EnOcean gains Microsoft support, hopes to standardize intelligent buildings

Microsoft has joined the EnOcean Alliance as a board member, singing the praises of the energy-harvesting wireless communication protocol and its potential to transform connected buildings. In the same week that Semtech has joined CABA, Microsoft is hoping that these newly connected systems are going to require some cloud computing resources, for which it can handily provide Azure.

Riot has been keeping tabs on EnOcean for quite some time. Back in 2015, EnOcean announced a collaboration with Zigbee, which opened it up to the 2.4GHz spectrum, expanding from its previous sub-GHz focus. Microsoft has also been working in proximity to EnOcean for some time, with its 2016 announcement that its IoTivity-AllJoyn bridge software would also be supporting EnOcean. These two have some history together, but Microsoft joining the board is a step forward.

EnOcean’s technology (IEC 14543-3-1X) has fostered a comprehensive supporting ecosystem – with the aforementioned integration with Zigbee, as well as BACnet, LEED, and KNX. The standard itself governs the Physical, Data Link, and Network layers, while the EnOcean Equipment Profiles are essentially the Application layer, and are standardized by the EnOcean Alliance – rather than EnOcean the company.

Inside the EnOcean Alliance, Microsoft joins BSC, Digital Concepts, Eltako, EnOcean, Honeywell, IBM, Vertuoz (Engie), and ViCOS, as a promoter member. The full list of members is available here, and includes ABB, CABA, Emerson, NTT, Osram, Schneider Electric, Siemens, and STMicro.

The main selling point for EnOcean is its wire-free installation. Sure, you could wire-in a replacement light switch, but the promise of EnOcean-enabled switches is that you don’t have to worry about replacing batteries, that you aren’t limited in placement choices by available power lines, and that you can quite literally stick a new sensor or switch wherever you like – without having to replace batteries. The cost of replacing hundreds to thousands of batteries in a large building is significant, both in materials and labor, but the sales pitch here is that is a problem that can be completely bypassed.

Large buildings represent some of the biggest growth areas for the IoT. Whether it is the building owner or the building’s manager, there will come a time when that person makes a purchasing decision that will open up the whole of the building for new connected products.

For example, a new HVAC system would introduce a new cloud-connected boiler that has predictive maintenance capabilities, or air conditioners that can be controlled in unison. Both can be fed by environmental sensors installed in the building, to pull the ambient temperatures, as well as informed by local weather data. Additional thermostats and zone control systems, as well as occupancy sensors to work out which rooms are being used and are therefore in need of active adjustments, add to this number – and suddenly, a new HVAC system in one building might easily account for a hundred IoT devices.

That number obviously increases with the size of a building, but this mechanism applies to all manner of other applications. A new security and access control system would necessitate cameras, connected locks, and RFID sensors, and a new fire alarm installation could account for new connected alarms, sensors and dynamic emergency lighting. The same goes for any upgrades for water, electric, or gas servicing, and on the topic of energy, what better way to get into some major IoT-based upgrades than a rooftop-solar array and supporting battery storage systems. Perhaps the application that would swell IoT numbers the most is lighting, with at least one bulb in each room, and sometimes ranging to dozens or even triple-figures.

Newly constructed buildings are going to have more of these features than older ones, but there’s still a huge opportunity for retrofit services. Many of the aforementioned functions can easily be grafted onto existing property, and there are very few applications we can think of that would necessitate constructing a new building.

To this end, as every building is an immense IoT opportunity, this is a huge market for the integrators that service the building owners or management companies – especially if they have a use case on hand that shows a clear return on investment.

These are easiest in any application that deals with utilities, with HVAC, lighting, and water being the most obvious. There are many other angles to these, with tangential functions being occupancy monitoring, intuitive shut-off valves or switches, and simple sensors on doors and windows that can tell a controller system whether the door is open or shut.

But there are other angles that are a little more tangential, which are complicated by the fact that there’s a clear value in having them but not an obvious dollar-sign to attach to them. Maintenance crews would love the asset tracking abilities, to quickly find the particular thing they have been called out to fix. HR would love to know how long a problem-employee spends at their desk, but would struggle to put a concrete per-employee value on that ability. Similarly, an office planner would like to know how people are using a new common area, to gauge their own RoI for use in future projects, but they likely can’t tell you how much they could pay for that. Those could be gleaned from cameras and access cards, but employees are going to be uneasy about their employers going full-Big-Brother on them.

The overarching dynamic at play though is that over time, these services are going to come down in price. As this happens, it becomes easier for the integrator to offer them to the purchaser, and easier for them to agree to, which in turn, further drives IoT adoption.

This is part of the ‘evolutionary not revolutionary’ ethos that we have written about extensively. There won’t come a time when the trigger-puller decides that the whole building is going to be upgraded, rather that over time, each new installation adds devices or systems that fall under the IoT umbrella.