Integrated components are back to create "smart systems."

One of the messages we teach in our business seminars is you can't predict the future; you can only be an observer, follower or leader in its development.

Seasoned observers will have noticed the relatively recent return of integrated components into finished units. Remember the combination valve, actuator and control products introduced some 20 years ago? Well these integrated units are back, as are a number of other goods once considered too advanced for the marketplace. This return to the past is the current trend; integrating units into modules and modules into sub-systems. The process is leading the future of sub-system integration into engineered comfort systems based on hybrid (air and water) methodology.

What many market leaders are experiencing in the development of integration is a need to fix the fundamental hardware of the sub-systems and apply changes via software to create application flexibility. Very much like a reflection of today's computers.

A sub-system might be controlling a low-temperature, radiant heating system and with simple software changes the same hardware could service a high-temperature, multizoned fan/coil system. It could be a variable speed drive set up to deal with the evolution of a building's expansion. Software programmed to deal with the original plant design -- then modified as the plant -- is expanded all without changing the plant circulators.

Further software changes and the device(s) become part of a bigger communication system with self-diagnostics, automatic energy optimization, real-time corrections to comfort parameters, remote tuning and data logging. Failure in any part of the system triggers a communication via the Internet or cellular service, to the owner/installer/manufacturer of the systems.

Smaller, Smarter Systems

When we think integration we also think in terms of physical configurations of subassemblies in terms of reducing the size or space these assemblies occupy. The "mini tube" system discussed by John Siegenthaler is in fact a frequent application of engineering principals used in district energy system around the globe. Taking these fundamental principals and applying them to stand-alone buildings offer tremendous benefits in terms of "small."

This constantly evolving shrinkage of form is being led, undoubtedly by this generation's most exciting development, in the application of Nanotechnology ( NanoRev/index.html) to the environmental control of buildings, and the subsequent impact it will have on human comfort. For example, Berkley Labs have developed nano-sized sensors called "smart dust." (http://robotics.

These sensors can transmit environmental conditions to a control system, which automatically adjusts light, heat, humidity, etc. These sensors can be painted into the building surfaces or become part of a fabric, such as our clothes. This means a building control system can identify the number of occupants in a space, monitor their movement and adjust the environment to meet their needs.

Further developments will include the ability to enter each occupant's metabolic rate and individual comfort parameters and provide customized conditions for each person or optimize the environment to meet the needs of a group of people.

Nanotechnology research is happening globally for all industries and we'll see in our generation the development of phenomenally small devices with HVAC applications. Furthermore this new definition of size will lead to redefinition of HVAC equipment and new methods of efficiently converting energy into comfort at a very low cost. (

Other Neat Stuff

Today in North America we have calling cards or phone cards, which can be purchased literally anywhere, allowing users a unit of time on the service providers equipment. This same process has applications for energy. Consumers in some parts of the world purchase units of heat and, like the phone card, download the purchased units into a meter. When the units are about to expire, a message is sent to the user via several communication methods. Should the units expire the system goes into frost protection or, in some applications, shuts down nonessential equipment.

This is no different then the termination of a phone call. As a contractor, wouldn't it be great if you could become the service provider? But what about all the hardware inside the building? It won't be inside the building in the future! Use your brain to extrapolate what is happening today and create the changes to products and system in 10-year increments.

Nanotechnology and metering systems will meet at some point and the possibilities are endless.

The other very cool concept -- again with Nanotechnology -- is the creation of artificial limbs and organs. Remember we are talking about building stuff with atoms here and they can be self replicating. This isn't science fiction, it's happening as you read this article.

How does this tie into our business? Today, the human body is the most sophisticated multidimensional environmental sensor in existence; a sensor so simple yet so complex, and up to this point unable to be duplicated into our "standard" one dimensional room thermostat. Imagine being able to take the complexity of our sensory system and integrate it at an atomic level to our buildings comfort systems complete with its own communication devices. Very cool.

Whether you are an observer, follower or leader, these are intriguing times: an aging population, one of the wealthiest ever to occupy earth, developing incredible technology, and those responsible for human comfort will undoubtedly witness the redefinition of HVAC equipment and systems.