1 Wireless connectivity is driving profitability for the entire device lifecycle in smart buildings. Source: Silicon Labs

In today’s world, building installations pull in massive technical and financial resources. Take the commissioning of a wired network of sensors and controllers: all the access control, HVAC, energy management sensors and controllers are wired to field network hubs. The wiring of all these sensors takes a hefty load of planning and effort from a structural point of view. The wires also put a limit on how many nodes the network would have. An installer might be able to accommodate thousands of nodes in the initial plan, but what about dense sensing environments where the quantities could exponentially grow up to millions? Things might get ugly.

Figure 2 The wired setups in smart buildings offer limited scalability. Source: Silicon Labs

Things start getting messy with the commissioning of all these sensors and controllers, as a highly skilled and thus expensive technician would need to go around the building to find every network hub and commission the end nodes connected to it. We might be talking about over 50 nodes connected to every hub. With everything wired, the technician spends a lot of time and effort trying to figure out which device is connected to which port on the network hub. Moreover, the technician has to commission one device at a time.

Manual calibration and configuration of networks of that size is vulnerable to errors. According to one installer, over 80% of the installation time is spent fixing errors that could have been avoided if the installation process was streamlined or automated.

Dynamic environments call for wireless adoption

Years after installation, when it’s time for an upgrade or a retrofit, installers and operators struggle with old wires that need to be changed or restructured to reshape the building space. So, wired networks might not be a good fit for today’s dynamic environments. Take corporate offices, where wired networks are harder to deal with as the demand for remote work and flexible office spaces increases. Wireless-enabled buildings are much better equipped to respond dynamically to the global pandemic, as buildings are called for air purification and touchless bathroom facilities.

Figure 3 Wireless-enabled smart buildings are best prepared to adopt innovative new technologies. Source: Silicon Labs

Early adopters of wireless technology in buildings are looking at way to streamline and simplify the heavy lifting of the initial installation. It has led some to the hybrid wired/wireless model. By deploying Bluetooth or NFC to the end nodes, installers enable their technicians to wirelessly commission their wired devices. This reduces installation time significantly as it removes all the hassle of figuring out which device is connected to which port. If the wireless technology in use is NFC, the installer identifies the end device by sight first and then swipes across it with the reader. That takes care of the provisioning piece. The technician still spends time and effort configuring the device.

On the other hand, if the technology in use is Bluetooth, the technician can provision and commission the devices remotely. This has many advantages, especially in buildings, where most devices are hard to reach. The technician walks around the building, scanning for devices that are inside the ceiling or behind concrete walls, while saving time and increasing scalability. The technician can commission many devices all at once, increasing productivity dramatically and opening the door for faster installations.

With point-to-point connectivity between the end nodes and the smartphone, manufacturers are also adding diagnostics links. Wireless diagnostics is crucial in driving efficiency across different points in the product lifecycle. With a wireless diagnostics link, technicians can check on the health of all devices at once without having to come close to them, thus saving time, money and productivity.

Figure 4 Early adopters of wireless technologies are taking advantage of the hybrid wired/wireless architecture to cut down the installation costs. Source: Silicon Labs

As we get to see wireless technology reach its maturity in building environments, we start seeing the emergence of fully-wireless smart buildings. While it might seem difficult to do, we actually are witnessing some of the big players in HVAC and building management system (BMS) adopt the fully-wireless architectures. They are already enjoying the benefits.

Wireless makes planning and physical deployment a lot easier. Ideally, BMS providers can build streamlined and automated process to commission the entire network with zero touch. It’s not only faster and more efficient, but also less error-prone than the human-centric handling and provides high-quality data. Everything gets logged onto a server where errors can be traced and corrected seamlessly. Down the road, after the initial installation is over, providers can offer monitoring and control services to the wireless users.

Security in wireless networks

Security is a big theme when it comes to wireless in smart buildings. A lot of us trust that no one is going to eavesdrop on our wires bundle, but when it comes to wireless connectivity, we have heard terrifying stories about man-in-the-middle and side channel attacks that compromised entire networks of security cameras. While such concerns are valid and we should stay attuned to them, it’s important to recognize that there is a multitude of ways that can protect wireless networks against attacks. Root of trust security offers a bottom-up approach to authentication that makes it really difficult and expensive for attackers to penetrate the network.

One of the benefits of wireless adoption is enabling remote provisioning. Being able to configure from a smart device without being tethered to it is a big advantage, too, which proves extremely relevant when trying to connect to the desired node in a dense network. On top of that, wireless unlocks the ability to debug and scan sensors or controllers remotely and with ease.

The future is clearly about replacing manual and error-prone commissioning steps with a simple scan of end node, saving valuable time for installers. The critical element here is not solving this for one device, but for thousands and possibly millions of devices.

Asem Elshimi is product marketing manager at Silicon Labs.

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