At GSA, an ‘Internet of Things’ experiment


WASHINGTON, DC. AUG. 28 , 2014: GSA employees are encouraged to telework -- when they do come into the office, they must reserve desks using an online application. Last month, the GSA connected its turnstiles to the booking system; when employees swipe their identification badges, the power sources and lights at their reserved desk power-on automatically. Taken in Washington, DC on Aug. 28, 2014 .( Photo by Jeffrey MacMillan ) (Jeffrey MacMillan/Jeffrey MacMillan)

At the General Services Administration in downtown Washington, tiny white sensors pepper the windows, ceiling tiles, heating units, water tanks and fan coolers, almost blending in to the building’s open-plan decor.

Some detect how much sunlight shines through a window, and indoor bulbs dim or shades raise themselves accordingly. Others sense motion, turning off lights, air conditioners or power sources when employees are away from their desks. Some sensors simply relay information about total utility consumption, such as how much cooled water or energy employees have used in a day.

For the past couple of years, GSA has been experimenting with a network of sensors in its building — a system technologists call the “Internet of Things” — intending to cut energy use and wasted resources. It aims to implement this network in other federal buildings across the country as part of a “Smart Buildings” policy — so far, it has done so with about 80 federal buildings covering a combined area of about 45 million square feet.

The tests are part of an effort, combined with reducing the government’s use of office space, to save $24 million in rent costs, $4 million in energy costs and $12 million in operational costs annually, according to the administration.

Though the actual savings are still being calculated, the Smart Buildings system has identified more than 10,000 inefficiencies and faults in GSA buildings and outside properties.

At the GSA headquarters, modernization is piecemeal. Two wings of the building at 1800 F St. NW are equipped with sensors. The second two wings, which project managers call “Phase 2,” do not yet have a completion date.

In the building’s modernized half, desk lights only turn on when an occupant has reserved the desk online. GSA encourages employees to telework; when they do come into the office, they must reserve a desk every day or week, wherever one is available, either online or at an electronic kiosk.

Since about a month ago, GSA has connected the desk reservation system, called BookIt, to identification badges. When employees swipe in at the main entrance, the power source at their reserved desk turns on. Once the employee sits down, motion sensors under the desk detect whether a person is there and whether the light should be on.

Employees use tablets — mounted outside each conference room — to check into conference rooms, whose lights and power sources only function when the room has been reserved online.

The system isn’t perfect yet. If employees are stationary for too long, the under-desk sensors sometimes register them as absent and switch off. Conference room lights flicker and turn off at the end of reserved time slots, so employees whose meetings run over must re-reserve the room.

Still, “it really improves how we utilize space,” said Sonny Hashmi, GSA’s chief technology officer and chief information officer. Motion sensors throughout the building can show which hallways and buildings are more popular than others, he said. “We are also seeing the parts of the buildings that are historically underutilized.”

The administration can then adjust building settings according to traffic patterns — if few people occupy a hallway, the heating or cooling systems don’t need to run on full blast.

All of this data is funneled into a software application called Integrated Building Systems (developed and sold by a company by the same name), with data dashboards accessible by the building’s managers. They can track broad trends — total energy usage over time, perhaps — or examine particular sensors, determining which windows are open and shutting off cooling units near those windows.

In June of last year, GSA deployed GSA Link, an analytics application developed by IBM that monitors the data from tens of thousands of sensors every five minutes and alerts GSA to any potential building faults.

The administration’s IT strategy is “no longer just about desktops and laptops,” said Frank Santella, GSA senior director of facilities management. “We now have ‘building networks.’ ”

The system showed when equipment was consistently running during federal holidays, Santella said. “Now before holidays we send a notice . . . informing everyone, ‘Hey everyone, next week is Labor Day . . . we need you to ensure that your schedules are set for an unoccupied day.’ ”

In another case, building managers discovered a dead pigeon stuck in a vent, obstructing airflow, after detecting an irregularity in air flow data, Hashmi said.

“These are things that [can] become apparent in real time,” he said.

Without sensors, a maintenance person would have had to search for the source of the obstruction manually. In some cases, the sensors find inefficiencies that would “never be visible from a human perspective,” Hashmi added.

The GSA is still measuring how it will know whether the program is worth the investment, Santella said — one indicator is how building managers fix the faults and inefficiencies they discover using the smart software.

“We check every Monday to see how many people have been in the [GSA Link] system for the past week,” he said, adding, “it’s really about adoption.”

And the data can be used for more than just energy efficiency, Santella said.

For instance, he said, “How do we monitor our [building] contractors’ performance, knowing we have a deep visibility into the data?”

Mohana Ravindranath covers IT and small business for the Washington Post and its weekly Capital Business publication.
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