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Smart HVAC Systems On Cybersecurity And Connection Protocols

Compared to a traditional HVAC system, a smart HVAC system offers benefits including lower energy consumption, condition-based maintenance, predictive performance issues, and remote and automatic adjustments of the system. With it, tenants can live more comfortably, building managers can manage more efficiently, HVAC system technicians can work more easily, and total building utility fees can be decreased. There are several considerations for a building to adopt a smart HVAC system: for example, is the building old or new? Which wireless protocols should be used for the smart system? Does the system have sufficient cybersecurity protection? Overall, the smart HVAC system market is promising. The market needs have recently been expanded from residential buildings to commercial buildings, leading the smart HVAC system to provide comfortable living experiences for people working in offices.

Smart HVAC System Assists Energy and Operation Cost Saving
A heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system is responsible for controlling temperature and air flows in a smart building. With the ability to locate people inside the premises, the smart system helps buildings save significant energy consumption and operational costs.

A heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system sits in the middle of a building, it’s respon- sible for providing comfortable room temperatures and air flow for the people inside, no matter if it’s a hot summer afternoon or a snowy winter day. As buildings are adding smart elements such as prediction and remote controls, HVAC systems are also getting “smart.” Smart HVAC systems benefit buildings and tenants in several ways, such as providing energy efficiency, building maintenance, performance prediction and automatic adjustment. Overall, smart HVAC systems are able to save operation costs and provide a better living experience. Here are some benefits brought by smart HVAC systems:

– Energy saving, for example, is achieved by smart HVAC systems constantly demanding performance monitoring and meeting the optimal conditions. As a result, the system is required to conduct energy diagnostics, energy prediction modeling, fault detection diagnostics and model predictive controls to save energy.
– Condition-based maintenance allows HVAC systems to automatically identify equipment performance issues, providing visibility across managing facilities. Rather than having to schedule regular maintenance visits for repairs, they can now be done on demand.
– Predicting performance issues are achieved by intelligence and machine learning embedded in smart HVAC systems. Several sensors are installed on different parts of the smart HVAC system, it is able to predict when system issues are about to happen by analyzing all data gathered from the system’s sensors, including installation dates and performance changes. Due to the system’s ability to predict issues that are about to occur through war nings, higher reliability and uptime of the system are experienced.
– Automatic and remote implemented system changes are accomplished by external decision support tools and systems connected with the smart HVAC system. If any environmental sensors detect changes in the surroundings of a building, a smart HVAC system will automatically adapt to the changes, maintaining comfortable living conditions in the building.

“A truly smart system should be able to anticipate how it needs to perform optimally and adapt to its operations to meet those goals,” said Sudhi Sinha, Vice President & General Manager, Digital Solutions, Johnson Controls. IoT-enabled HVAC solutions offer users insights into data beyond temperature, including humidity and levels of indoor air pollution. In addition, smart interfaces, dashboards and apps enable building managers and tenants to monitor equipment and make adjustments remotely. “It’s all about creating a personalized user experience. With the IoT, building occupants and owners can now feel more in control of their environments,” added Sinha.

Vital Components for Smart HVAC Systems
Compared to traditional HVAC systems, several components of smart HVAC systems are adjusted in order to realize energy saving. First of all, the Compressor, which is the electric pump compressing refrig- erant, and the air handler, that blows air over the heating and cooling coils, needs to be optimized since they are both a major consumer of energy. If these two pieces of equipment run only as needed, a great amount of energy can be saved. Secondly, the ventilation system, which controls a building’s air flow, when and where a building needs external help to save energy. For instance, strong air flow isn’t needed in an empty meeting room or the hallway after office hours.

Through sensor- driven technology to detect the density of occupants in a certain space, the ventilation system works only when it’s needed. Lastly, smart thermostats that can read temperature, humidity, occupancy and other variables are important in the whole HVAC system. The thermo- stats learn from gathered data from the surroundings and make intelligent decisions for the building, such as eliminating uncomfortable heat caused by humidity. “At a basic level, the key components for a smart HVAC system is the sensor hardware and software that provides a way to collect information and an interface for the user to see the information, receive alerts and notifica- tions, and take appropriate action,” said George Tsintzouras, CEO of Alert Labs.

Retrofitting Old Buildings for Smart HVAC Systems
Connected smart sensors play a significant role in establishing smart HVAC systems in old buildings. By having sensors in the existing system, components and back-end software providing data analytics, old buildings can also receive benefits from smart HVAC systems.

For new buildings, it isn’t difficult to embrace smart HVAC systems. Some of them have even been installed from the very beginning. For old buildings, however, adopting smart HVAC systems is a challenging job. There’s even a term “retrofitting,” designed to describe old buildings adopting smart technologies. “In older buildings, a wireless and battery-operated sensor platform could be crucial as it might be difficult and, or, prohibited to install external cabling along walls,” said Peter Lindkvist, Sales Director, Lumen Radio. That is to say, old buildings aren’t required to remove all existing components of HVAC system to adopt smart HVAC technology. They can keep current equipment and install wireless and battery-powered sensors around, to experience the benefits of a smart HVAC system. “Alert Labs sensors can be installed at any age of building and air conditioning system,” said George Tsintzouras, CEO of Alert Labs.

Smart Sensors Turn Old Buildings New
Alert Labs offers four sensors for smart buildings – a water flow sensor, a flood sensor, a sump pump sensor and an A/C monitoring sensor and system. Its A/C monitoring system and sensor, called Sentree, is designed to be installed by residential central A/C units, detecting temperature, pressure of liquid and vapor and real-time amperage numbers. The device connects with cellular networks and provides 24/7 remote monitoring of residential central air conditioning systems. As it detects issues, it will notify maintenance and building managers right away.

The water flow sensor, designed for indoor water meters, detects water leaks, floods, humidity, temperature, and power outages. For its instant alerts of all variable changes, the sensor can help reduce water bills and prevent damages. The flood sensor, on the other hand, focuses more specifically on water leakage and flooding. The sump pump sensor detects rising water levels, pending sump pump failures and floods, aiming to save on insurance and prevent any accidents. Furthermore, data gathered from all sensors can be presented on a back-end dashboard provided by Alert Labs.

The dashboard for homeowners, for instance, offers A/C performance and status; and the dashboard for contractors enables the service team to offer proactive mainte- nance and repairs. For managers who take care of several buildings, the company also has a command center, letting them monitor multiple properties in one place, assign service teams to individual properties, and receive alerts and A/C analytics.

Making Maintenance More Efficient
“A smart HVAC system enables contractors to send the right technician with the right parts to repair the problem on the first visit which reduces truck rolls and increases customer satisfaction,” said Tsintzouras. With the sensors around the HVAC system, contractors can keep equipment running more efficiently by knowing when issues are about to occur. Service or maintenance calls, therefore, can be cheduled before a breakdown happens.

Through a unified portal for both tenants and technicians, service calls can be scheduled by customers’ preference, reducing the frequency of off-hour emergency calls. “Property owners have insight into their buildings and can remotely adjust the system according to occupancy and time of day to save energy. The can also modify their behavior once they see how their property is performing or wasting energy with the incentive that they can save on their utility costs,” said Tsintzouras.

In addition to energy and cost saving, smart HVAC systems also improve management efficiency and building customers’ satisfaction. With smart sensors and the back-end analyzing and monitoring software, old buildings can also have the benefits from smart HVAC systems without replacing all the present equipment.

Mesh Frequency Bands in Smart Buildings
Wi-Fi, LoRa, Bluetooth, Zigbee… wireless connection frequency spectrums are crowded because of the rising number of connected devices around us. In addition to choosing one protocol, MiraOS, a mesh wireless network technology, could be another solution in smart buildings.

There are many connection protocols existing in the field of smart buildings, such as Wi-Fi, LoRa, Zigbee and Bluetooth. Each protocol has its best use Cases Wireless connections and power- efficiency, for the purpose of smart buildings, should be the most important features equal to selecting connection protocols. Bluetooth 5 and LoRa seem to currently be pretty promising in the field, due to their abilities to provide low power consumption and wide coverage connection for IoT devices in homes and buildings.

However, it’s pretty crowded between the wireless connectivity spectrums. IoT and M2M are thriving in the world, and many businesses are investing billions of sensors and actuators being wirelessly connected. According to a report by Gartner, it is estimated that around 20 billion devices will be connected by 2020. Another report by Ericsson predicts that 15.5 billion devices will be connected via short-range technology by 2020, accounting for 53% of all connected devices.

Furthermore, wireless protocols like Wi-Fi, Zigbee, Thread and Bluetooth all use the same frequency channel. The traffic jam might someday cause communication breakdown and service quality downgrading. “Many of the standard protocols available, such as BLE or Zigbee, do not have the capability to scale to thousands of nodes in one single network. They can neither cope with the amount of interference present in commercial buildings, nor are they energy-efficient enough to allow running the whole sensor solution on battery,” said Peter Lindkvist, Sales Director, Lumen Radio. These protocols don’t allow multi- protocol support. It means decision- making is difficult for smart building builders at the investment stage.

Guiding Networks to a Suitable Frequency
“MiraOS from LumenRadio is a best-of-breed wireless mesh for HVAC and Building Automation,” said Lindkvist. Mira operating system (MiraOS) is a future-proof wireless mesh network technology created and patented by LumenRadio. It enables mesh coexis- tence, ultra-lower power, over the air Firmware updates, easy commissioning and large-scale networks. The operating system is mainly powered by the company’s patented Cognitive Coexistence technology, an algorithm which enables real-time, adaptive frequency shopping.

“Within this algorithm, we build a predictive model of the frequency spectrum, where every single device weigh in the decision on the optimal channel to use in each individual (10ms) time slot,” said Lindkvist. Just like the weather forecast, the Cognitive Coexistence technology predicts how the frequency spectrum will be in the millisecond utilized and switch the connection to the best available and least congested frequencies.

Mesh Frequency Bands on Applications
Produal Proxima wireless solution, developed by building automation measurement and control company Produal, is created based on MiraOS from Lumen Radio and u-box NINA module. The solution, which includes several hardware devices, is able to route data from up to 100 wireless transmitters to automated buildings.

Swegon, a supplier of energy efficient and demand controlled ventilation (DCV) and indoor climate systems, is working with LumenRadio on a wireless climate control system – the WISE system. It is said to allow thousands of sensors, actuators and dampers to communicate and create an unprecedented indoor climate solution, helping buildings reduce energy consumption and operation costs, and increase the health of people in the building.

Unlicensed frequency bands, as more devices become connected, is today a scarce natural source. Frequency bands are just getting more crowded and congested day by day. Commercial buildings, are turning into an electro- magnetic mayhem, where different products and systems secure for airtime against smartphones and tenant Wi-Fi networks. “In order to remain reliable and enable industrial – and business-critical use cases, such as HVAC systems, OEMs must select agile technologies including strategies for interference mitigation,” said Lindkvist.

Smart HVAC Systems Vulnerable to Cyber Attacks
Like other connected devices, smart HVAC systems could also possibly be hacked. If attackers take over controls of HVAC systems, in the worst case, cities would break down and private data would be stolen.

All connected devices are standing under the risk of cyberattacks. Smart HVAC systems are no exception, either. Although IoT devices such as smart meters and HVAC unit sensors are not designed for web browsing, they do need to connect to the internet for data gathering, remote control and analytics. Their direct access to the internet, not in purpose, rather makes them major targets of cyber attackers, posing serious security threats for smart buildings.

Cybersecurity firm ForeScout Technologies have discovered that thousands of vulnerable IoT devices in heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems are vulnerable to cyberattacks. Its research showed that nearly 8,000 connected devices, mostly located in hospitals and schools, offered unauthorized access and were highly vulnerable to cyberattacks. Hacker’s manipulation from HVAC systems could possibly let them access private financial information and potentially retain unauthorized data in large companies. For special locations such as hospitals, dysfunctional smart HVAC systems could possibly harm patients who need to rest under certain temperatures and air flow. This type of attack scenario even has a codename – HVACKer.

Malware Uses Commands to Control HVAC Systems
To carry out attacks on an HVAC systems, hackers would first identify an HVAC system connected to the internet or sitting on a connected internal network. Besides looking for HVAC systems, hackers might also look for building automation software, which incorporates an HVAC component as well. Once they identify such systems, they will try to breach and take control of it. Then, they will import their custom malware to the system in order to infect other devices and computers on the same network. Malware, meanwhile, is mostly used to send commands, instead of stealing data. Sending commands on HVAC systems, however, is still dangerous. Theoretically, hackers could break into air conditioners across a smart city and turn on all of them, to cause a power surge that could disable a city’s power grid.

A Security First Principle Needs to be Put in Place
“Cybersecurity is an incredibly important issue that everybody has to deal with today,” said Sudhi Sinha, Vice President & General Manager, Digital Solutions at Johnson Controls. The first step to achieve cyber safety in a smart HVAC system, suggested Sinha, is for the supplier to have a robust product security program, which spans from product architecture, design, development, support and data management. Next, customers need to ensure that their networks and port are safe and not exposed to any vulnerabilities. To build a cyber-safe HVAC ecosystem requires every partner to take part in. Cybersecurity should be designed from the ground-up, with the final product being the management and data analytics software. Johnson Controls, for example, has a Security First principle in its development processes and product launch. It also provides cyber solutions tailored for the unique needs of each building, ensuring daily tracking of potential threats and provide rapid incident response.

“For cybersecurity, people need to be proactive and vigilant. It is better if companies adopt standard security frameworks,” said Sinha. For instance, buildings can ensure that they have industrial grade encryption solutions such as 128-bit AES, a running network or protocol supporting IPv6 traffic, and an IP-based security solution added on top like certificate handling or DTLS.

Market Needs for Smart HVAC Systems
In addition to smart home and smart residential buildings, needs for smart HVAC systems are also rising in offices and commercial buildings. Remote diagnostics and monitoring of smart HVAC systems, on the other hand, will become more important in the industry.

Smart HVAC systems help smart buildings save energy consumption and operation costs. As many buildings are looking to become smarter, needs for smart HVAC systems are also rising. “Demand for smart HVAC systems is definitely there and increasing,” said Sudhi Sinha, Vice President & General Manager, Digital Solutions, Johnson Controls.

“There’s a strong push for creating more intelligent, on-demand solutions within the HVAC industry right now – driven by energy-efficiency require- ments, but also by the need to enable new data-driven business models and to create new service-related revenue streams for the big OEM’s (Ventilation- as-a-Service),” said Peter Lindkvist, Sales Director, Lumen Radio.

Smart HVAC Systems in Offices
“Smart living technologies are becoming popular outside of residential and hospitality spaces,” said Sinha. In general, people are spending a signif- icant portion of their lives in workplaces. Of course, they would want to feel more comfortable and engaging in this space, helping them become more focused and productive in their jobs. Smart building solutions in workplaces are more popular, suggested Sinha, “because it gives employees a sense of power to control their own spaces and use those spaces within facilities more effectively.”

“We have seen productivity increase by up to 20 percent in certain cases, employee retention by 10 percent, and innovation increase manifold. We have seen this happen across multiple industries and geographies,” said Sinha. For now, although more millennials have shown their preference on smart building technology, Sinha believed, other generations of people feel equally appreciative of it.

Remote Diagnostics Assists all HVAC Technicians
Recruiting HVAC technician talents with the right experience is time-consuming. As a contracted technician, they need to always keep up with service demands, business requests and retain happy customers. A smart HVAC system will also help on their job.

”HVAC business owners are looking for ways to do more with less. Consumers are also looking for ways to expand their smart building capabilities beyond thermostats and lighting,” said George Tsintzouras, CEO of Alert Labs. HVAC systems integrated with smart sensors are able to detect room temper- ature, humidity, water leaks and floods. In the near future, machine learning will further expand the capability of smart HVAC systems. Smart HVAC systems powered by machine learning are able to send alerts about potential issues as sensor readings are abnormal, before a customer really experiences a problem.

“Remote diagnostics are fairly new in the HVAC marketplace, but there are out-of-the-box solutions that are already providing contractors across North America with new business opportunities and growth,” said Tsintzouras. “Remote diagnostics and smart monitoring systems will be available in every technician’s truck in the near future.”

Market Challenges
“There are a few challenges that need to be addressed – cybersecurity, engagement with IT organizations, wireless and communication reliability because of the interference zones in areas where usually HVAC systems are kept, retrofitting and compatibility with older systems, data sovereignty in case of cloud systems,” said Sinha. “And most importantly operator and technician training around new digital and smart HVAC capabil- ities.”

Peter Lindkvist, Sales Director, Lumen Radio, on the other hand, mentioned other challenges for smart HVAC systems: “who should or could own the data, what services are building operators and real-estate owners ready to pay for, and design new product platforms that can scale well enough across large venues to allow fully integrated solutions.” The demand for more connected buildings and smart HVAC systems are growing. All partners should gather together, solving these challenges, and work on the next-generation smart building solutions.