The Missing Piece in Facility Management Systems

It seems that the “smart building” of tomorrow has become a reality today. With an ever-expanding array of sensors and intelligent devices, modern buildings are able to automate everything from heating and lighting to security with nothing more than software. The occupants of the building are no longer required to manually adjust these systems by flipping a switch or turning a thermostat. These sensors and devices can share this information with each other, and make decisions based on predetermined schedules or conditions.

Oh, the wonders of the modern age and the promise of the Internet of Things!

There may be a problem, though. Some of a building’s most essential assets – and incidentally some of the most reliable sources of relevant information about the building – are the building’s occupants. However, all too often this essential data source is ignored or at least marginalized in a facility management system.

Employees who work in these “smart” buildings often report that they have limited options to report and resolve obstacles they encounter in the workplace, whether it’s a broken printer, a slip hazard, or a flickering light.  They can call facilities, deal with it themselves, or report it using an overly complex, web-based software that doesn’t communicate with the facility management system. In all situations, the outcome of their efforts is uncertain and feedback is limited.

For all of the convenience and efficiency offered by today’s automation systems, this seems to be a significant oversight.

Is it possible to create a system that incorporates the benefits of machine-to-machine communication and the benefits of real-time user input? If a building is going to make decisions about what temperature a room should be and whether or not to turn the lights on, wouldn’t we want to know something about how the people in that room feel about it? After all, sensors can fail and data can be corrupted. And what about incidents that occur outside of the perception of the sensors?

While it is certainly very nice that buildings can be aware of their conditions and make decisions based on information they learn from themselves, it may be time to allow the building’s occupants to teach it as well. While there may be danger in allowing people to override a building’s systems, there is no reason that an occupant’s real-time feedback can’t be made available to the facility managers and maintenance technicians who will make decisions about it. After all, shouldn’t a building work for the benefit of the human beings who use it?

A New Focus for Power Companies

A somewhat unexpected news story broke last month when the United States and China issued a joint statement announcing a series of targets established for reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 2030.

U.S. President Barack Obama met with Chinese leader Xi Jinping to discuss the efforts the two economic superpowers have been making toward creating a cleaner, more sustainable society for future generations. While nothing monumental was announced, this is yet another clear indication that companies involved in the business of converting fossil fuels into consumable energy are going to have to change some of the ways in which they do business.

In China, where soaring electricity demand has led to a surge in coal-fired generation facilities, severe air pollution has forced the government to enact new environmental policies and establish new goals. At the end of 2013, about 10% of China’s power came from non-fossil fuel sources. The new goal is to double that percentage to around 20% by 2030. China is also committing to peaking its carbon dioxide emissions by that time, despite the growing demand for power.

In the United States, where similar commitments have been made in recent years, new goals were established. The U.S. intends to reduce carbon emissions from existing power plants by 30% from 2005 levels by 2030. This represents a substantial reduction in emissions that has already been characterized as “unrealistic”. U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell has suggested that the U.S. economy could not sustain such a drastic change.

While these new targets may require some drastic changes for power companies, and perhaps the goals are even unrealistic, there is no denying the fact that changes are inevitable. It is time to start investigating the options available to companies who want to start complying.

Obviously, updating equipment at power plants will be a necessity in many cases, as newer technology is inherently more efficient. Another option that should not be overlooked is the possibility of improving efficiency and reducing emissions by using software that empowers process optimization. It has been demonstrated many times in many different industries how the right software tools can improve efficiency, increase production quality, improve safety, reduce downtime, and reveal new opportunities for optimization.

Existing power plants must find a way to decrease emissions by 30% while keeping up with the substantial demand of the average consumer. That will likely mean they have to find ways to get the same amount of accountable power generation from fewer resources. Ultimately, the solution for most companies will require an investment in both new hardware and new software. Before you go out pricing the latest, cleaner generating technology, take some time to consider the software options that may be available to help you get more from your current processes.

Smart Grids and the Future of Energy

Smart Electric MeterBy now, we’ve all heard about “smart” electric meters and a “smart” power grid. While some might see the concept as nothing more than a new way for Big Brother to stick his nose in our personal business, others see a natural continuation of technological evolution that will ultimately lead to cleaner, more efficient power systems and lower utility bills.

One thing about which most will agree is that our power infrastructure is outdated and inefficient. Composed of a patchwork of technology from different eras, there are portions of the power grid that can be dated back as far as 1890! As our power lines and substations have aged, new technologies have emerged. Why, then, should we be concerned about advancing this technology forward?

Most have probably heard about the “smart” meters power utilities are installing across the nation. As could be expected, there have been some concerns about health and privacy associated with this new technology. The health concerns center around the RF radiation generated by the meters’ communication with a central computer system. The radiation generated is similar to that generated by cell phones or Wi-Fi routers, and there are people who believe that this type of radiation can contribute to cancer and other health problems. Verifiable research thus far has been inconclusive, but since the meters are located outside – unlike phones and routers – and are communicating less than 1% of the time, any potential danger is significantly less than that posed by these other technologies (cellular and Wi-Fi) that most people have willingly accepted.

There are others who are concerned about privacy issues. Smart meters are designed to both send and receive information, and some citizens are concerned about the meta-information that power utilities will now have access to as a result of smart meters. For instance, metered data can be used to learn about the kinds of devices individuals use in their homes, to map movements of individuals from one room to another, or learn about when people are not home and for how long. Privacy has become a sensitive issue with the advent of “green” technology, and it is not an insignificant concern. In truth, however, with the progress made in satellite imagery, the implementation of public cameras and face-recognition technology, the vast databases of personal phone calls and emails retained by the NSA, and the numerous other intrusions into our personal lives, smart meters may in fact be the very least of our privacy concerns.

How will smart grids work?

When we move beyond the perceived dangers, there are a number of very real benefits proposed by smart grid technology. A smart grid can diagnose problems and automate solutions. For example, power outages can be reported automatically as soon as they occur. A work order can then be automatically generated and assigned to the nearest technician. In fact, some problems can be discovered and corrected before an outage even occurs. This could significantly reduce the cost of system maintenance and increase service recovery time in the event of an outage. That mean better customer service and lower cost.

Usage data collected by smart meters can also be used to help consumers understand their own usage patterns and find ways to reduce energy consumption and lower their bills. That means lower bills and energy conservation.

A smart power grid will be more efficient, more cost-effective, and less wasteful.

There are so many benefits to employing smart grid technology that there is really no reason to expect the power grid to simply stop evolving and maintain the status quo.

If you consider the advances already made in the last century, many of which were accompanied by health concerns and concerns over property rights, the burgeoning smart grid is really nothing more than a continuation of the progress we have already made. If you were not concerned about the waste created by power plants or the radiation generated by the high voltage lines running through nearly every town, it doesn’t make much sense to be concerned about today’s advances, particularly in light of the fact that they are likely to lead to a cleaner, safer electrical infrastructure.

New advances will happen, and the technology that enables these advances will continue to evolve as well. If a person wants to draw a line in the sand and say “this far and no further”, it could be said that the line should have been drawn long ago.

Many will continue to maintain that there is no point in using electricity – or doing anything for that matter – if we are not interested in doing it to the best of our ability.