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Does Dick Tracy Have a Lesson to Teach the Building-Controls Industry?

Oct. 1, 2013
Many HVAC building-control system wireless protocols are vying to be the wireless protocol of the future. But we must remember that technology, like Dick Tracy's two-way wrist radio, is always changing.

If you are as old as I am, you probably remember comic-book detective Dick Tracy and his two-way wrist radio (which became a wrist TV in 1964). That cutting-edge device makes me believe Al Gore really needs to give Dick Tracy credit for being the father of the Internet. It also holds a lesson for the building-controls industry as it seeks to determine which technologies to adopt to make buildings safe, efficient, and comfortable through the 21st century.

Remember around 10 years ago, when city planners felt the need to get on the bandwagon to “network connect” their cities? Politicians applied for federal grants in hopes they would give safety forces consistent access to wireless broadband speeds while also bringing “free” internet access to the masses. The thought in the network-connect era was that any citizen within the region would be able to join the wired world for only the cost of a cheap laptop computer. However, politicians and planners who campaigned for these funds had their bubbles burst with the explosion of smartphones. Then cellular service on 3G and 4G became affordable for everyone, and free Wi-Fi hot spots became available almost everywhere.

How does this apply to the building-controls industry? Look at all the wireless protocols used by control manufacturers:

IEE 802.15.4: Wireless personal area networks (WPANs) that deal in long battery life at low complexity.

Mesh networking: Networks that are self-healing and can peek around corners.

ZigBee: Popular in digital radio communication.

6LoWPAN: Internet protocol that can be applied to the smallest devices.

EnOcean: Batteryless technology popular in Europe where it’s used in wall switches, controllers and gateways

Wi-Fi: Technology that uses radio waves to provide wireless high speed internet and network connections.

Go back to the city planners’ experience and ask yourself if the building control industry might learn something. Cities plowed large sums of money to network their communities and ultimately lost to the same technology they tried to adopt. Are some control manufacturers following in the same path trying to satisfy the appetite for protocol demand?

Nonetheless, a few in the control manufacturing community feel the number of wireless protocols will not only narrow over time, but that the industry will ultimately settle in on Wi-Fi as the wireless protocol of choice. Chips are getting cheaper, and even the health care industry is gearing up for heart monitors being wireless via Wi-Fi in hospitals’ patient rooms.

How many apps will be built to better enable a building owner’s mobile phone to benchmark his building against others? How about an app that sends me a “Tweet” to tell me how much energy my facility is using today?

With all this information ready to be delivered wirelessly, another trend is also emerging: Building managers want less information, and they want better information. Picture the day when power-over-ethernet will give you a ceiling grid of power that will wirelessly furnish 24V of power to your building controls, lights, and other devices.

Dick Tracy’s two-way wrist radio was cutting-edge at one time, but it’s easy to picture him swapping it for a smartphone. The controls we put in our buildings today are less easy to swap, which makes our choice of the best technology bandwagon to ride today all the more important.

Richard A. “Dick” Starr is president and chief executive officer of The Enterprise Corp., a design/build/maintain contractor in the Cleveland, Ohio area. The company is an authorized Tridium Systems Integrator, NEBB-certified air/water balance agency, and the exclusive Linc Service contractor for northeastern Ohio. In 2011, the company was selected as Contracting Business Magazine’s 2011 Commercial Contractor of the Year. Starr also sits on the national boards of both MCAA and MSCA.  He can be reached at [email protected].