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The energy usage of more than two million square feet of Toronto office and commercial space is being monitored using SensorSuite’s systems. (MURAT YUKSELIR AND PAUL ATTFIELD/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
The energy usage of more than two million square feet of Toronto office and commercial space is being monitored using SensorSuite’s systems. (MURAT YUKSELIR AND PAUL ATTFIELD/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Green Solutions

Last person out, the building will turn off the lights Add to ...

Though provincial incentives to reward energy efficiency may give commercial landlords a financial impetus, many find it is also a necessity for attracting tenants. But in older buildings, it’s not that easy to become more energy efficient.

“Landlords recognize that in order to competitively market their properties and attract tenants they have to be proactive, they can’t sit back and just wait until the lease comes up for expiry because they’re going to lose the tenant,” says Greg Moore, senior managing director at CBRE Project Management Canada. “So they’ve recognized that they have to stay ahead of the game.”

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One of the ways older buildings can become more energy efficient is through the use of technology. Toronto-based SensorSuite, for instance, has a system that, through sensors placed at various points in a commercial building, allow for fully automated or remote control over its energy systems.

The energy usage of more than two million square feet of Toronto office and commercial space is being monitored using SensorSuite’s systems, which helps building owners and landlords be as efficient as possible, especially in older buildings that don’t have more modern, efficient systems and structures.

“We’re very much focused on the retrofit market because there are just so many buildings and they all need help,” says SensorSuite founder and chief executive officer Robert Platek.

The company, which was created two years ago at Ryerson University’s Digital Media Zone, is a natural progression for Mr. Platek, who has been tinkering with computers since he was a child, and who has a background in engineering.

In its most basic sense, his company establishes self-sufficient electronic nervous systems for buildings to monitor occupancy and energy usage, using a network of wireless sensors that relay information to building managers and owners via apps on their tablets or cellphones. This allows for variable lighting, heating and cooling, depending on whether a hotel room, conference room or ballroom is being used, or sitting empty.

Other companies are filling the residential and commercial smart-energy-usage field. For instance, Google this year bought Nest Labs Inc. for $3.2-billion (U.S.). The company manufactures, among other things, self-learning thermostats. Mr. Platek says his devices build on that concept.

“If you look at the Nest, there’s actually a motion sensor built in, as well as temperature [gauges] and a whole bunch of other stuff. So they actually try to determine if you’re home or not and that’s how they heat or cool the place. So it’s based on occupancy.”

SensorSuite’s systems also employ the use of CO2 sensors, in addition to motion sensors, so not only can it detect if people are in a room, it can also use its readings of carbon dioxide to determine roughly how many people are occupying the space, and adjust the room’s energy systems accordingly.

“Using those two kinds of sensors, we can actually have a pretty comprehensive view of the room to see if there’s occupancy or not and then be able to control it,” Mr. Platek says. “So we started with HVAC [heating, ventilation, and air conditioning] and now we’re actually getting into lighting as well.”

That was at the behest of one of SensorSuite’s hotel clients, which suggested that, since the company was already monitoring its HVAC systems to ensure more efficient running, why not simply take control of the lighting systems as well?

SensorSuite has since branched out into monitoring refrigeration, boilers and water leaks through its systems, too, allowing property managers and landlords to get comprehensive updates on their buildings. The company relies on a proprietary 900 megahertz mesh network to achieve its wireless capabilities, rather than relying on WiFi, as the mesh offers far greater range, particularly when delving into basements and other concrete-encased spaces that may have an effect on connectivity.

But SensorSuite’s systems have also been designed to function even in the event that some of its sensors go offline.

“So there are motion sensors, CO2 sensors, there’s a controller on the wall, they’re all talking to each other and then [the system is] making decisions about this room and this is replicated in every single [room],” Mr. Platek says. “They’re all using each other to talk to each other so that the network remains stable. Even if a couple of nodes die, it reroutes around them.”

Regardless of the technology they use, when businesses take action to become more energy efficient, the potential effect can be huge.

Initiatives such as CivicAction’s Race to Reduce have shown that the potential in this area can be sizable. A collaborative four-year initiative among commercial tenants and landlords in the Toronto-Hamilton area, the Race projects that a 10-per-cent cut in energy consumption across the GTA’s 1,750 buildings would reduce consumption by 545-million kilowatt-hours, a cost reduction of more than $40-million.

To help in these kinds of endeavours, the Ontario government is offering a number of rebates, such as its energy audit rebate of up to 50 per cent to companies that want to minimize their energy consumption. Similar programs are offered throughout much of Canada. For instance, in New Brunswick, a program offers a maximum of $75,000 toward energy retrofitting project costs in commercial buildings, while Quebec offers a maximum of $275,000 in a similar initiative.

As a result, the opportunities for firms who can pinpoint areas of energy excess have rarely been greater.

Infographic: How sensors make a building green

Follow on Twitter: @paulattfield

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