ZigBee’s Nights at the Hotel

It’s been said that automated controls can do many things. Turn off your lights. Turn on your stereo. Open your garage door, of course.

Precious few of these things have come to pass so far, as automated control technology struggles to get a toehold in the residential market.

In the commercial market, however, it’s a very different picture. In recent months, for example, Toronto-based Riga Development has shown the hotel community that automated control of room temperature is not only possible but also highly cost effective.

The company deployed wireless control networks in eight hotels owned by the Westmont Hospitality Group. By automatically regulating room temperature, turning down the heat when guests check out, and alerting hoteliers to potential problems in the HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) system, Riga expects to save the hotel chain more than $2.2 million in energy costs per year.

As Riga’s director of corporate strategy, Daniel Moneta says wireless technology allows hotels to start saving even before their control systems are switched on.

“The biggest appeal is for the retrofit market,” he said, referring to hotel companies looking to add new control systems to existing structures. “You can understand how much it costs to have somebody go in and rewire an entire building not just from the front desk to the room, but even within the room itself. For hotels, especially busy ones, to have a crew rewiring every room is a major disruption.”

A wireless installation can cost a few hundred dollars per room, as compared to thousands per room for a wired solution, Moneta said.

Founded two years ago, Riga came to market with its WiSuite product three months ago. The WiSuite Environmental Management System is built on ZigBee wireless networking technology using chips from Ember, a decision Moneta said has enabled the company to deploy networks both rapidly and at low cost.

With its low bandwidth and mesh-based protocol, ZigBee creates a highly flexible scenario.

“We don’t have to install a router on every floor, we are not constantly having to diagnose signal problems on a room-by-room basis,” Moneta said. “We can toss ZigBee nodes all over a building and they will be able to connect very quickly and very reliably. To go eight floors through a building with just a couple of little devices, it’s just amazing.”

With 802.11b on the other hand, “you need a lot of repeaters, everything needs to talk to the router. When you are five stories up and behind a brick firewall, that produces a lot of communications issues,” he said.

Building on ZigBee, Riga can coat a hotel with wireless controls in about two days, even in a complex deployment, Moneta said.

Technology aside, there remains the question of marketing, and selling into hotels is a central piece of Riga’s marketing puzzle.

In the first place, the hotel market can deliver a scale unseen on the domestic side. “If we can sell a few hundred units to a hotel, that’s certainly easier than doing it house by house,” Moneta said.

That being the case, the ability to sell into a hotel remains somewhat of a challenge. “Among the hotel managers and the owners, there is still hesitation. There is education that needs to be done,” Moneta said. “But the idea of wireless automation systems has been around for a while now, and people are starting to get interested.”

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