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By John Biggs
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Today’s sprawling office buildings involve multiple complex systems, from lighting to plumbing to HVAC to electrical. To keep these buildings operating efficiently requires a host of ongoing maintenance tasks, but having on-site staff responsible for fixing the problems that arise is expensive and inefficient. Modern technology enables remote monitoring of these high-tech building systems, and makes monitoring and even fixing problems possible around the clock and often without the need for a physical presence.
The heart of this technology is telemetry. Telemetry uses systems of sensors which continuously measure physical or electrical conditions like pressure, temperature, precipitation or voltage. The data collected by the sensors is fed to a remote receiver, where it can be observed by a human monitor. The monitor then draws conclusions based on the data to decide which systems are operating properly and which need maintenance (or might need it soon.) This kind of insight lets building managers keep on top of preventative maintenance issues before they become serious, resulting in big savings on the cost of labor and improving the lifespan of key building systems.
These operators don’t necessarily have to be full-time staff members. Many companies offer remote monitoring of such telemetry systems as a service, much like an alarm company, which provide around-the-clock monitoring of a building’s systems. When alerts are triggered or something doesn’t look right, they can act in accordance with the building manager’s directives on prioritization or who to contact or dispatch in the event of a problem.
There’s also a machine learning component to remote monitoring. Advanced computer systems can organize collected data and compare it to previous data sets, over time becoming better able to predict system faults. A Milan, Italy-based software firm, CGnal, recently pored over a full year of HVAC data from an Italian hospital using sensors measuring things like temperature, humidity and electricity use. Their goal was to see if a trained machine learning algorithm could accurately detect problems before they arose. According to New Scientist, the algorithm predicted 76 out of 124 faults, including 41 of 44 where a monitored system’s temperature went beyond an acceptable range.
Getting a sense of what adjustments are needed for a building’s climate control system is another area telemetry, machine learning and remote monitoring can result in ongoing cost savings in building operation. Finnish company Leanheat installed wireless environmental sensors into apartment buildings to remotely operate climate and track systems’ performance. Their system is now installed in nearly 400 apartment blocks.
“Once we had these sensors in place, very quickly there was evidence that buildings were not controlled optimally,” Leanheat CEO Jukka Aho told New Scientist.
Some building systems, like plumbing or elevators, contain sections that are difficult to reach without shutting them down or sending workers into the bowels of a large building. Remote monitoring sensors placed throughout the system keeps constant and vigilant watch over these systems, saving time on simple visual checks to ensure proper functionality. Older buildings can equip existing elevator systems with after-market sensors to gain that insight at a fraction of the cost of replacing an elevator. Water pipes can be outfitted with automatic shut-off features along with active temperature monitoring to ensure optimal flow and warn building managers or monitors well in advance of a fluctuation that could result in a burst pipe. Once again, the cost of a monitoring system is a small percentage of what it would cost to fix the water damage.
As sensors get smaller and cheaper, commercial and residential buildings alike have a wide assortment of remote monitoring devices available. It’s a small up-front investment that could easily pay for itself over time in reduced labor and repair costs. The ability to keep a watchful eye over critical building systems from afar offers big peace of mind for site managers, homeowners and landlords, who no longer have to wait until something goes wrong to realize there’s a problem.
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