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By Naomi Millán, Senior Editor
Building Automation Article Use Policy
The benefits of wireless systems are several, starting with the obvious, no wires, but facility managers also need to be aware of security and reliability issues. Running wire is expensive, both in material and labor costs. "The wireless solution really allows you to be most efficient labor-wise, which turns into the most economical and efficient solution for the customer," says Ryan Kessler, director of operations for Bluestone, a design-build engineering firm. "And it gives you the greatest flexibility on where you can install the controls."
The flexibility of wireless sensors and systems makes them particularly beneficial in spaces which need to be frequently reconfigured, like leased tenant space. It is also a good solution in historic facilities, where it is not desirable to disturb the original construction in any way.
In addition, wireless systems simplify troubleshooting. "You can easily point to an area where the issue is, the exact fixture or sensor," says Kessler. "You'll get an alert of the system, you'll have a serial number and exactly where it will be." In a wired system, an issue along the wiring would require tedious tracing.
Despite the benefits of wireless solutions, many facility managers still balk at applying the concept in their own facilities. "A lot of it depends on the culture of the company," says Babigian. "There are still a lot of places where this isn't really ready for prime time."
Security concerns are often top of mind, for both the IT and FM departments. With system breaches in the news seemingly every other week, maintaining the security of systems carrying data in a facility is of clear importance. "Any way into a network needs to always be secure and you never know how someone is going to get in," says Rick Szcodronski, senior associate, technology consulting, with Environmental Systems Design. However, systems that communicate over WiFi are typically more secure than wired systems, Szcodronski says, because the protocol always requires user names and passwords, and traffic is encrypted as robustly as possible. Even control systems that use proprietary communications protocols are still better off than wired systems, where there isn't typically port-level security. "In a lot of companies, you can walk up to a random Ethernet port on the wall, plug in, and have access to the network, which is very insecure," he says. With a wireless system, that simply can't be done, even with just the most simple security protocols in place.
Just as important as securing the WiFi and wireless networks is securing the interface between the local area network and the Internet, which is often used for remote access, says Szcodronski.
Granted, a wireless system would not have to reside on the network, says Kessler, but this would limit remote access for facility management oversight.
Perhaps causing even greater concern than security is reliability. A dropped connection on a building system is not acceptable. "You need it to be as robust and reliable as if there was a wire connecting the two devices," says Szcodronski. In an attempt to achieve that goal, system and sensor manufacturers have invested considerable R&D into reliability, he says. Devices can frequency hop to avoid interference. They often operate with small data packets, like on/off signals, that don't require a lot of bandwidth, so the system can use lower frequencies that penetrate walls better, he says. And there is no wire to get accidently cut, as often happens when multiple trades are working in a space during a retrofit, says Isenberg, a failure often not discovered until the ceiling is sealed up.
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