May 2015
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AHR Expo 2015 – Trends and Products

Part One - Trends

Steven R Calabrese

Steven R. Calabrese
Control Engineering Corp.

Contributing Editor


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Trends

Last month I wrote about my experience at this year’s Chicago-based AHR Expo. So for the next two columns (May and June), I’d like to share a little of what I took away from the Biggest Show Ever. As I mentioned in last month’s column, the last time I attended the show, wireless was very much a trend, with products and entire product lines using the technology. This year was no different, in that the concept of “no wires” was in full swing, however the technologies affording it have been advanced (as we shall see).

For this month’s column, I’ll cover some of the trends and “buzzwords” that I picked up during my visit. Next month I’ll discuss some of the actual products that use these technologies and promote the trends of the day.

Wi-Fi

You know the term. You’ve been using it before you knew the meaning of it. Maybe you still are not quite certain as to what it really means, or how it works, but the term is out there. It’s everywhere. And so you use it, even not knowing the technology behind it.

So what does it stand for? Honestly, I thought I knew but was proven wrong when I went online to verify my opinion. Nevertheless, Wi-Fi is a wireless technology that we’ve come to know and love. Just ask any smartphone user! It’s a relatively short-range technology, when you compare it to other wireless technologies. My Wi-Fi router gets me connected form any point in my house, and even out to the patio if I’m lucky. Of course there are also Wi-Fi hot spots pretty much everywhere you go, from fast food restaurants and coffee shops, to hotels and motels. We tend to now take it for granted, for its ubiquity has been firmly established and embedded into our everyday lives.

So how is the HVAC controls industry adapting this technology? Saving any discussions on products for next month’s column, I will say that it is certainly an idea whose time has come. I think that there is lot of ground that still needs to be covered. But the technology is in place, and the next step is to develop HVAC-specific products (already underway) and specify its utilization in applications that merit its worth. One thought I’ll leave you with for now…picture a Wi-Fi enabled space temperature sensor. Get where I’m going with this? We’ll pick up next month from here.

BACnet

Certainly not a new topic or trend, but the progression of the ASHRAE standard into our industry has been nothing short of amazing. I can remember early on in my career, the burgeoning concept of having an industry standard. It wasn’t an easy start, and it took a long time for the standard to gain traction, at least in my opinion. I remember having vendors give presentations on these pie-in-the-sky concepts of having gateways connect equipment of differing languages, and having them communicate with each other. And then trying to somehow implement that with real products and not having much (if any) success with it. My, how all of that has changed! We’ve come a long way as an industry, first with the creation of the standard (kudos to ASHRAE), then with the adoption of the standard by the industry, and finally with the cooperation of the manufacturers to make it all a reality.

Some of the newer products that graced this year’s show were utilizing the BACnet standard in all its glory. From BACnet routers and gateways, to BACnet compatible thermostats and expansion modules. The BACnet standard is trickling down to the ancillary level, embedding itself into sensors and relays, and the third party manufacturers are getting into the game, not just the major DDC product manufacturers. Yes, BACnet has come a long way, and in doing so has made it easier for us as an industry to find solutions to age old problems, and to all speak the same language. What was once a “good thought” on paper yet impractical in real world situations, is now very much a workable technology that we will continue to find new ways to utilize, and, dare I say, become very much dependent upon it.

Monitoring

I came across a couple of pieces of documentation that caught my eye, if only because they were less product-based and more services-based. Remote monitoring, as we know it, is nothing new. But utilizing the Internet and cloud services is a trend that is beginning to make traction. Two separate booths were offering products and services for remote monitoring. The first I came across was for wireless “asset” monitoring. The company was using its line of temperature and humidity sensors in support of a product and associated web-based services, to remotely monitor temperature and/or humidity sensitive assets. An asset monitoring system, as it is referred to, requires an annual subscription, and allows off-site monitoring and alarming via email, text messaging, phone call, etc. Temperature and humidity information is logged and trended, and can be fed into customized reports.

The other booth promoting this type of service was geared toward monitoring of “vacant spaces”. Same concept, basically, although opened up to more than just temperature and humidity monitoring. For instance, sensors can be installed to monitor water leaks, gas leaks, intrusion. Just about anything you can think of. The associated hardware consists of a web-enabled input module, and any input devices that you’d like to install for your monitor needs. Setup is purported to be simple, and use of the system is as easy as logging on and checking things out.

Again, not a terribly new concept in itself, just the fact that I ran across this at more than one booth kind of piqued my interest, and if this is any indication, then the idea of it is viable, and should catch on, just like anything else we’ve come to rely on using the almighty Internet!

Design Services

Another concept based not on product but on service: BAS graphics design. This one really impacts me because I know firsthand how valuable these types of services can be. In my company, we’ve had programming crunches where we have had to go out and hire by contract a programming service to help us through. Graphics design is another service that could come in handy during a busy period. We have a finite number of skilled programmers on staff, and would be inclined to use a service like this to help us generate graphics, floor plans, energy dashboards, and the like. Not something that we’d rely upon in our typical day-to-day business, but for those times when we’re really strapped in the technical services side of our business, these types of services are good to have at our disposal, and definitely something to keep in mind.

Free Energy

What is free energy? Is there such a thing? Nothing is free, you might say, but there are budding technologies that use no batteries or other power supplies. Termed “energy harvesting”, the principle of operation stems from converting mechanical energy, such as the press of a switch, into electrical energy. Just enough, for instance, to transmit a wireless signal. The signal, in turn, can change the state of a wired relay. There are in fact a multitude of products currently available that utilize this technology, and the list is getting larger. Expect to see more of this in everyday uses, not just in the HVAC and related industries, but even in the home products markets. Exciting stuff!

Reliable Controls The Internet of Things (IoT)

Whoa, what is this all about then? If you haven’t yet heard this term, I guarantee that you will in the near future. I overheard this term more than once at the show, in casual conversation by attendees walking past me, and by exhibitors as well. So what does it mean?

The Wikipedia definition starts “the network of physical objects or “things” embedded with electronics, software, sensors, and connectivity…” Literally translated, it is the ability for all things to be connected to the Internet. So what does that mean for the HVAC controls industry? Well, we’re already seeing it, with the advent of Wi-Fi sensors and controllers. I won’t say much more about it, other than to understand that it’s coming (and I’m getting a headache!).

Tip of the Month: So every three years the AHR Expo is in Chicago. But guess what? Next year’s show is in Orlando. Skip the cold, the wind, and the ever-present chance of a Chicago blizzard, and plan to attend an AHR Expo in a year when it is held in a warmer clime!

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