Improve Your Air

You’ve done your testing and your facility has an air quality problem. Stepping through your doors feel like getting a tour of an 1890s steam powered factory. It’s just gross and you’re going to turn your air into something people actually want to breathe. Physical Defenses Your first line of defense is to attack everything getting inside with some physical mitigations. Every person entering the building is going to carry allergens, pathogens, and other problems with them. Imagine someone who just walked through a grassy field, tracking pollen with every step they take. Imagine the gentle breeze blowing through the door as your guests enter, and carrying with it the latest plague to sweep the nation. There are two defenses you can use here. First, you need a nice, big, hefty door mat of some kind, that everyone ends up walking across. They’re tracking pollen on their shoes, make sure it gets stuck where it won’t cause a problem: in a fibrous tangle where it’ll never bother you again. Second, you need to regularly clean the floors of your facility. All the nasty stuff in the air is hovering around, suspended like tea leaves in water. If the air is still long enough, it’ll all settle on your shelves, floors, and equipment until someone kicks it up into the air again. Use microfiber mops to capture and remove the problem while you can. Don’t use a typical broom though, that’s […]

Read More →

Industrial Wet Steam

Let’s recap quick: wet steam is the steam you usually see around your house and basically everywhere not investing seven to eight figure checks in their steam system. This wet-steam carries water vapor, which is the actual white, puffy cloud you see. Dry steam is essentially invisible, hot as fire, and essential in industrial scale productions. That begs the question though, is there an industry for wet steam too? Surely the dry-stuff is better? Moisturizing the Product It turns out, there are a ton of applications where it’s essential to add moisture to a product without actually soaking it. Consider, if you use dry steam, you’re not going to make the product wet, but you will dry it out. Between the heat and zero-humidity air, anything that can evaporate from the product will do so. Dry products presents a wide range of problems. Dry things are often inflexible and brittle. Consider if you leave a shirt in your clothes drier for  hours upon hours (do not do this, you’ll probably start a fire), if it survives, it’ll be rough, stiff, and uncomfortable. Dry steam works well enough for a quick cleaning of clothes, but it’s not good for prolonged exposure. This same thing is true in other types of production, consider something like a paper pill or a printing press. If the paper becomes too dry, it might tear inside the machinery. Excessively dry paper is prone to cracking, tearing, […]

Read More →

Glas’s Growing Pains

The smart thermostat market is a crowded, complex mess of competing designs, features, and ideas. Some designers are integrating popular assistant tools like Alexa. Some are integrating with smart home standards like Z-wave to expand their ecosystem. There’s some out there that are just trying to enter the market before it becomes too crowded, regardless of how ready they are to do it.   Johnson’s Glas Last spring, Johnson Controls released a new smart thermostat of their own: Glas. They created a cool, futuristic design. There’s a transparent screen, support for multiple assistants, and a rare sensor in these thermostats: an air quality sensor. On paper, this sounds like a winner in the smart thermostat market, but there’s a catch: the software’s not quite perfect yet. Johnson has managed to put out the hardware of a really cool device, but it’s real promise is in the future, the features yet to come. Right now, reviewers and customers alike have come across some short comings we all hope Johnson will address in software updates in the months to come. Users have complained about the lack of support for remote sensors, the lack of custom events, and other shortcomings in just how much of their smart thermostat they can control. We’ve already seen over the past few months some improvements. Customers’ complaints have gone from the thermostat having bugs or being slow, to a desire for new features instead. The good news […]

Read More →

A 30 Year Old Smart Thermostat

We’re in an era of cheap, affordable, and common smart thermostats. You can walk into near any sort of hardware store and pick up a thermostat that thinks about the temperature in your building rather than merely following a program. The thing is though, the common, consumer technology we have today started life as advanced, expensive, and complex industrial hardware decades ago. The Grand Rapids Amiga The Grand Rapids Public School System used a Commodore Amiga 2000 to power their HVAC System for just about 30 years straight. This system was set up around 1985 or so when it was considered cutting edge. At the time, a cell phone probably weighed a good 20 pounds, a powerful computer might run at 7 megahertz (the first iphone was about 80 times faster than an Amiga 2000), and airbags were over a decade away from being mandatory in cars. This begs the question: how could such a system ever work? Like any computer today, the Amiga just had to be programmed. It had a special radio transmitter/receiver which would communicate with each of the district’s buildings’ HVAC equipment. It received sensor data and transmitted when to turn the heating or cooling on or off.  It was just like a modern thermostat, but in a bigger, more power-hungry package. What we find particularly incredible is that this system was built by one of the district’s students. Anyone can learn programming, plenty of people […]

Read More →

Micro Controllers Vs PLCs

On the surface, microcontrollers and PLCs look like they can basically do the exact same things, right? We feed an input, a program does things, and we get an output. They work continually and quickly, acting in milliseconds and faster than a traditional computer could. Why is there such a vast price difference? Why choose the more expensive option?   Certifications Programmable Logic Controllers are nearly  custom built for their industries. There are a myriad list of testing and certification processes for these products. There are extensive engineering processes to prove “XYZ is physically impossible with this product.” This is all to meet workplace safety and keep the facility running with as little down time as possible. For example, we checked the documentation for a random PLC in our inventory, and it had the following ‘general’ certifications: IEC 60068-2-14, 60068-2-1, 60068-2-2, 60068-2-14, UL840, MIL STD 810C method 514.2, EC60068-2-6, JIS C60068-2-6, MIL STD 810C Method 516.2, IEC 60068-2-27, JIS C60068-2-27, NEMA ICS 3-304, EN 6100-4-2, EN 6100-4-3, EN6100-4-4, EN 6100-4-5, EN 6100-4-6, EN 6100-4-8, EN 55011:1998 Class A, UL508, and CE EN 61131-2. That was just the quick summary. There are further certifications when you get into everything that plugs into that PLC, all its expansion modules and accessories. Microcontrollers aren’t necessarily so heavily tested. They’re designed and produced by the same standards as the rest of the tech industry, which generally comes down to: it won’t interfere with radio […]

Read More →

What is a Microcontroller?

PLC’s are not the only solution to automation. They go up against devices called Micro Controllers, which are often far cheaper, but yet essentially the same. Let’s get under the hood with what exactly a micro controller is.   A Barebones Device Microcontrollers are designed almost like computers from the 80s. They’re barebones devices, sometimes with processors running at megahertz and less speeds and just kilobytes to a few megabytes of ram. These are numbers more comparable to an old Gameboy than a computer or even your cell phone. This sounds really useless, doesn’t it? How do you use something so ‘primitive’? Simplicity is the key here. On a desktop computer, there’s millions of lines of code running. It can take multiple chunks of a millisecond to process and so something. It takes hundreds of watts in a day, just to sit there idling. A regular computer is incredibly powerful, but it gets in its own way when it comes to processing interactions. The complexity and speed ironically slow it down. In order for you desktop to respond to a keypress, the keyboard input has to be sent, decoded by hardware, passed to a driver, interpreted in the kernel, handed off to a program in the user end of the operating system, calculations performed, and then work sent back to the kernel, to the hardware, to encode instructions, to actually do something. For a microcontroller, an input comes in, is […]

Read More →

What is a PLC?

Automated systems all need something to come back to. There needs to be some sort of brain that runs the infrastructure, does all the math, and calls the shots within the building. This needs to be a programmable device, that works on numerous inputs and outputs, to control what’s going on. It needs to be rugged, reliable, and easy to use. We call it a PLC, Programmable Logic Controller.   The Basic Problem When we fully automate a building, chemical plant, or manufacturing center, we instantly open ourselves up to hundreds of thousands of little things that need to all be overseen, adjusted, and managed in a rational way. We don’t want a person to be opening or closing a vent by hand, or to have workers walking out to manage mixing valves, or anything else by hand. Everywhere a person might do something, we need a computer, sensors, and actual controls to drive. We could use a standard desktop computer, that has the raw processing power to handle a couple million inputs and outputs, but it sucks up a ton of power, it doesn’t have that many physical IO connections, it can’t survive being dropped or beaten around, it’s too big, and it’s not guaranteed to be easy to configure. In fact, it’s probably guaranteed to be a nightmare to configure at install and every repair session. The final nail in the coffin comes in terms of security. Common […]

Read More →

How Far Does Automation Go?

Your fire safety system is basically a parasite with its tendrils all over the building. It can tap into breakers, elevators, hvac, security, and more inside the building, but is that as far as Building Automation goes? How much can we automate inside a building, if we throw our budget out the window and just build until our engineers are completely fried? Environmental Automation Let’s start with human-level, the things operating a building around us, that we’ll never see or realize are there, managing the environment in the background. We all know that our HVAC systems turn off and on in response to temperature. That is pretty much just the tip of the iceberg. With modern controls we can regulate the air temperature, pressure, humidity, and in some sense, even the ‘freshness’ of the air. We can create rooms with positive pressure, such as surgical words, to prevent bacteria from getting in. We can create negative pressure to help air circulate or pull in fresh outside air. There’s humidifiers, dehumidifiers, and operating schedules to ensure a given volume of air travels into or out of a room on a schedule. There’s even occupancy sensors to concentrate the most environmental management effort where it matters: around people. Then things go a step farther. There are occupancy sensors managing the lights, but with modern LED systems, some buildings actually change the intensity and color of the lights throughout the day, on top […]

Read More →

Fire Safety in Live Systems

Industrial and residential settings increasingly have one big thing in common: you can’t eliminate all the hazards. When a fire breaks out, we want our buildings and our equipment to default to a “safe” state. We want to shut off gas valves, kill electrical breakers, and get anything explosive like propane bottles and gas cans as far from the fire as possible. Unfortunately, some situations are not this simple.   Standard Residential Procedure When a house fire breaks out, the fire alarm goes off, you evacuate, and at some point the local emergency dispatch center hears about it and dispatches fire fighters, police, and EMS. Their first priority is to get everyone out alive. Along with that they need to prevent the fire from spreading to nearby fields and buildings. Lastly they’ll try to save as much of the structure as possible, but sometimes all they can do is watch it crumble. The process of actually handling a fire is a multi-stage exercise in chaos. On scene, fire fighters need to run hose line to spray water, teams have to enter the building to locate trapped victims. Part of the crew has to set up a constant water supply, either from a hydrant or a relay team of tankers that will drive a circuit between their fill station and the fire. Along the way, the fire fighters need to ID and remove as many hazards as possible. They’ll go right […]

Read More →

What Does a Fire Alarm Panel Control?

Do you know how much control that alarm box has? Have you seen just how deeply it’s wires invade the systems of your building? This is another essential, modern miracle of engineering. When things go wrong, we can use every component of a building to get people out safely.   Alarm Misconceptions Most people look at the fire alarm and think it’s just like in the movies. On the big and little screen, we’ve portrayed our safety systems as being pretty dumb. You pull the alarm and suddenly the entire building is in a gentle rain and a bell dings. There probably are systems like this in the world, but most don’t quite work like that and it’s not the full story. In its simplest terms, your alarm system is a big noise maker. In modern terms, it’s a full-on building automation system in a box. Your building is a complex intertwining of separate, complex systems. You have the air ducts which blast fresh, cold air into the rooms during the summer. You have water pumps and boilers supplying water. There’s electrical breakers, elevators, and maybe even RFID-Tag/Key fob/pin-code access doors all over. Every one of these components is going to pose a problem when a fire breaks out. What do you do if someone’s in the elevator, and the fire is in the elevator mechanical room? What do you do if there’s an air vent blasting cold air into […]

Read More →