Smart appliances – why they matter for delivering smart buildings

By July 15, 2020 No Comments

What opportunity is currently available with smaller buildings, which tend to be run very sub-optimally, with inadequate controls? It turns out there is actually great potential for building portfolio operators to ‘up their game’ and deliver significant reductions in energy and operational costs if they invest in the right type of controls solutions, argues the author, Vice President Sales EMEA & VP Global Marketing at J2 Innovations.

The good news is that this situation creates great potential for building portfolio operators to “up their game” and deliver significant reductions in energy and operational costs if they invest in the right type of controls solutions. While the potential is great, there are also multiple obstacles to such change:

  • Smaller buildings are frequently rented on relatively short leases. Because of this, tenants are reluctant to spend money on upgrading controls and landlords are not keen to increase their costs unless there is a legislative requirement or strong commercial pressure to offer a more efficient way to manage the building services.
  • The need to achieve a fast payback (typically better than 2 years), limits the amount that can be reasonably invested in upgrading controls. The cost of employing specialist contractors for such work quickly blows the available budget, especially since the work has to be undertaken outside normal occupation periods.
  • Because small buildings cannot justify the cost of an on-site maintenance team or dedicated technical expertise, the way in which the installed controls are set-up is frequently poor, and managing changes is problematic since the on-site staff are not often trained to use the controls and staff turnover can be high in some sectors.
  • Whilst cumulatively the cost of the energy across a portfolio is large, when considered per site it is not perceived as so much, and usually represents a relatively small percentage of the business overhead. This does not attract a high level of executive scrutiny and is frequently regarded as a fixed cost of operation, instead of a reducible cost.
  • Historically, the available controls solutions have typically been provided either by the heating or cooling equipment manufacture as a bundle with their products, or have been chosen by the mechanical or electrical services contractors, who tend to go for the cheapest solutions with little regard to the running cost implications.
  • The cost of connecting to smaller sites is disproportionately expensive, so whereas most large sites have remote access to the automations systems, this is far less true for small buildings that rarely have someone regularly looking at their performance remotely. Many large retail chains, banks and other portfolio operators have implemented such remote monitoring and have facilities maintenance contractors capable of providing some monitoring, but often only for their large sites since the costs involved for their smaller properties fall below the threshold of viability for such solutions.

Taking a step back and looking at this on a high level, it is not hard to see why we are where we are; the decisions by various parties are usually quite reasonable given the commercial pressures they are under, their level of knowledge, and the options available to them. Having said that, from both a business efficiency and climate change perspective, things have to change dramatically. We cannot go on wasting so much energy and running the majority of our buildings so sub-optimally.

A new type of controls solution is required to address these issues, which meets the following criteria:

  • Simple enough to be installed by the existing mechanical or electrical services contractor(s)
  • Intuitive to use without requiring any training of staff
  • Remotely connected in a highly secure way without requiring costly VPN or separate 3/4G set-up, both to enable remote monitoring and to allow for remote commissioning/optimization by specialists if needed
  • Flexible enough to cope with a variety of equipment
  • Capable of integrating HVAC, lighting and metering in a single solution
  • Easy to maintain, with simple replacement of any faulty devices without loss of data or configuration
  • Overall cost to deploy and manage within a 2 year payback period to ensure economic viability

For those who follow the market, we have seen multiple attempts to provide solutions that meet these criteria, with many start-ups and major equipment manufacturers creating new product lines. Until now, most of these solutions have had limited success for a variety of reasons, some of which are the failure to achieve sufficiently simple set-up, the cost of remote connectivity and the manufacturer specific nature of most of what has been available on the market.

Part of the reason for the limited success is because the available software has not been smart enough to achieve what is needed. The sad reality is this: it is easy to make solutions that are complex, and much harder to make solutions that are simple. We are all witness to the huge impact that Apple had on the smartphone market when it introduced the world to a new user interface paradigm that enabled sophisticated functionality in an easy to learn and use package. It also enabled an explosion in the availability of additional features by making it easy to download and install apps which added new functions. This is what we need in the automation world; smart software that makes it easy to configure and use controls that cover all functions in a building. We see the same struggle in the Smart Home market, where even the tech giants have not managed to provide solutions that are easy to integrate, although this situation is beginning to improve. The commercial small buildings market desperately needs the same rate of innovation and focus on ease of deployment and reduction of installation costs. Unfortunately, people tend to focus on the cost of the controls rather than the cost of installation and management. Paying more for smarter controls may be the smart move if it reduces overall costs, but this will require a paradigm shift in the small buildings sector.

Chris joined J2 Innovations in October 2018, in order to develop J2’s sales outside of North America. He comes with a wealth of experience in the building automation market and with skills in strategic business development and marketing. Previously, he spent 12 years developing open framework business in Europe, so he is excited to now be working with the next generation product. Chris is passionate about simplicity, energy saving, renewable energy and electric transport.