Sensors for Commercial Smart Building Management

Author: Dominique Bonte

Creating a smart environment is impossible without a thorough, real-time awareness of conditions and fluctuations within a building. And sensors are a key component in gathering the required real-time intelligence. After the enduring impacts of the global COVID-19 pandemic, commercial building management systems are held to new standards as many companies transition back to the office. For example, occupancy sensing is important for designing smaller, more flexible workspaces for hybrid environments.

But beyond occupancy sensors, smart buildings leverage a range of other types of sensors that support Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning (HVAC), air quality, maintenance, and flood prevention, to name a few. A greater number of qualitative and quantitative data translates to greater control over a building—and more profitability.

Incentives for Commercial Building Managers to Invest in Smart Technologies

At the end of the day, property owners have one main reason to deploy smart building sensors: monetary gain. Indeed, Return on Investment (ROI) can come from a number of channels. However, other motivations stem from public safety concerns and compliance.

  • Energy Savings: Investing in smart building technologies helps identify sources of energy waste. As an example, occupancy sensors can ensure that lights are turned off in unoccupied rooms, spaces, and units.
  • High Property Value: A property that possesses greater space utilization capabilities and environmental care is more attractive than properties that do not. According to the European Commission (EC) report The Macroeconomic and Other Benefits of Energy Efficiency, smart buildings have about 11.8% greater lease value and up to 35% higher sales value. Moreover, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) study concluded that smart building owners collect, on average, 37% higher rent than other property owners.
  • More Flexibility: The shift back to in-office work environments also comes with a need for smaller and more adaptable shared spaces. These work conditions require greater control over resources.
  • Health and Wellbeing: The COVID-19 pandemic brought the health liability of a building environment to the forefront of corporate issues.  As a result, there is a growing need for smart sensors that can measure air quality, an individual’s temperature level, and the number of people in a space, among other factors.
  • Environmental Reporting: Both commercial and residential buildings face pressure from local and national authorities to track environmental impact. Of course, this will require sensors to be installed in smart buildings as a means to collect data. Using these data, building managers can detect inefficiencies and find ways to improve performance/value. Additionally, Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) reporting is seen as a way to increase the value of the property. For example, a smart apartment can pull in more residents because the technologies provide greater convenience and comfort.

Clearly, there are substantial reasons to make a building “smarter.” So, let’s explore several types of sensors that make it all possible and can be used to strengthen building management systems.

Heating and Cooling on Autopilot 

People want to feel comfortable whether it’s in an office building, an apartment unit, a museum, a hotel, or somewhere else. Above all, automating a building’s heating and cooling is key to delivering comfort. HVAC systems are made smarter when they can detect temperature fluctuations in specific rooms or zones and automatically adjust accordingly. Temperature sensor use cases can even extend to something like detecting hot desks in a work office setting—to enhance resource planning and space utilization.

How Do Humidity Sensors Work?

Humidity sensors are key to smart HVAC control, as humidity goes hand-in-hand with air quality management. The three types of humidity sensors are:

  • Capacitive Sensors: Capacitive sensors are reliant on water vapor and have an electric insulator at the center, which is surrounded by two electrodes. When vapor hits the electrodes, a voltage change is recorded.
  • Resistive Sensors: While not quite as sensitive as capacitive, resistive sensors operate similarly. The main difference is that resistive sensors use ions in salts to measure a change in humidity instead of water vapor.
  • Thermal Sensors: A thermal sensor is dual-sensor-based. While one sensor is exposed to the air and measures ambient quality in an area of a building, the other is enclosed in a nitrogen-layered chamber. The difference between the two determines an accurate reading of humidity.

Extending Equipment and System Life Span with Maintenance Sensors

As any building manager will attest, maintaining equipment can be timely and expensive. Fortunately, maintenance sensors like Infineon’s Internet of Things (IoT)-enabled XENSIV sensors, can provide predictive maintenance and condition monitoring for an abundance of equipment and systems. Maintenance sensing extends to monitoring smart building components like:

  • HVAC equipment
  • Motors
  • Fans
  • Drives
  • Compressors
  • Refrigeration


Chart Source: ABI Research




For more smart building sensor forecasts and use cases, download the report: Smart Commercial Building Sensing


The Many Technologies Enabling Occupancy Sensing and Presence Control in Smart Buildings

Occupancy sensing and presence control technology shipments will grow at a Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 47% between 2019 and 2030, with nearly 80 million shipments expected in 2030. That’s a far cry from the 1 million shipments in 2019. The underlying motivations for adopting these technologies come from safety occupation limits, energy management, and emerging concerns like air quality and space allocation.

Below is a further breakdown of occupancy sensing and presence control technologies for building management.

High- or Low-Resolution Cameras: More functionality than other sensors and also enable real-time visual confirmation of occupancy status, individual tracking, and object recognition. On the downside, this deployment requires expensive upfront costs and can be seen as an invasion of privacy.

Passive Infrared (PIR) Motion Sensors: Usually the least expensive sensor for monitoring movement and occupancy sensing. As the pyroelectric sensors detect heat energy in the Line of Sight (LoS), it activates an action like setting an alarm or turning on a light.

Pressure Sensors: Installed at the threshold of an area, these types of sensors provide data on foot traffic, occupancy, and where clear entry/exit points exist.

LiDAR)/60 Gigahertz (GHz) Radar/Ultrasonic: Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) applications are greatly beneficial for hygiene and social distancing mandates because the technology can scrutinize individuals and objects to a great degree. Moreover, vendors like TDK InvenSense utilize Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems (MEMS)-based ultrasonic time-of-flight sensing to offer improved accuracy and detail in perceiving slight motions.

Microphones: On one hand, voice detection is another great avenue for occupancy monitoring. But on the other hand, it’s an unlikely deployment because eavesdropping on conversations introduces a host of privacy concerns.

Avoiding Water Leakage with Flood Sensors

The cost of water damage restoration is US$3.75 per square foot, according to National Flood Services. And that’s just for category 1 clean water; for category 2 gray water and category 3 black water, water damage restoration costs are US$4.50 per square foot and US$7 per square foot, respectively. However, building managers can avoid this pricey repair by deploying flood sensors. Flood sensors provide real-time notifications to circumvent costly damage in vulnerable areas or where expensive equipment/machinery is located. Some of these sensors let users modify water detection sensitivity to dodge false alarms produced by high humidity levels. Other products can sense when the room temperature approaches the freezing point, which contributes to pipe bursting. That way, facility managers can take the necessary steps to prevent failures before they materialize.

Reducing Operational Costs by Keeping Tabs on the Building’s Electrical Current

Electrical Current Transformer (CT) sensors measure the current flowing through an electrical conductor. The building’s energy flow is measured via a wire and the magnetic field. Electrical CTs take large, often dangerous voltages and break them down into smaller and more manageable energy outputs that are proportionate between the primary and secondary circuits. The four main types of CT sensors are:

  • Split Core: Can be opened and molded around a conductor, which makes it well-suited for existing setups.
  • Hall Effect/Direct-Current (DC): Monitors both Alternating Current (AC) and DC and can either be open or closed loop.
  • Rogowski Coil: Flexible and requires minimal effort for installation. It measures AC currents with a thin coil wrapped around the conductor and shut closed.
  • Solid Core: Highly accurate and ideal for new installations.  These are complete loops that cannot be pried open—preventing debris from negatively affecting the accuracy of a meter.

Smart Building Management Enters a New Stage

The world today emphasizes energy and environmental control more than ever. A wide variety of sensors and enabling technologies can support smart building management by measuring desired criteria in enormous detail. These technologies provide far greater autonomy than in the past, making them pivotal to improving building performance (e.g., climate action, comfort, energy consumption).

Vendors can expect fierce competition in this growing market. Technologies like PIR, LiDAR, and ultrasonic will all be popular enablers of building intelligence. At the same time, many potential customers will be hesitant to adopt brand-new solutions and will wait to see how others implement sensing technologies. While keeping an eye on the future with new innovative products, vendors should also strive for technological breakthroughs with existing building sensors, such as more precise insights, multi-functionality, and easier deployment.