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Professor Using Wireless Sensor to Improve HVAC Efficiency

December 23, 2010

View the VideoThere is no factor in a building that uses up more energy at a greater cost than heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC). Yet HVAC systems do not take advantage of technology that could make them much more efficient, according to a UC Merced engineering professor.

Alberto Cerpa, whose research focuses primarily on sensor networks and their various potential applications, is devising a system that uses wireless sensors and tiny cameras to provide real-time feedback regarding the current occupancy of rooms and hallways within a building.

Further, Cerpa has developed computer algorithms that accumulate occupancy data and thereby create prediction models of future occupancy, all of which can be used to increase the efficiency of HVAC systems.

“The current (HVAC) technology in buildings is, I would say, quite primitive,” Cerpa said. “They assume people occupy the building during a certain time — say from 9 to 5 or 8 to 6 — and they run occupancy, ventilation and conditioning of rooms based on that schedule.

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“The main issue is that there’s no feedback into the system to actually try to condition the rooms and the ventilation based on actual occupancy and actual usage.”

Cerpa’s simulations indicate that using HVAC systems in such an adaptive way — creating an optimal control strategy based on occupancy estimates and usage patterns — can result in a 14 percent reduction in energy usage.

And looking even further into the future, Cerpa sees the potential for this technology to inform the way buildings are designed.

“This would allow, for instance, an architect or a designer to understand that if they design a hallway or a building or a room in a particular way, it will impact the movement of people in particular manner and will dramatically affect the operational costs and energy usage and comfort of the people,” he said.

“So by integrating our occupancy models with standard tools that architects are familiar with, like AutoCAD or sketching tools, we believe that we are trying to bring science back to the architectural community, something that currently is not there.”