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 […]

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High Voltage in AC

Your air conditioner (and whole HVAC system) are a strange mix of parts. On the one side, we have low voltage, DC electronics that couldn’t tickle a fly. On the other, we have high voltage, AC equipment that could turn an ill-prepared reptile or rodent into a charred chunk of bones. How exactly do we mate these two, different systems together safely?   The Safety Issue In all electronics, we strive to separate high voltage and low voltage. We don’t want them to touch each other. In some systems, you have no choice but to put high and low voltage equipment on the same board, in other cases you try to keep them on separate boards altogether. If there’s any sort of electrical short between high voltage and low voltage, the low side is going to get destroyed. That’s your best case scenario. 240 volts or 440 volts blasting into some tiny microprocessors and capacitors, which then explode in a terrifying, but mostly harmless show of pyrotechnics. If the board is really well built, a diode will take the brunt of the failure before anything scary does. Sometimes though, these shorts don’t go like that. Some older equipment or equipment which never passed any reviews like Underwriters’ Laboratories can send high voltage straight to frame components, a button, or other areas where a user could come in contact with it. 220 Volts is not a pleasant experience, let me tell […]

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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 […]

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Why Use an Electric Actuator?

In many ways, electric actuators are the holy grail. They are precise, efficient, fast to respond, have low support requirements, can be bought cheaply, can be easily retrofitted into existing environments, and in principal can be configured for absurd output torque. There aren’t a lot of downsides here. We’ve harnessed hydraulic and pneumatic power to move things, but that was always a multi-step procedure. With electronics? Nearly everything is built right into the actuator.   Minimal Install Requirements Facilities using hydraulics and pneumatics need to provide hoses, valves, pumps, compressors, reservoirs, and more. It’s a lot of hardware just to make something move. That’s a lot of money, maintenance time, and space just to have your fully automated, multi-zone heating system. It’s a lot even if you’re automating a brewery or bakery, where the equipment will ultimately save time and money. Facilities using electrical actuators however, need only provide power and control signals. In some cases, multi-phase power is required, but that mostly boils down to some extra electrical panels and service wires. Each actuator is pretty much independent and will operate regardless of what the rest of the facility is doing. That’s less hardware to keep track of, fewer failure points, and overall easier maintenance. In terms of a retrofit in existing facilities, that pretty much means you remove the old actuator, install the new one, and plug it in. In principal, it’ll just plugin and work. It’s hard […]

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Why Use a Hydraulic Actuator?

There are 3 principal ways to power an actuator. There’s electrical, pneumatic, and hydraulic actuators. Generally speaking, the most expensive set up is going to be a hydraulic system. A single hydraulic actuator can cost ten times what a pneumatic or electrical one would. This begs the question, why would you buy something with such a premium?   Basics of Hydraulics This all starts with the simple fact that fluids don’t compress. You can put water in a sealed piston and push down on it, but all it will do is distribute that force to the walls of the piston. Maybe it’ll squeeze in by 1/1,000,000,000th of its volume, but in large part, one liter of fluid is going to always take up that volume. This is amazingly useful. It means we can use fluids as an almost universal connection. Think about it, to connect a powerful motor to anything, you need linkages, gears, chains, and bulky hardware. It’s noisy and takes up a ton of space. If you want to connect multiple devices to that motor, they all need to either run at the same time and speed or require complex gearboxes to connect or disconnect them. This would take up a ton of space and make our modern lives suck in innumerable ways. With a hydraulic system however, we can get around all this bulk. There can be one or two large motors, powered by anything that fits […]

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Why Are There So Many Types of Actuators?

Actuators are really complicated. There’s a whole little ecosystem around them, all to provide exactly the right type of movement for every application. In principal, an actuator’s just moving something a few inches or a few degrees, but the way it moves really matters. This has lead to actuators with different types of movement speeds, different levels of precision, different return systems, and a lot of complicated terminology about what you’re actually buying into.   3 Types of Performance One of the key metrics is performance and the price it takes to achieve it. Consider for example, the damper actuator in your air vent. It doesn’t matter too much if it takes a minute or two to fully open as long as it works quietly and within the temperature range of your home. Compare this to an industrial fast-acting actuator on the safety systems in an oil refinery. When the plant alarm goes off that something’s might explode, you want that valve to slam shut with all the force of the hulk hitting the snooze button in the morning. In your home, a little electrical actuator would work just fine. In that refinery however? That needs something special. There, you need a pneumatic system that can throw thousands of pounds of force into a valve near instantly. There’s just no other good way to get the job done in a fast manner. Electrical motors on the rise but, in these […]

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Motor Vs. Actuator

For a lot of people, motors and actuators may seem like the same thing. Movement is involved, they may well sound the same, there’s some kind of energy source going in, and there’s no way your facility will function without both of them. In principal, they both use the same technologies, they can even look the same, but they’re different beasts.   The Easy Difference The easiest way to tell a motor and actuator apart is by how they’re being used. A motor is designed to spin at a relatively high RPM for significant spans of time. Think of the motor in your AC Compressor, a fuel pump, the mixer or coffee grinder sitting on your kitchen counter. If you turned it on and left it to function forever, there would be no consequences except for the motor failing. By contrast, an actuator has a linear output, instead of a continuous output. It moves a damper, valve, elevator, or some other device that has a limited range. Think about your car door, it can be all the way open, half open, closed, or anywhere in between. If you wanted to mechanically open it, that’d be an ideal job for an actuator. If you used a simple motor, you’d run the risk of going over 100% open or over 100% closed, and damage/destroy the door. If you used a device that isn’t intended to stop at an exact position, you’d break […]

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How does a VFD work?

We’ve explained Electric Motors in principal, but we all know it’s not that simple. In large part, the guts are pretty similar in most electric motors. It’s windings and magnets, which can be arranged in difference sizes and positions, to get a specifically desired performance. In the examples we gave, it was assumed that the electrical power going in was constant. What if it wasn’t?   Less Than 100% On-Time What if we didn’t keep dumping power into the motor? Think of it like a manual transmission. We know we need power to push ourselves up a hill, but we can push in the clutch (put it in neutral) and coast down the other side without using engine power. We can do this with an electrical motor, gaining a massive amount of control and performance out of it. If we attach some sensors and measure the RPM, we can determine when it needs power and when it doesn’t to maintain a given speed or torque output. This difference in driving the motor means we may power the motor for only 1/10th of a second, every other 1/10th of a second. Thus, we end up with something that might look like: -_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_ Power on, power off… Power on… Power off. The motor only does a tiny bit of work when it needs to. This cuts down on waste heat and allows us to cheaply regulate the power going into the motor. […]

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Multizone System: With Voice Control

We’re getting closer and closer to the day when I can walk into my office and say “Computer, Tea, Earl Grey, Hot. And crank up the AC.” While researching for our recent series on Multi Zone systems, we came across an interesting press release: Honeywell’s Smart Thermostats can work with multi-zone systems and they can integrate with Google Home, Google Assistant, Amazon Alexa, Apple Homekit, Samsung Smart Things, and the ever-popular If This Then That (IFTTT). This is a pretty incredible idea for us, mainly because it’s been in Sci-Fi since the 80’s and it’s finally becoming part of our day to day lives. The possibilities here are pretty near limitless. I could use IFTTT and a phone app to detect if anyone’s in the office. Office empty? Thermostat goes to a predetermined “low power” temperature. On the way to my office? “Ok Google, cool office to seventy degrees.” It’s a step towards being able to control our homes and offices from anywhere, with smarter automation, and become more of a couch potato when I don’t feel like walking over to the thermostat to crank it down a few more degrees. Automation like this has it’s risks and challenges, but as we’ve posted before: automating the environment can save time and money. Let it cool itself down before your employees arrive and automatically shutdown when they leave. Let the lights turn themselves off when we don’t need them. Let technology […]

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