Harnessing the Internet of Things (IoT) in the water management of commercial buildings can deliver significant environmental and economic benefits. However, these benefits are only maximized if the design is integrated holistically into the building systems at the planning stage.
It was one of the messages from professor Stuart White, the director of the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) when he spoke on a panel discussion at a conference in Sydney recently.
White sees advanced water management techniques being two decades behind energy management, primarily driven by the price of electricity. However, he also notes that water is no less critical and, in a drought-stricken country like Australia, it needs to catch up fast.
Intelligent Water Management
White extolled the principles of "Smart Demand," where IoT sensors are integrated into building management systems to drive exponential improvements in water efficiency.
“Water can’t be considered separately from energy nowadays, and can’t be separated from waste and organic waste processing,” White told the Total Facilities conference in Sydney.
“So, we are working with some partners on how to look at the water and the waste piece together, [using] new vacuum technology,” he added.
White worked with Singapore developer Frasers Property on the company’s flagship Central Park development in Sydney, integrating water and energy management through the use of low-cost sensors and communication technologies such as LoRaWAN IoT.
“We have taken a lot of lessons from the electricity industry, and we see in Smart Command a way forward in building design and management,” he said.
The award-winning Central Park building is famous in Australia for the vertical garden which covers the building exterior, with flowers and vines stretching 150 meters high.
The feature is not only visually stunning but helps to lower energy consumption in winter by protecting the building from the cold, and in summer by creating a natural cooling system.
The Boom in Algae Bloom
White was joined on the panel discussion by his colleague from UTS, associate professor Sara Wilkinson from the School of the Built Environment. She is researching algal building technology, which is even more transformative than the vertical gardens.
Wilkinson said her interest was sparked by the world's first algae-powered building created by engineering firm Arup in Hamburg and opened in 2013.
“The façade is comprised of panels of water and algae, and you get thermal energy from the liquid which then goes through a heat exchanger,” she said.
“This is stored below ground and used for heating, both for hot water and building heating, and after a three-week cycle this can be harvested for biomass, which can also be converted to biofuel or used to remediate grey water.”
Wilkinson said that the technology had the potential to take commercial buildings partially off the energy grid, relieving pressure on an aging city infrastructure struggling with population growth and urbanization.
“Algae is nowhere near competing with solar PV,” she said.
“But when I looked at the history of solar energy, in the 1950s, it cost AUD 2,700 for one watt of solar energy, while in 2016 it was down to AUD 1.1. So, it is clear that these technologies can develop.”
Another Wilkinson’s project is developing “wall bots” that will automatically cut the vegetation on buildings created with algal technology, and also those like Central Park with vertical gardens.
She is currently working with robotic experts on a prototype and hopes to have a demonstration project at UTS within 12 months.
As a design approach, Stuart White told the panel audience that water design was like other areas of environmental design in that it should move from "supply-side solutions" to IoT driven technologies which would make better use of existing resources, be that water or energy.
The traditional response to water shortages, for example, was to build dams and desalination plants.
“But we need to get smarter,” he said. “Rather than just applying brute force, we need to apply some of these better management systems.”
This approach has already had significant success, without using next-generation IoT. The southeast region of Queensland, for example, was able to drive per capita water consumption down by more than 50 percent through emergency-accelerated efficiency programs that retrofitted commercial premises with leakage detection and pressure reduction equipment.
The Service Choice
“We have two choices to make,” said White. “We can build our way out of the problem, but that starts to become a law of diminishing returns.”
The other is to focus on the use of existing resources and leverage new technologies to drive efficiencies, moving to a “service model” in commercial buildings to drive innovation.
“Why not have HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) as a service, or lighting as a service, and of course there are vendors now offering this, where you turn something into a service offering and bundle it up,” he said.
“There is no reason why we can’t move to water fixtures and management as a service.”