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Sensor Technology as a Line of Defense for Facilities
Maintenance and engineering managers are increasingly getting involved in efforts to protect building occupants and facilities against security threats. In addition to taking a closer look at egress areas and surveillance systems, some managers are exploring technologies that could help protect occupants from hazardous airborne contaminants, such as chemical and biological agents.
Organizations such as the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) are developing technologies that use chemical and biological sensors to alert organizations to the presence of contaminants.
Placed strategically within an HVAC system, these devices would detect the presence and concentration of a specific chemical or biological organism. They also would put managers in charge of monitoring and maintaining HVAC systems on the front-line of defense.
For most organizations, however, sensor technology for detecting airborne threats is impractical and cost prohibitive.
“We don’t normally recommend using sensors because, at this point in time, they are very expensive,” says Don Hadley, PNNL’s senior research engineer.
“They cost tens of thousands of dollars per sensor, and that is just the starting point. After you install the sensor, you have to integrate it into your energy management system to control your HVAC system in an intelligent way once the sensors identify a threat. The sensors are a part of a bigger package of what could be done if managers can justify the cost for their organization.”
He predicts that sensor technology, particularly chemical sensors, will improve and become a more feasible option for organizations.
“I see a lot of improvements coming out in the next five years or so that will probably drive the cost of sensors down and make them more affordable,” he says. “I also see maybe a convergence in five years of sensors and improved energy management systems for controls of HVAC systems.”
As the technology advances, sensors will become smarter and smaller. It also is possible that some sensor technologies that researchers are developing for military purposes could become more common technology in institutional and commercial facilities.
One such technology is smart dust, a wireless network of miniature sensors that detect temperature, airflow or humidity, and wirelessly inform systems that monitor building security.
While managers wait for these technologies to mature, Hadley recommends they implement less expensive and more practical measures, such as protecting the air intakes to prevent the release of a harmful airborne contaminants into the system. Managers also might consider protecting their facilities from attacks by commissioning the HVAC system regularly, testing the airflow and air balance in the building, and implementing a high-efficiency air-filtration system, Hadley says.
These steps can offer tremendous paybacks.
Says Hadley, “If you do these things, you have not only improved the level of protection for the occupants in the building, but you have improved the building’s energy efficiency and created a healthier indoor environment.”