When the lights are on but no-one’s at home it’s obviously a good time to turn off the lights – and everything else. A new Australian energy efficiency solution can do that and more.

The bottom line profit of every business could get an instant boost if only energy were used more efficiently. Alas, money leeches out of the built environment as empty rooms are kept warm and illuminated for no purpose at all.

Building management systems have leapt ahead over the decades but they too often think of a whole building as a single unit. If building managers had a fly on every wall to let them know what was going on in each nook and cranny, they’d only want to pay to power the spaces where something was going on.

A system that can break down large spaces into small areas makes enormous sense, especially if it can adjust all the energy levers accordingly.

Canberra company Ecospectral says it has the solution with BRIM, a sensing control and energy demand management solution. “We can shrink-wrap the energy use around the occupants while at the same time not making them uncomfortable,” says Ecospectral CEO David Keightley. “We don’t power the areas that are not being used.”

Moving parts

The problem of fitting an operation’s energy use to its essential purpose is far more complex than asking staff not to fiddle with the air-conditioning controls or leave the lights on.

The BRIM system tracks human motion, temperature, light and sound to analyse what’s happening where and when. “You end up with a very accurate idea of how your building is used,” says Keightley.

Instead of including sensors in all the lights, which would require they be left powered, BRIM works by including different circuits. “It’s very low power, and when no-one’s in the place you shut the power off completely to the lighting circuit and you use a lot less power.”

The hardware includes three pieces of technology: link, hub and sensor. The link connects to a bridge and controls the mesh network. It can also connect the system onto the ethernet platform to support wireless, serial communications and other capabilities. It also has enough power to process some signals, such as LIDAR (light detection and ranging) and visual information.

The sensors detect and process four signals: audio, motion, temperature and ambient light. Decisions are made at the sensor in real time to minimise bandwidth and information that is passed up to the next level, the link level. “At the sensor level frankly you’ve got enough brains so that if the rest of the system is unplugged frequently you won’t notice it,” Keightley says. “It continues to run optimally on the last settings.”

The hub and the bridge work together, effectively as one unit. One hub can receive up to 50 links and sensors, and a link can receive up to five sensors.

In situ

The company has installed Version 1.0 of the hardware at three sites in the ACT – a gym in Queanbeyan, the library at the Australian National University and a Canberra office building – and a building in the Sydney CBD. The company is busy working on its largest installation, at a government office in Canberra.

At the ANU library project 12 links are each connected to up to 20 lights and a couple of sensors that can control a number of lights. At a central CBD car park, the system controls lights, supplies traffic flow information and runs a power switch that controls the lights. The sensors can link back to power or directly to the devices.

Upgrades in Version 2.0 (expected to go into production in January) include a new sensor which Keightley proudly declares is “a powerful little machine”. A boost to processing power in the sensor allows for “very quick, very smart” decisions to be made using multiple signal sources as to what’s going on in a space.

“We found we could offer much more capability, more processing power with the new sensor,” says Keightley, a former senior researcher at the CSIRO.

Intelligent energy efficiency systems help managers do a better job, and some customers’ secondary motivation for purchase is so they can simply understand what’s happening in their building, Keightley says.

Each sensor uses about 100-150 milliamps and slips into sleep mode when no-one’s around. They wake up when movement is detected. Buildings can take hundreds of sensors connected to mains power, with customers advised to connect the units to an emergency circuit.

Value chain

With the sensors “sipping power” or using none at all, Keightley estimates payback on installed BRIM systems between one and five years. “It really depends on whether [the customer has] given us control over the power and how the space is used,” he says. “If we’re allowed to shut power off at the circuit level then we see significant savings more quickly, and if we’re allowed to shut down HVAC in areas that aren’t occupied then we see more savings.”

The technology uses past data to predict optimal settings, so that recorded comings and goings are tallied to calculate probabilities that rooms will be occupied during certain times and that bodies will move from one part of a building to another. “Every event we see we do analysis on.”

Statistical anomalies such as loud noises, unexpected movement or out-of-range temperature or light readings may throw up red flags to building managers or, if they keep happening, be absorbed into the new normal. “The system is adaptive to changing behaviour.”

Data is passed to the cloud on a five-minute delay but the real-time analysis the sensors provide allows the system to give emergency responders information on location of people, noises in a building and other information. “You know what your building sounds like, what the temperature pattern is where the people move. Anything out of the ordinary you pick up.”

Thinking ahead

As battery storage is slowly added to commercial and industrial energy systems a fine-grained control of load will help optimise energy use if power goes out. A system that can intelligently load-shed straight away will keep key functions running and shutdown power to non-essentials, extending battery life. “If you’re a hospital and you’ve got an operating theatre, it doesn’t load-shed,” says Keightley, also adding that his company is in the middle of integrating with a large battery manufacturer. There are nine levels of load-shedding, and as a battery discharges the levels of load-shedding can be dialed up.

In case you’re curious, BRIM is not an acronym. Keightley admits his system may be the first energy efficiency technology in the world named after a fish, the bream. Conveniently, bream rhymes with brim, a sometime synonym for “leading edge”, which is another reason Keightley likes the name.

Ecospectral started operations in 2014 with the help of private investors and some grant funding from the ACT Government and the Renewable Energy Innovation Fund.