Limits and Possibilities of Wireless Technologies

Exploring this trend with a critical eye

Wireless Technologies: Limits

In this new digital age, wireless technologies can’t help but sound sexy. Where would you be now if you had to plug your computer into an Ethernet cord every time you wanted to watch a movie on Netflix? But while there are extremely useful consumer applications for wireless technologies, building automation systems are not always one of them.

Before even touching a wireless controller, a designer/installer should understand the benefits and still consider the negative possibilities of using the technology in any application, but particularly a lighting application. Working with wireless technologies requires a very specific working knowledge and understanding of the limits of such technologies like distance, obstructions, and installation. With these limitations come increased costs as work-arounds frequently become necessary and project timelines get extended.

Lighting can be very tricky, because there are certain places where you just can’t risk a lighting application not working properly, like in a parking lot – the liability is too great. A less prickly place to start might be with HVAC units for wireless technologies (but you still have to consider the aspects of the building structure that might interfere with, and thereby limit, the signal strength).

Despite these limitations, we do see more and more clients asking about wireless solutions. This is good because as the user becomes more aware of the technology, the manufacturer will continue improving the product. And we’ll keep gathering experiences with all the new technologies to provide real hands-on expertise to clients.

Wireless Technologies: When it’s a good fit

Welcome back to the second of three quick posts discussing the pros and cons of wireless technologies in the building automation industry. Last time, we discussed a broad overview of why people might be interested in wireless technologies and where they might be more trouble than they’re worth (hint: lighting controls).

In general, we do believe wireless solutions have a place in the commercial and industrial market, it’s just that we’ve seen that, where possible and cost-effective, a hard-wired solution is more reliable and in many cases, the same price or less than a wireless solution. But here are some ways you can determine if wireless is a good fit for your application:

GO WIRELESS if you only want to add one lighting panel in a structure that is not physically connected to a structure where the master controller resides.
STAY HARDWIRED if network design and cost are of utmost importance to you
With new technologies comes lots of trial and error
STAY HARDWIRED if you suspect your controls may pick up interference
In most cases, controllers need clear lines of sight to transmit signals
GO WIRELESS if you’d like to explore vav controllers in tenant spaces:
Depending on the floor plate, interfering structures like column or elevators, and how many controllers would be installed and where these controllers are in relation to the master.

Ultimately, cost, reliability and technology all play a factor in determining a solution, wireless or not.

We do believe that there are appropriate applications of wireless technologies but each application should be investigated thoroughly for cost-to-risk ratio and reliability. But that’s what we’re here for, to talk you through the tough stuff.

Questions about whether or not wireless is right for you? Contact us at anytime.


2 Responses

  1. Brian… your commentary has merit particularly – if not in add’n to the upfront costs vs. ROI. We have seen many companies want to invest in a wireless BAS/EMS but when they do a line item expense review they quickly realize that ROI for a simple HVAC/refrigeration system surpasses that of one that includes all Lighting systems. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not blaming the electricians – they need to get paid, too – but due to their expense the project has a longer payback.
    The business owner must be convinced on the merits of control & convenience to his employees which will allow them to concentrate on more important (profitable?) tasks.
    We currently have 30 locations for a fast food restaurant franchise & while they are not all wirelessly controlling HVAC, Refrigeration & Lighting systems – most are – they love the overall convenience & energy cost savings.
    The ‘wireless issues’ you mention were not even possible several years ago – what I mean is there are improvements coming almost daily & soon those issues will be overcome.


  2. Peter,

    Technology is certainly changing rapidly and will soon allow for a lot more control at less expense than we see today. It is funny here that I reference parking lots as a bad application for wireless lighting control when we are doing just that for our clients daily. When the wireless devices have on-board intelligence, like the WattStopper (Formerly AIC) BULIT lighting controller, the system can be built with redundancy in schedule and light level control allowing for secure control of the lights. This is critical in any public space. I have seen too many application where the lighting is controlled with remote I/O devices that depend 100% on the communication for the command. This is bad lighting control design in wired and wireless, but is being done routinely to save a little on the project. It can cost dearly in the long run.

    We have successfully deployed many projects as well with wireless communicating devices for HVAC, lighting and access control, some of which have very large footprints. The ROI is tough once the building gets too large due to the repeaters and physical infrastructure that is required to maintain consistent through put. I look forward to the day wireless solutions work as well is large buildings as it does in the smaller footprint facilities like you have. Products utilizing the Enocean technology are also hitting the market every day with more robust and commercially viable solutions.

    As for the electricians adoption rate, I was speaking to one yesterday who was very excited about using wireless light switches and getting rid of the legacy 3-way switches in a current build out. He was very interested in learning how to commission and control lighting with the next generation of controls. The future for wireless look very bright. It is just important to understand the risks and benefits with each application and selected controller.

    Thanks for the comments!

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