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Lourdes and Priyank
VENTOS team members Lourdes Gutierrez and Priyank Kapadia at the Connected Buildings Challenge in Seattle.

Ever wish you could say: “Alexa, how much water am I using?” or “Siri, lower the house’s energy input?”

That reality may not be as far off as you think. Five teams of students, entrepreneurs, and engineers are working to make these kinds of connected buildings a reality through the Connected Buildings Challenge, a first-ever competition organized by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) and the United States Department of Energy.

The five finalists, who presented demos today in Seattle, are working to make buildings more energy efficient using PNNL’s VOLTTRON, an open-source platform for sensing and controlling energy use. They were able to show their work to potential partners, including Microsoft, the City of Seattle, and Amazon’s Alexa team.

Nora Wang, research scientist at the PNNL and project lead for the challenge, said the buildings of tomorrow will provide comprehensive benefits to society and to the occupants, with gadgets that help save energy. While consumer surveys indicate that building owners are interested in reducing energy use, most of the gadgets available in homes and commercial buildings are designed around entertainment.

“We do see a disconnect between what people want and what we are offering,” Wang said.

The purpose of the Connected Buildings Challenge is to bring together mechanical engineers, programmers, urban planners, and environmentalists to tackle this gap. “It’s part of how we’re going to make things sustainable. There’s a lot of promise here,” said Dave Cuthbert, a senior solutions architect at Amazon Web Services and one of the judges of the event.

Cuthbert explained that challenges like a growing population and strain on power grids will soon overcome our ability to create energy, even renewable energy like solar and wind power.

“So the more we reduce our consumption is going to be key to grow as a country and as a people in the future,” Cuthbert said. “Smart buildings are just a logical extension of that.”

Here are the five finalist contestants who showed off their inventions in Seattle today:

Enerphant CEO, Warodom Khampanchai (left) and CTO Tony Chotibhongs (right). Photo by Clare McGrane.
Enerphant CEO, Warodom Khampanchai (left) and CTO Tony Chotibhongs (right). Photo by Clare McGrane.

Enerphant: Bangkok, Thailand

Team Members: Warodom Khamphanchai, Thamrongpan Chaiyamas, and Tony Chotibhongs

“We are kind of like an energy Fitbit for your home,” said Enerphant CTO Tony Chotibhongs. “So basically, its like a Fitbit, you wear it and it senses your temperature, your movement, and it recommends to you what to do to keep you healthy. So, our solution is going to be an energy Fitbit. You put a sensor inside your home, it collects data, and it recommends to you what to do to save energy… We have access to electricity usage, temperature, humidity, motion, fans, everything inside your home. So we collect all this data, and it goes to our database and then we try to learn from your behavior and help you save energy.”

Users will be given recommendations that they can accept via the Enerphant app, which can even connect clients to contractors, like electricians. Enerphant has also used the app through Amazon’s Alexa.

Neighborhood Air-Conditioning Coordinator member Andy Hjortland.

Neighborhood Air-Conditioning Coordinator: Purdue University, Indiana

Team Members: Andy Hjortland, Donghun Kim, and Jim Braun

“We’re using web thermostats to basically build models of different houses, and using those models we’re optimizing when air conditioners come on at different times,” said team member Andy Hjortland. “What we’re doing is we’re trying as hard as possible to prevent every single air conditioner from coming on at the same time, which increases electricity demand. And so we’re coordinating when air conditioners come on to minimize consumption and demand.”

SEC Consulting Lead Researcher Nigel Davis (right) and
SEC Consulting Lead Researcher Nigel David (right) and OPAS team member Han Bao.

OPAS (SES Consulting): Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

Team Members: Nigel David, Han Bao, David Putney, Rav Clair, Christopher Naismith, and Arrvindh Shriraman

SEO Consulting Lead Research Nigel David explains the group’s project: “Let’s look at it from the perspective of a building owner, who is finding that his energy bills are too high. So they call up a consulting firm to find out where his energy is being wasted. And that’s where we come in as consultants. We look at the data… if there is a building automation system, which there often is to smartly control the building, we’ll take a look at that. And the problem is that that’s very labor intensive. There’s a lot of mouse clicking on the computer to remotely access the machine and look through the data. So what we’re doing is to really streamline that whole process so we can offer this service way quicker and way cheaper.”

Da-Wei and Kirk
CUNY Building Performance Lab members Da-Wei Huang and Kirk Tyrone Shillingford.

Smart Building Re-Tuning with VOLTTRON: CUNY Building Performance Lab, New York City, New York

Team Members: Da-Wei Huang, Kirk Tryone Shillingford, and Marco Ascazubi

Here’s more from Kirk Tryone Shillingford: “Buildings are run by managers and operators. Nowadays, we talk about smart buildings that have these things called Building Automation Systems (BAS), but not all buildings have those. In fact the majority of buildings don’t, especially in New York City where you have  a lot of old buildings. So these buildings have these different devices, the managers and operators monitor these devices, optimize them, try and take care of them — but there’s no way really to see the data in aggregate. So we use Voltron as a way of automating the collection process from those various devices, aggregating it together in one central place for later analysis, and also presenting it in a nice, concise way that those managers and operators can see, understand, and use to do their jobs more effectively.”

Lourdes and Priyank
VENTOS team members Lourdes Gutierrez and Priyank Kapadia.

VENTOS – Scheduler: Rochester Institute of Technology, Rochester, New York

Team Members: Lourdes Gutierrez, Priyank Kapadia, and Saurabh Wani

“In this time, many people are selling you the idea that you are living or working in a smart building. But actually, all the settings of the buildings are usually fixed numbers,” said Lourdes Gutierrez. “So we are changing these fixed things to variable settings that are going to change according to the data that you have in your building. So we are making buildings really smarter.

Team member Priyank Kapadia added: “I would just say that I am making the building alive. When you come inside the room, it will know you are there, it will sense you.”

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