The key component of HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) systems is the controller, in other words, the thermostat. Following programmable thermostats, smart thermostats were invented to save inexperienced users from having to manually program cycles with the goal of saving on energy waste through heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems.
However, the climate in a room depends on multiple factors that humans cannot detect, such as humidity. These factors need to be measured constantly to make fully educated decisions on HVAC unit settings. For this reason, connecting sensors and automation tech can make HVAC systems much smarter for commercial buildings.
Where current ‘smart thermostats’ fall short
Whilst some smart thermostats come with mobile apps that are meant to have friendly user interfaces, many users will still find it difficult to set up advanced scheduling. The user interface (UI) is supposed to enable users to easily set up programmes remotely. However, the process can be complex, which defeats the original purpose of smart thermostats: to reduce human error and make everything that bit easier.
On-site installation processes
Before programming the settings on a smart thermostat app, there is a complicated installation process to go through. This involves connecting all your HVAC units to the smart thermostat package, which often means a whole lot of undesirable drilling, and potential replacements.
It should also be considered that installing a smart thermostat system will limit you to that brand’s technology, which may eventually fall behind innovation wise. And there is another problem.
Many of the smart thermostats on the market are designed to simply recognise the main room in the house that is used the most, for example, the living room. This is then used to regulate the other rooms to match its climate settings. It’s a basic line of command for automation, but this type of set-up can lead to wasted energy by making unused rooms constantly match the same HVAC preferences. Although some systems may use a motion sensor on the thermostat hub device, it can be unreliable due to the fact that occupants will often walk past the sensor on another side of the room and remain undetected.
It’s common that buildings are fitted with too many overengineered HVAC units per room/floor causing energy waste. It does not necessarily require all fan units to be switched on to maintain a comfortable climate on the same floors. Often, larger buildings will have multiple overengineered HVAC units on the same floors, which is great for reaching a certain climate speedily but can waste energy when left running full power.
Without any automation, it would up to a human to manually switch on/off the HVAC units in rooms that they do not plan on using or to override the thermostat settings for unique cases. A human might not even know that one of the HVAC units could be switched off and the target climate maintained with just one of the other HVAC units. Similarly, as discussed in Smarter light Systems for Smart Buildings, application of the autoscaling model is a missed opportunity.
So, automation is clearly important, but is there something more advanced than the smart thermostat that can overcome all of the issues we’ve uncovered?
Making HVAC systems smarter with adaptive algorithms
To make HVAC systems smarter, they need quick and precise adaptive algorithms to guarantee efficiency in reducing energy consumption, whilst providing optimal comfort. Good algorithms receive data input from many different sources. Those sources would need to be relevant, for example:
- Infrared motion detectors
- Location awareness – GPS, beacons
- Geofencing (where an app or software uses GPS, RFID, Wi-Fi or cellular data to trigger a predefined action when a smart device or RFID tag goes in or out of a virtual boundary)
- Humidity measurers
- Noise sensors/detectors
- Thermometers (internal and external)
The benefits of implementing artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning on HVAC systems are already being demonstrated. Inputting the data from various sensors into adaptive algorithms boosts the intelligence of HVAC systems, although by connecting Internet of Things (IoT) capabilities there is endless potential.
Connecting systems to the internet can enable live streaming of local weather forecasts. These can be compared to and combined with GPS and internal and external thermometers, which will further improve predictability and help weigh the impact of the change applied by the AI.
IoT capable systems involve real-time communication between devices. This enables control of the HVAC units using a laptop or smartphone, allowing occupants to oversee and add preferences to help improve the intelligence of the building management system. A self-learning automated HVAC system would change the way humans interact with the system. It would also remove human error in thermostat programming, learning from negative results and making small but effective adjustments accordingly.
To guarantee energy-efficient HVAC systems, AI technology would require access to every point in the building management system (BMS). For each point, adaptive algorithms can be run in conjunction with standardised energy optimisation functions. Then, HVAC units may adapt to environmental factors automatically with great precision, or at the very least – for the more AI-shy amongst us – report upon potentially beneficial actions to save building supervisors’ and engineers’ time and effort upfront.
Many building management systems are actually capable of being retrofitted with smart HVAC systems, courtesy of smart and adaptive design, without replacing entire system parts. (There’s more on how BACnet and MQTT software can be added to pre-existing devices and units to transform them into smart IoT devices here: The Gateway to Smart Building Enablement). Retrofitting opens up the opportunity to add, fully customise and develop software for smarter systems, whilst reducing dependency on a single supplier.
In Summary – the Benefits of Smarter HVAC Systems
The characteristics of smarter HVAC systems can benefit all stakeholders, including landowners, building managers, employees, occupiers and the local community by reducing energy consumption and waste. Anything that promotes sustainability has the advantage of bringing value to everyone for the long-term, especially when all stakeholders are involved. All this can be as straightforward as providing access to an IoT app such as Smart Spaces (more on Building Operating System here).
Smart HVAC systems are an essential part of smart buildings, which contribute ultimately to smarter cities and happier communities. Bringing comfort to our hectic modern-day lives has become a necessity that we can no longer ignore in order to ensure the health and comfort of all concerned.