Smart building technology is expanding its footprint. But one area that’s been stubbornly challenging is multi-family residential buildings, with owners expressing particular concerns about cost and complexity of the existing solutions. Connectivity is a major issue too, particularly when site-wide Internet access isn’t a given.
Quext, which specializes in property management technology, addressed these issues head on when designing its new smart device management platform, Quext IoT. It’s currently in the process of rolling out to 1,000 residential units across four apartment communities.
Fierce Electronics sat down to talk with Tray Johnson, VP of Innovation, who described his company’s approach to product development and why he thinks it’s a game changer for the industry.
FE: Apartment owners have been relatively slow to adopt smart building technologies, in part because they say it’s complex and costly and they just don’t see the ROI. What’s so complicated about it?
Johnson: The first companies to introduce solutions in our industry simply took a collection of devices and got them to the cloud—that is certainly a workable solution but there are dependences that drive complexity. First, you have to have a wi-fi network and you have to have a smart hub.
Then, when you start talking about networking buildings together and keeping track of all those different devices and yet at the same time you don’t own the network and you’re trying to leverage the resident’s wi-fi, you can see the nightmarish scenario that gets set up for the owner, who needs the control but doesn’t have authority over the devices. Say a tenant unplugs the smart hub in a unit, for example, you’ve lost the connectivity and then what?
Property owners in a lot of cases don’t care about the technology or the way it’s implemented, as long as the way it’s implemented is familiar to them. What they do care about is that it is going to be easy to maintain and that it doesn’t require them to run their own IT teams to support various products.
FE: What is Quext doing differently to challenge the status quo?
Johnson: The industry has kind of come to a consensus that the door lock and the thermostat are the two areas that can give them the greatest ROI bump by increasing their operational efficiency. So, we started with those two devices--a smart thermostat and door lock.
But as I explained, when you have devices you still have to integrate them into the network, which means that you have to deploy a third device, typically a smart hub. And therein lies an extra cost and loss of control.
But we didn’t start with the thing that we were going to make, instead we looked at the problem which was “How do we network all these things in a multi-family residential facility—often involving multiple buildings--in a simpler way?” Our vision was a streamlined smart device management solution that would allow residents to control all of their connected devices through a single app and wouldn’t require the apartment owner to provide massive tech support.
So, instead we elected to combine the hub into our smart thermostat, in order to not only reduce the number of devices needed, but also to reduce the complexity. In effect, our custom thermostat serves as an IoT gateway for connecting all of the tenant’s smart devices through a mobile app, whatever the protocol--including Bluetooth, Zigbee, and Zwave.
FE: The platform uses LoRaWan network technology. Why not some other LPWAN technologies like NB-IoT and Sigfox or WiFi?
Johnson: We certainly considered the three LPWAN technologies you mentioned as well as Bluetooth 5. In fact, we debated them all very seriously. One of the shortcomings of Bluetooth 5 was that we would have to give more consideration to the network design and whether it would work in all communities.
And when you consider garden style communities, the ability for a node to mesh to that next building was a perceived issue for us. It goes back to our network design and the goal of connecting every single apartment, that’s why we determined that LoRa would be the best fit. It extends further than WiFi at a lower frequency, allowing for improved signal penetration into buildings.
When we started down this road in 2018, NB-IoT was not as ubiquitous, and the devices and the components, as well as the modems themselves, for LTE Cat M and NB-IoT were much more expensive. And although the data packages have become more affordable, they still carry an extra cost that LoRa doesn’t.
FE: But what about the relatively low date rates with LoRa, isn’t that a shortcoming?
Johnson: We knew we would need to be more cognizant of that in our design. But if you look at the types of devices—thermostats and door locks—they have very small, concise interactions that do not require a continuous stream of data.
FE: Give us some details about the door lock.
Johnson: The door lock that we have chosen communicates over Bluetooth, and it’s what is typically referred to as an offline lock. But we are layering over some online functionality mainly to allow for remote configuration of access credentials. The last thing you want is that device to die on the weekend or when residents are trying to get into their unit at two am in the morning.
That’s super important, because in the end owners really care about is cost and maintenance. A big part of the design goal was to make it simple to install and very easy to manage. Users have the option to self-manage the installation process, allowing for a reduction in upfront capital expense.
FE: What’s your advice for engineers developing their IoT systems and platforms?
Johnson: Early in my engineering career I learned from a mentor to start by looking at the problem itself that you are trying to solve and that will lead you to designing the right product for your customer.
Editor’s note: Tray Johnson will be speaking at the IoT Technologies Summit, a digital event series taking place March 15-16, 2021 with a focus on the Industrial IoT, IoT & Data Analytics, Smart Buildings and Smart Cities. For more information and to register for your free pass, click here https://www.fiercedigitaltechevents.com/iot-technologies-summit.