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October 5, 2023

Unlocking Building Performance with IoT: Actionable Insights for Enhanced Operation and Savings

Sustainable IAQ: Expert Insights - Episode 4
Serene Almomen, Ph.D.

Guest Bio

Serene Almomen, Ph.D., is the CEO and co-founder of Attune (formerly Senseware), bringing extensive expertise in IT, Data Analytics, and a notable portfolio of 22 patents. Her journey at Attune commenced with a vision to address the unmet needs of building owners, engineers, general contractors, and energy consultants, enabling them to access real-time facility data wirelessly. Dr. Almomen's leadership has steered Attune into the IoT sector, where they offer energy, indoor air quality, and building equipment performance monitoring solutions for the commercial, industrial, and educational real estate industries. She's known for her commitment to technological innovation and has received recognition on Forbes' list of women-led startups in tech. Dr. Almomen, also honored as a Women Who Mean Business awardee by WBJ, continuously monitors IoT trends, keeping Attune at the forefront of advancements and positioning the company as a trailblazer in the field.


Practical Applications and Benefits of IoT Monitoring
An important point of IoT monitoring is that it should be practical. All these shiny new gadgets and sensors are worth nothing if they don't provide data that contributes to improving your building's functionality or your occupants’ well-being. It's not just about financial profits; it's also about indoor air quality, risk management, and compliance with regulatory requirements. As Serene explained, IoT monitoring has various purposes: fine-tuning HVAC systems for energy efficiency along with improving indoor air quality, using occupancy data for space management, relying on asset condition data for predictive maintenance, and facilitating compliance reporting. Each purpose, according to her, should be personalized to the specific needs of the customer and the building. 

Tailored Approach to Prevent Data Overload
It’s difficult to deny data overload when it feels like we're swimming in an infinite sea of data every day. The trick here is to tell the valuable insights from the noise. It's all about zeroing in on actionable insights that will directly impact the way your building performs and how people in it feel and experience their surroundings. Serene also emphasized keeping your eyes on the prize and using the data that integral to your building's specific goals. Each building, as she pointed out, is unique with different aspects that can benefit from real-time data collection. The goal lies in distinguishing valuable insights from all the surrounding noise within the rich data collected from the many IoT sensors.

Importance of Sensor Quality in Monitoring Buildings
Diving into the subject of the significance of sensor quality in keeping tabs on building performance, Serene explains that it's about choosing the right type of sensor for the objective measurements. That might sound a little tricky, especially if you're not a sensor guru. This is where the challenge arises, with lots of people finding it tough to match the right sensor to their needs. Bringing in what Serene Almomen, Ph.D. spoke about in this segment, she highlighted that often there is a mismatch. This mismatch is often due to people not being sensor experts. Serene noted the importance of the UL 295 certification which ensures the accuracy of indoor air quality sensors to give us the data quality we need.

Integration Challenges with Building Management Systems
When we touch on the subject of integrating with building management systems, we hit a surprising statistic – not enough buildings in the U.S. (only about 20%) have a ready-to-use BMS. This puts a damper on the implementation of many of the smart improvements IoT tech has to offer. Serene pointed out that a primary value of IoT tech in such buildings is digging up previously unknown insights, enabling knowledgeable decisions impacting building performance. This real-time data provided can flag issues which may otherwise fly under our radar.



Talk about sensor quality, variability, and selection criteria.

This is a very important question. The sensor quality for accuracy and reliability in monitoring buildings is important. And there could be really a big variation among sensor brands and products that are out there which directly affect the quality and the insights that we derive from the data that is collected from those sensors. So the key challenge that we're seeing is that people are not sensor experts, and that leads to mismatch between the sensor choices and the application. So selecting the right sensor, it's really important to align with the objectives of the user of the sensor data, and it dictates what is required in terms of accuracy, precision and range.

So when we talk about specifically using indoor air quality sensors in monitoring buildings, a certain level of data quality is really necessary. And the UL 295 certification ensures the accuracy and precision of these sensors in the context of buildings, especially commercial industrial buildings. And UL 295 specifically conducts tests in ISO accredited labs and use quality instruments to do those testing and certification.

Do we have a challenge of data overload from IoT sensors?

The abundance of data can really be overwhelming, and so it's really crucial to differentiate between what's valuable insights and needed data versus noise. I believe that the true value really lies in actionable insights that directly impact the building performance, efficiency, the occupants well being and experience in buildings. So for building owners and operators, the key is to focus on data that aligns with their specific goals. And we know that each building is different and each building has a different pain point where real time data can help. It's really not a one size fits all solution in the same way that buildings are not one size fits all.

So this tailored approach prevents, I believe, this data overload and really ensures that the insights that we've provided from the data is both manageable and genuinely helpful.

How well is IoT monitoring data talking with mechanical and control systems?

Yeah, I want to say not well currently in terms of integration with mechanical control system automation systems. But here's the thing. Currently, the implementation of automated improvements through IoT technology largely depends on the presence of building management systems that are capable of even integrating IoT data into their control sequence. In the US, less than 20% of buildings actually have building management systems. So even if it's available, and that could happen, you're not affecting a lot of buildings that are out there with IoT technology if you look at it from that lens.

The primary value, on the other hand, that we're really seeing of IoT in the built environment is the ability to provide previously unknown insights. And we definitely still need experts, human in the loop, and the value that they're getting from installing it is not necessarily enhanced automation, but just to know what's happening in the building this knowing of what's happening in real time can empower building operators that are the experts to make informed decisions, resulting in tangible enhancement to building performance. I can give you an example. One commercial building owner, real estate owner that we work with, has saved 30% on their water consumption, not by using sensors and automating some control system, but just by utilizing this real time data from digitizing their cooling towers, which was the most water consuming system in the building. And then that visibility that they started to get enabled them to detect issues like faulty valves and water overflow and things like that that might have gone unnoticed otherwise.

What are some of the most surprising insights from your data?

What we've expected, and I think a lot of the industry wanted to do, is to take indoor air quality sensors and put them everywhere where everyone in common spaces and working spaces, breathing zones and things like that. And what we have seen in practice, we've seen most deployment to be on the core and shell indoor air quality monitoring of buildings. And what I mean by that is really focusing the monitoring on HVAC systems. So going to getting data from the supply air and return air and outside air, and comparing those data to answer questions such as am I bringing enough outside air or not enough over ventilating. Under ventilating, how is my filtration working and really using the data in that way?

What are the greatest building data monitoring gaps that still exist?

It's not necessarily data gaps that we're seeing, because there's a lot of sensors and technology that are out there. I want to say that the gaps in data from buildings really stems from the prevalence of one size fits all solutions. For instance, like with indoor air quality monitoring, there are solutions that offer standard set of sensors, but these may not cover all the necessary IAQ parameters based on factors like the building infrastructure, location and geography of the building, how the building is used. So tailoring IAQ monitoring to specific needs and those conditions becomes then gap in that building data. So things like monitoring pollutants like ozone and NO2 and CO in transit corridor buildings, or adding total volatile organic compound sensors in art rooms and science labs and schools, is often overlooked by genetic solutions.

So although they exist and we're monitoring indoor air quality in that building, there is a gap because there is expanded need under the umbrella of under air quality. So we've seen that. And generally speaking, when it comes to the IoT industry, there has been a tension between vertical products and horizontal platforms in the industry. So it's been really crucial for the investors in technologies like this to strike the right balance to bridge the data gaps according to their specific goals. 

How do you sell the value of your IoT platform to a building owner?

Currently, and I'm sure it's the same for a lot of IoT technologies in the space that we are still selling to the innovators, early adopters in our industry.

And so when we're selling to this audience, innovative technology implementation has often prioritized the improvement and breaking away from the status quo, rather than looking at the financial returns and focusing on ROI and things like that. So we haven't really had to go in that direction in a lot of our conversations with clients and our implementation. So as such, our approach has always centered on providing building owners with a holistic value proposition that emphasizes the rapid time to get real time data from buildings, and facilitating proactive and efficient building operation because of that. So while financial ROI and energy savings are compelling and could be a byproduct of getting access to that real time data, our pitch typically extends to mostly showcasing the value of real time data and the value of getting it really fast and in a retrofitable way in this aging infrastructure, so that you could get the financial ROS like energy saving and whatnot, but also other non financial ROI, also that build on top of the real time data such as enhanced indoor air quality, occupants well being and productivity, better risk management through issue identification, sustainability and ESG compliance. A lot of the regulatory adherences that are now required.

Also addressing community needs like parents and schools are asking for the data. So those are all examples of non-financial returns and value.

Does an IoT monitoring platform provide greater value to an underperforming building or an over performing building? Or is the value fundamentally different?

The value is really versatile and it can benefit both underperforming and overperforming buildings in different ways. So for underperforming buildings, we come in IoT monitoring can help with identifying inefficiencies, areas of improvement, so that then potentially you can enhance energy as a great return. And in contrast, if we're being deployed an overperforming building, the data is really used to maintain their high standards. We have a lot of Class A buildings. That's why they use this and to identify areas where they can better optimize operations, save money and whatnot.

Specifically, I want to reflect on post pandemic and during the pandemic, that Class A buildings were running in an optimized manner before the pandemic. And now we know and we're reading about how there is big energy waste, there's over ventilation, especially with the occupancy being much lower than before. In the same way with the wildfire, they showed us how external conditions to the buildings are also changing all the time and affecting building operations. So this continuous adjustment, the monitoring necessary to make sure any type of building, I think in this day and time is adjusted to the conditions that are there and continues to operate optimally.

How are customers practically using your IoT platform and data today?

A lot of practical applications, some examples include monitoring and optimizing HVAC systems to improve energy efficiency and indoor air quality. We have some of our customers that use occupancy data for space management and resource allocation, but also to feed into how they look at operating HVAC system. Based on the dynamic occupancy of tenants and people in the building, maintenance teams leverage asset condition data for predictive maintenance, reducing any downtime saving water, like the cooling tower example, where the data from the cooling tower allowed them to look at stuck valve overflow of water and things like that, and mitigating the issue before it's really costly or impactful. They've also used our platform for compliance reporting, especially to meet regulatory requirements. So these are some practical applications, and we typically tailor each application again based on the customer's goal and their building.

Attune does significant work in public schools, which has been a historically neglected and difficult market for PropTech companies. What’s been your experience?

We've started in schools a few years back in 2016, actually helping a few schools with a big issue that I didn't realize until we started to talk to schools who approached us with it, which is power outage monitoring. So that was, I want to say, kind of before, not a lot of implementation of that until 2020, when actually the pandemic happened. And at that time, as a mom, my initial concern, as we learned more about the risk of transmission and what's the prominent risk of transmission, things like that. That indirect quality in my children's school is really important, and there is technology, including ours, that can give us some reassurances of the levels of the contaminants in classrooms and alert in real time if they are not. So this concern just became a stronger, I guess, driving force behind our approach to schools with our technology.

And unfortunately, federal funding such as SR funds became available for IAQ improvement and making a lot of those efforts more feasible for schools. As far as breaking into the market, we focused on building trust, really, and demonstrating tangible benefits of the platform to school districts where this technology is new. We know that work from home works, but school from home does not work. So really, our mission now has been to kind of help create that environment.

Several states either require or are proposing to require CO2 sensors in school classrooms. What do you think of this approach?

Acquiring CO2 sensors in classrooms is a very positive and proactive approach to ensure IAQ is great in such environments where it's all about education and retaining knowledge. So that's amazing, and it's great to see, indeed, multiple states, more than I expected, have either passed bills or are working on bills around that now. CO2 levels are really also reliable indicators of ventilation effectiveness and can help mitigate risk of airborne contaminants. So it's great. We do feel that a lot of these bills and regulations that require C two only monitoring are really looking at it more from an energy efficiency perspective and not holistically in terms of indoor air quality solutions and for occupant health and safety in schools.

So I think that's something that we are really trying to advocate for, is those bills to be more encompassing of other types of contaminants, such as particulate matter levels, volatile organic compound levels, temperature and humidity, and requiring all of those aspects to be monitored in real time in these schools to be more holistic in those bills. I think also there is a big thing around, we talked about accuracy and reliability of indoor air quality sensors. Even looking just at CO2, there is a big variance in the technologies that are out there. When we're talking about schools and monitoring these levels and CO2 and PM and hopefully and others, we want to make sure that they are effective and the data is actionable. So in this context and in these types of buildings, we want to see things and language and bills related to minimum standards of accuracy of those sensors.

So not just requiring CO2 sensor monitoring or PM monitoring, but also that minimum standard. I think that will make it even these approaches stronger. We don't want to see just checking the box, having a sensor to check the box. We want to try to see that these regulations and bills bring meaningful improvements to the air quality in schools so we can benefit students, teachers and everyone.