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Power over Ethernet: The wire(not)less future of smart buildings

Matt is going back to uni tonight. One of the things he's missed is being able to go online with both his laptop and Xbox at the same time because the university only provides a wired network in study bedrooms. So today I bought a small Ethernet switch and extra cables so that he can now be fully online while gaming :)

[Image above] In the case of smart buildings, Ethernet cables may be the best way to achieve the Internet of Things. Credit: David Davies, Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)


The more wired in we are to our devices, the less physical wires are involved.

Many companies in the past few years have hyped the freedom that comes with wireless devices, such as Amazon (Echo), Apple (AirPods), and Google (Pixel 4). And while they hype wireless, some of these companies also quietly removed our ability to choose wires (I’m looking at you, Apple).

Despite Silicon Valley’s push for wireless as it aims to realize the Internet of Things (IoT), in the case of smart buildings, Ethernet may be the best way to achieve IoT.

Power over Ethernet

You probably know Ethernet as the more reliable (and generally faster) cable-based option to Wi-Fi for your home computer. But transmitting data is not the only use for Ethernet cables.

Power over Ethernet (PoE) is a networking feature that lets network cables carry electrical power over an existing data connection. In other words, PoE lets a standard Ethernet cable transmit both data and power.

PoE was first approved for use by IEEE in 2003 via IEEE standard 802.3af. This standard allowed power sourcing equipment to transmit up to 15.4 watts of power to a powered device via twisted pair cabling (essentially, a power source for telephones). In 2009, PoE power increased to 30 watts, leading the security industry to adopt PoE technology to power cameras and transmit digital video.

Today, PoE-enabled Ethernet switches provide 60 watts of power. As a result, nearly all 802.11xx commercial wireless access points are powered and networked with PoE cabling infrastructure. (On Sept. 27, 2018, the latest PoE standard—IEEE 802.3bt—was ratified and approved. The new standard supports 100 watts of power.)

PoE for smart buildings

PoE offers major advantages to building owners compared to traditional electrical wiring systems, including

  • Reduced installation costs—Ethernet cables cost less than traditional electrical wiring, and Ethernet is often already installed in buildings.
  • Safer installation— PoE Type 3 voltages are typically less than 60 volts, and Type 4 less than 90; conduits and metal cladding are not required. (Types of PoE explained here.)
  • Responsive deployment—An entire network does not need to be brought down to add or subtract devices; PoE devices can be easily moved and reconnected at the switch level.

In addition to these advantages, probably the biggest advantage to PoE is its data-gathering capabilities.

Ethernet gives users the ability to assign an IP address to each connected device. These IP addresses help simplify management, configuration, and maintenance of connected devices, as network administrators and system integrators can immediately see and troubleshoot errors in the system when issues arise.

PoE goes big: The Sinclair hotel

Unsurprisingly, PoE is touted as an ecologically sound approach to building design compared to traditional electrical systems. What is surprising is that a recently opened hotel embracing eco-friendly PoE infrastructure was originally an office building for a big oil company.

The Sinclair, a new luxury lifestyle hotel in Fort Worth, Texas, opened its door to the public on October 31. The Art Deco structure that The Sinclair takes over was built in 1929 as a bank and later served for decades as an office building, most notably for its namesake—The Sinclair Oil Company. (Check out some history on the building here.)

Farukh Aslam, the hotel’s developer and president of Sinclair Holdings, discovered PoE technology when opening a previous hotel in which the light dimming system never worked. For The Sinclair, Aslam decided to go all in, as explained in an Architectural Digest article.

“With PoE, the Sinclair will power more than 2,000 lights and amenities via an IP address on a computer network,” the article explains. “If a light or other PoE device goes out anywhere between the hotel’s basement restaurant and the rooftop bar, the Sinclair will be alerted through an immediate notification.”

Additionally, vendors were asked to create products that would run on PoE. This request resulted in the motors for window shades, minibars, and smart mirrors being put on PoE; plans to make PoE air-conditioning units and TVs; and in-development exercise machines that would allow guests to power the hotel through 20 minutes or more of cardio workouts.

A picture of the historic Sinclair building in 2017. Credit: Renelibrary, Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Now that the hotel is open, Aslam says he is excited to hear customer experience feedback on the technology.

“This is the first time a Marriott hotel is using this technology,” he says in a Connected Real Estate Magazine article. “As we open the doors, we look forward to feedback from our customers.”

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