Pipeline Exclusive: IoT Technology in Mid-Market Commercial Properties, Part 1

When it comes to domestic water, we haven’t really seen a widely scaled platform in which one can connect and control different aspects of the plumbing system.

by Adam Bartman and Avishai Moscovich, P.Eng, LEED AP

Figure 1

In this series of articles, we will go over the common plumbing systems in commercial and multi-residential buildings and the current technologies available in the market. We will cover what an ideal low-cost technology looks like and which asset types are set to benefit the most. Lastly, we will look in detail at specific applications of how current market Internet of things (IoT) technology can advance the latest domestic water system design standards.

Long-Ignored System

In every commercial or multi-unit residential building, there are three primary mechanical systems: HVAC, fire protection, and plumbing. In terms of monitoring, controls, and real-time performance data, plumbing has been mostly ignored (see Figure 1). HVAC systems are largely controlled by a centralized system (often referred as a building automation system, or BAS). The fire protection system is connected to the local fire departments via the building’s fire panel. When it comes to domestic water, we haven’t really seen a widely scaled platform in which one can connect and control different aspects of the plumbing system.

The Underserved Mid-Market

Figure 2

If you plot building asset types on a spectrum (see Figure 2), on one side we have single-family residential homes and on the other end we have Class A office towers.

In the past five years, the single-family residential market has been well served by the likes of Amazon, Google, and Apple with their smart home products and services. On the other end of the spectrum, the Class A office towers typically have both the budget and the expertise to apply building automation system (BAS) control and monitoring capabilities. If you look at the middle of the spectrum, you will find a large underserved market, which we call the mid-market. The mid-market includes a variety of asset types such as new multifamily condos, small to medium office buildings, schools, big-box retail buildings, industrial buildings, and strip malls. The commonality between these mid-market buildings, from a controls and monitoring perspective, is that they have no visibility or connectivity as it relates to domestic plumbing systems.

Needs and Challenges

Figure 3

Before we delve into how you can advance design standards of plumbing systems, let’s take a look at common day-to-day challenges in a commercial building. We’re seeing buildings that are five to eight years post-construction that are already experiencing pinholes, such as frequent pressure-reducing valve (PRV) failures causing water hammer and temperature imbalance in suites where no one is aware these fixtures require annual service. We see shutoff valves that seized within a couple years because no one had exercised them since the building was commissioned. If we look at the type of fixtures in a domestic plumbing system, these are manually operated shutoff valves, manually read meters, as well as manually read, non-calibrated gauges and thermometers. Overall, there is lack of visibility and feedback information on the performance of the domestic plumbing systems, and this often causing havoc in buildings.

We can qualify the typical water-related challenges that a mid-market building is facing on a regular basis into three categories (see Figure 3).

  1. Improve their day-to-day operations. For example, simplify the process to shut down risers for maintenance work.
  2. Conserve water in areas where water rates are getting more expensive and the operational expenses on water are increasing without an apparent reason.
  3. Managing risk from water escape and floods—for example, if a building is experiencing frequent drain backup and needs a way to better manage that risk.

These three types of challenges are common among all of the mid-market properties no matter their size or shape. Whether a plaza or a 50-story condominium, most of their needs and challenges relating to domestic plumbing fall into one of these three categories.

Timing Is Important

It is important to understand the right timing to implement IoT technology into a building. There are certain opportunities in which adding connected technology to the plumbing system makes sense and provides significant value with rapid payback. We’ve identified three ideal opportunities to consider:

First, when designing a new building you have a lot of flexibility in the design elements and can apply wide-scale new technology. With open walls and ceilings, it is easy to install and wire connected sensors and fixtures. Furthermore, very often, the labor is neutral. It’s just a matter of, for example, installing an actuated valve in lieu of a manual valve.

Figure 4

Second, you are looking to solve a specific need. Going back to the day-to-day challenges of a building owner, if they are experiencing pinholes on the recirculating header far earlier than they should, resulting in frequent water escape, leaks, and floods, this is an opportunity to add connectivity to the plumbing system.

Third, commercial properties have capital improvement plans that include plumbing system upgrades—for example, replacing all of the riser valves where it makes sense to consider actuated valves as the labor is already accounted for in the budget.

Internet of Things (IoT) Technology as a Game Changer

Let’s explore in more detail how IoT technology is changing the game. Solutions prior to the Internet of Things (IoT) for the mid-market, by far the largest market segment of commercial and multifamily buildings, were limited due to cost or technical capabilities. When it comes to consumer products, they’re often not scalable (see Figure 4). The software is intended for a residential home and not a commercial building. It’s not as flexible with applications, but rather intended with one specific purpose—for example, connecting a home’s ¾-inch water supply pipe, communicating water usage, or shutting off the main line in case of emergency. When you need to connect 2- and 3-inch butterfly valves with a few pressure sensors to one platform, the consumer products come up short with limited capabilities.

Figure 5

On the other hand, a building automation system (BAS) has all of the technical capabilities but is very expensive. A BAS is often more associated with the HVAC system, not the domestic plumbing system, and particularly for a mid-market building, it is cost prohibitive.

An ideal IoT-based water management solution for the mid-market, should meet a few basic aspects (see Figure 5). Most importantly, it has to be low cost. It should be scalable, with the ability to easily expand an installation from a small to a very large application while maintaining low costs. Furthermore, it should be able to connect to a variety of sensors. To understand system performance data, we need actual system conditions such as temperature, pressure, and velocity to make informed decisions. Lastly, it needs to be easily retrofitted into existing buildings, non-invasive, and easily installed by a plumber or service provider rather than a specialized technician.

In Part 2, we will dive deeper into the applications of IoT technology in mid-market commercial properties.

Adam Bartman is a second generation Red Seal Endorsed plumber from Toronto, Ontario. He began his career working alongside his father every summer from age 14-18. Utilizing his plumbing experience and passion to technology, he co-founded reed to bring plumbing system online helping landlords, and service providers manage water at commercial properties.

Avishai Moscovich P.Eng. LEED AP is a CMO at reed, in charge of the company’s sales and brand strategy. Previously, he was Global Marketing Manager at Armstrong Fluid Technology and a mechanical consulting engineer at AECOM. Avishai is an engineering graduate of Ryerson University and holds an Executive MBA from Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and not the American Society of Plumbing Engineers.

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