December 2014

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Emerging Technology to Watch

Building owners will assess potential value and return.
Jim Sinopoli
Jim Sinopoli PE,
Managing Principal,
Smart Buildings LLC

Contributing Editor

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There are a number of systems that are emerging or in research that will eventually be installed in buildings. Whether such systems will be deployed will be dependent on the business justification; building owners will assess potential value and return. Here are a few to watch:

IPS Indoor Position Systems (IPS) - An IPS simply locates objects and people in a building and provides location dependent information. Many of the companies involved in IPS are high tech companies motivated to extend their existing outdoor mapping applications to the indoor environment where GPS doesn’t work well due to signal attenuation. The IPS technology can be used for indoor way finding and seems particularly well suited for large commercial buildings, educational campuses, malls, airports and guided tours of museums. Some of the applications involve real time location of personnel like doctors, supervisors, technicians, or tracking team members and assets on missions in the dark or crowded locations. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is looking at indoor positioning to enhance emergency response as well. Some companies have used IPS to identify occupancy and adjust energy management systems based on where people are gathered.

Solar Window Panels Solar Panel Windows - The technology is in an early phase but shows tremendous potential. Some of the current versions of photovoltaic windows can transmit more than 70% of visible light, similar to tinted glass windows already in use. The power conversion for the initial designs is low but is expected to improve and reach over 12% efficiency; typical roof top solar panels have an efficiency of 15%. One research team calculated that even with 5% efficiency the windows could generate over 25% of the energy needs of a building. Besides energy generation, the windows can also reduce infrared radiation, thus reducing thermal loads and energy costs.

Power over Ethernet IT-Based LED Lighting Systems - The next building system to evolve to an IT structure is low voltage LED systems; it’s been in the works for a few years led by innovative companies and early adopters. It’s now at point that where we can project that the IT structure for LED lighting systems will become the new norm.
The impetus for an IT structure is linked to the fact that LEDs are low voltage light sources. One way of providing low voltage is installing AC power and converting it to DC; this will work but adds costs, additional points of failure and generates additional unwanted heat. Meanwhile, the IT industry has providing low voltage DC power via Power over Ethernet (PoE) for over a decade. PoE has numerous benefits: it costs less, increases reliability because it centralizes power distribution, also end devices can be monitored and managed; In addition, moves, adds and changes are easier,; POE an international standard and finally there’s less high voltage in the building.

Structural Monitoring The building envelope is critical for structural integrity, energy management, maintenance, operations and security. Most monitoring of an envelope or structure is done through periodic manual inspections. Deployment of automated monitoring for building envelopes, especially new high rise and skyscrapers in large urban areas makes sense. What could possibly be monitored in the building envelope and related structure that would assist in measuring and managing the building’s performance? Turns out there is plenty:

Moisture Intrusion – If there’s moisture in the building envelope there’s probably a leak that can lead to mold and/or a breach in the integrity of the envelope. The solution is moisture sensors and a data recorder to continuously monitor the structure with sensors at locations such as parapet joint flashing, control joints, wall-window interfaces, window jambs, wall-concrete slab interfaces and all the other places water is likely to gather, settle or get into.
Air Leakage - Air leaking through the building envelope not only wastes a significant amount of energy but it decreases thermal comfort for occupants, allows dust, moisture, noise and airborne pollutants into the building. Measuring air pressure differences via a remote instrument can at least indicate potential issues that need to be inspected further via a manual air leakage test.

Structural Loads - Building structures can be monitored for stress, strain, vibration, deflection, displacement and tilt, with the data analyzed to determine the integrity of the building structure. One common building example is the steel joist construction used in many commercial buildings to support the roof; the use of strain gauges or sensors can assist the building owner in monitoring the load of the roof when it snows or rains.

Seismic Monitoring - Seismic monitoring is a highly specialized building system. It uses accelerometers (devices that measure motion and vibration) at specific locations throughout the building to measure the response of the structure in an earthquake event. Seismic monitoring has several critical benefits. For the building owner, real-time data on how the event affected the structure is quicker and can assist in the physical inspection of the building afterwards, thus increasing the likelihood that the building can remain operational or quickly regain functionality.

Openings in the Structure - Fenestrations

The fenestrations of the envelope quite simply must be monitored. That means each exterior door and operative window should have a switch in its frame to indicate whether the door or the window is open or closed. Doors that have access control already have such switches, but other doors not covered by access control should have a door position switch as well.  If you have a facility or building management system that can monitor the door or window position switches you can create some “exceptions” or times as to when open doors or windows are acceptable and when they’re not, thus reducing the number of false alarms.


Eye movement is important because what people look at and how long they look at it influences their decision-making and comprehension. One approach to eye-tracking uses video cameras sensing reflected light from the eye, an approach which is not invasive and generally inexpensive. Eye tracking is used in advertising, software interfaces, retail window design, web pages and almost anything associated with marketing and selling. Much of the eye-tracking is done for “prototypes” or “draft” products or ads, gathering data on how the consumer interacts with “visual stimulus” to perfect the ad or web page. This basic data evaluates what people look at and how long they hold their gaze.

There are eye-tracking applications that can control computers, monitor automobile drivers or pilots and even programs allowing paralyzed people to operate wheelchairs via eye movement.  And yes, eye-tracking has applications for building design and operation; think of interior design, building signage, way finding and the ergonomics of manual controls and kiosks.

Eye Tracking One example is a company that has several “mock supermarkets” or “shopper labs” in order to track eye movements as people wander down the aisles to determine what items or displays catch their eye. With eye movement directly related to decision making we’ll start to see more use of research in the design and operation of buildings, touching on the “visual” structure of the facility, its layout, lighting, colors and placement of objects or controls. The results will be improved productivity in commercial buildings, wellness in hospitals and enhanced learning in schools.

Electrically Switchable Glass

Electrically switchable glass goes by many names: smart glass, smart glazing, smart windows, etc. It is basically glazing or coatings that change light transmission properties in glass when voltage is applied. There are a variety of technical means to accomplish this including electro-chromic, suspended particles and liquid crystal devices with different approaches and capabilities among the technical means.

When voltage is applied to electrically switchable glass the devices or coatings change to tint and absorb light. Depending on the underlying technical means, either a one-time or constant electrical current is needed to activate. The coatings or devices return to clear when current is interrupted or polarity of the voltage is reserved.

contemporary The clear to tint or tint to clear change can occur in just seconds or a few minutes depending on the technology. The tint level can be controlled manually or automated via integration into a BAS system. The control options may vary with manufacturers; some being able to go from clear to tint back and forth, and others having some intermediate levels of tinting.  Much like the motorized shades, the electrically switchable glass can be manually operated via a switch or automated based on light sensors, schedule, occupancy sensors, lighting control or thermostats.

Electrically switchable glass is not new and you may have used or seen electrically switchable glass. It’s been used in interactive displays in museums, outdoor displays, privacy glass, projection screens, and in windows on planes, trains and cars. The rearview mirror in your car may be using one of the underlying technologies in electrically switchable glass.

The issues with electrically switchable glass involve installation cost, limitations on the type of windows offered by some manufacturers (i.e. not applicable to operative windows), the degree of transparency of the glass, switching speeds and the ability to control intermediate light transmission states. Prices on some of the electrically switchable windows are coming down as companies’ ramp up their manufacturing to meet what they see as a huge potential marketplace segment in energy conservation. 

Switchable Glass The automation issues with shading may seem simple and straight forward but they are not. There are multiple effects we try to optimize with shading and they are interrelated.  For example, daylight harvesting may allow us to dim lights but also affects heat gain and possibly occupant comfort and productivity due to increased glare or brightness.  Shading done properly reduces the demand for cooling and provides a modification of the lighting to a space that improves the amount and dispersal of the lighting.

Some manufacturers have addressed this through management software, which optimizes based on sun position, solar intensity, BTU Load, readings from indoor and outdoor photo sensors and radiometers. There are three systems that need to act in tandem: lighting control systems, the HVAC system and the shading system. The lighting and HVAC control systems involve energy consumption so part of the optimal operation can be to take into account the cost of energy for both systems. The level of complexity increases as you also start to consider systems schedules, sun sensors, occupancy sensors, room temperature, time of day, etc. 

For more information about smart buildings, technology design or to schedule a Continuing Education program, email


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