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Facility Maintenance Decisions

Catching the Next Wave of Wireless Communication





By Dan Hounsell   Power & Communication

Wireless technology has become an important, if limited, tool in many maintenance and engineering departments. Cell phones, pagers and personal digital assistants (PDA) have become more common tools of the trade as managers have dipped their toes into the waters of wireless and, in large part, liked what they find.

Now, the next wave of wireless technology seems certain to test managers’ willingness to buy into cutting-edge technology that promises important benefits.

The First Steps

More often than not, maintenance and engineering managers have specified some sort of wireless technology for at least part of their work force. At Bethesda North Hospital in Cincinnati, for example, front-line technicians carry wireless cell phones and receive HVAC alarms via wireless pagers, says Rich Hertlein, director of engineering and maintenance.

“We’re doing as much wireless as we’d like to,” Hertlein says. “We don’t use wireless PDAs. That’s the next wave for us. We are waiting for it to mature.”

Hertlein’s wait-and-see attitude approach is understandably common among managers, who don’t want to be guinea pigs for emerging technology, only to have it fail and waste precious dollars. But by and large, managers believe wireless technology has delivered on its promises.

“We have more than 11 million square feet (of space) and 153 buildings,” says David McCormick, manager of repairs and maintenance at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston. “Our supervisors and managers are spread out to cover this large area, which makes the wireless communication tools critical for accomplishing the work load.”

Such proving grounds for wireless technology are important steps for departments seeking to find new ways to maximize the resources of their organizations, and they might have prepared facilities for what lies ahead.

Sensing, Sensing

Emerging wireless HVAC-sensing technology gives facilities the ability to gather data on temperature and other conditions from distant pieces of equipment, all without the expense of hard-wiring components. Demonstration projects at two buildings at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) proved successful, says Michael Kintner-Meyer, a researcher in PNNL’s energy science and technology directorate. The sensors performed reliably and generated energy savings, and building staff embraced the technology.

Building owners and managers have shown a great deal of interest in the technology, Kintner-Meyer says. Several manufacturers have rolled out wireless HVAC-sensing systems, but managers hesitate to commit just yet.

“We’re just in the infancy of this technology” he says. Nonetheless, research and development continues on the next level of wireless HVAC-sensing technology.

Soon, Kintner-Meyer says, managers will be able to specify self-powered sensors, whose performance is not limited by battery life. These sensors draw their energy from ambient sources, such as the sun, building vibrations, temperature differentials and wind velocity. The benefit is that the sensors can be built into walls or roofing systems and continue to send data.


posted on 2/1/2004

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