Wireless and Cable Coexist Hand-in-Glove

By Staff February 1, 2006

On its face, the notion of wireless and wired systems working in harmony seems crazy, but proponents of both sides see neither technology as mutually exclusive. During the AHR expo in Chicago last month, a day-long seminar on intelligent buildings was conducted. One of the speakers was Rob Conant, vice president of business development with Dust Networks, Hayward, Calif., who presented a case study on a wireless application at an existing medical facility in Chicago. He also spoke in general terms about the state of the technology. First, he said the development of mesh networks, which beam signals from device to device, opposed to the former homerun-style point-to-point model (see A Fine Mesh You’ve Gotten Us Into, Zigbee! ), has solved the “break in the pipe” problem, making wireless much more robust. Wireless technology today, he added, is also extremely fast and easy to install, with up to a 50% reduction in labor. And in the case of the Chicago clinic, it helped avoid major asbestos abatement issues.

“In a room like this [a large conference room] there should be 200 sensor points,” said Conant. “People don’t install that many sensors because it’s too expensive, but that’s changing as we’re approaching the last 100 ft. of the last mile,” he added, referring to an analogy he made about laying railroad track across country.

In the case of the clinic, done in conjunction with Teng Solutions, the system, consisting of 46 nodes, was installed in two hours. Of course, wireless sensor cost is still an issue, so reduced labor must be weighed against the added cost of the devices.

In the course of Q&A, someone from the session asked if wireless systems are completely wireless, and the answer is no.

According to Jed Barker, director of global accounts with Tinley Park, Ill.-based Panduit, you still need a lot of wiring just to set up you wireless system. “Plus there are security and operational issues. For example, fire alarms, which you still want hard wired. So they’re not really in conflict, but are more complementary to each other,” said Barker.

And like mesh networking, structured cabling, the “nervous system” of an intelligent building, according to Barker, has also made a lot of strides in recent years. Perhaps the greatest advance has been the incorporation of zone-cabling schemes where homerun strategies have been eliminated in favor of the zone scheme which builds multiple sources for cable to radiate in a building opposed to the single “home” location. Zone strategies, he said, can save $100,000 in initial expenses per application. So cabling still can be a manageable operation. The additional benefit is that it’s a scalable and flexible solution.

So what’s the future of wireless? Is it a niche application? According to Conant, it’s a lot like having broadband Internet access in your home. The first challenge is getting it there, but once you do, there are lots of opportunities.

As far as security concerns, Dave Clute of Cisco, another session panel member, pointed out that the OSCRE organization—Open Standards Consortium for Real Estate—is pushing for standard developments. The group is keyed in heavily to the IT side of networking standards, according to Clute, but is trying to build something that makes sense. “We follow the lead wherever we can,” he said.

On the floor of AHR, Johnson Controls had one of the more visible exhibits promoting wireless technology. The company is very optimistic about its future. “Five years ago we wouldn’t have even had any wireless devices,” said JCI’s John Ruiz. “But with the cost of cable, including installation, and the flexibility wireless provides, we really see those as the drivers.”

Futhermore, it’s something, he said, that’s sexy to a lot of developers. “The expectation is there,” added Ruiz.

To date, the company has mostly installed systems in commercial office buildings, where Ruiz’ colleague Terry Hoffman proclaims, that given churn, its a “no brainer.” Wireless networks, however, are also making headway into the health-care market as that sector becomes increasing digital.

One particular reason for this transition is the technology’s ability to go beyond building systems. “In hospitals, there’s so much telemetry that you can literally have sensors on the patients themselves, allowing them the ability to go where they want, and simply ‘buzz’ the system if they have a problem,” said Hoffman.

But what’s really at stake is the present. “We have to press on [finding applications for wireless],” he said. Technology is changing too fast to wait.”