The more people ask Alexa or Google Home to turn on their living room lights, the more the phenomenon of interconnected technology, commonly known as the internet of things, becomes less futuristic and more ubiquitous.
Voice-activated devices from digital stalwarts such as Amazon and Google can connect to multiple in-home controls as well as the internet to bring a new level of convenience to consumers. People can regulate their thermostats, check on morning traffic or order groceries by just saying, “Alexa …”
For retailers wondering when such sophisticated connectivity will come to their stores, Gerald White has the answer: two years ago.
White, vice president of retail sales for Max Arnold & Sons, a 23-store retailer based in Hopkinsville, Ky., connected his thermostat, refrigerators, lights and other HVAC systems in 2014. He brought the rest of his chain online a year and a half after that. All the data from these devices flows to his team via an online dashboard, with alerts going to specific individuals when problems arise. He even has had cloud-connected ATMs, which tells staff how much money is in each machine.
“It’s not like drones delivering goods, or refrigerators ordering things, but it’s the tip of the iceberg,” White says, “especially when you think about [other trends like] robotics and self-driving cars.”
Before finding his current solutions provider, Small Box Energy, Chandler, Ariz., White had one-off energy-saving systems for lights and other utilities. When the company remodeled one of its stores, executives wanted an all-inclusive solution.
Small Box’s solution involved new controls and sensors, but the company sent technicians out to do the work. White simply had a maintenance person there to supervise.
To monitor the utilities, White’s staff track apps that tell them when lights are on or off and the temperature of the store and its coolers.
A maintenance manager checks a dashboard, views graphs and watches for spikes that may mean a cooler door is left open or an air conditioner is not running at peak efficiency.
She can call a store for a quick remedy or send a technician to do the repair.
“The main benefit is to see things in a timely fashion,” White says. “It minimizes losses by fixing things before they become a big issue.”
White’s goal was to see a 10% to 15% energy savings. While he hasn’t reached that, he’s hopeful tweaks will get him there. Last year’s record heat won’t help him with true comparisons, but he has seen “double-digit [differences] in kilowatt hours” in stores vs. the main office, which doesn’t have the system.
Tracy Markie, CEO of Small Box, says a large part of his company’s solution involves communicating wirelessly with thermostats; riding on established in-store networks; and using software to populate a comprehensive dashboard.
A lot of the automation tied to energy management has existed for years, Markie says. What’s different today is the degree to which c-stores have established, ongoing connectivity. “Today, everyone’s connected,” he says. “It’s pervasive and inexpensive.”
The software platform that ties everything together is relatively new, incorporating technology that relies less on inconsistent triggers than automated ones.
For example, workers who prep food at 4 a.m. when it’s dark don’t always remember to turn off lights as dawn breaks. But the astronomical clocks built into Small Box’s systems don’t simply rely on a sensor detecting sunlight. Rather, they rely on digital timers that track the sun’s movement to the minute based on the changing seasons.
In another instance, the store may get hot at lunch when stoves are more active.
Controllers can automatically adjust HVAC to compensate for these routine fluctuations. The job of defrosting freezer coils is another area automation can streamline, Markie says. A deeper understanding of defrost cycles combined with automated controls can turn four to six cycles a day into seven to 10 times a week.
To achieve the connectivity, Small Box uses a mix of wired and wireless technology. While some legacy devices in the store are already hardwired, thermostats, sensors and hand-held probes for cold and hot food can all be wireless.
Essentially, the solution acts as a gateway, with all the device data going into a cloud platform where it’s stored and then accessed via phone, table or browser.
In the future, Markie sees environmental controls evolving toward predictive diagnostics, accurately projecting when a rooftop HVAC unit may need servicing, is about to fail or is simply inadequate. Telltale signs include a unit failing to deliver a consistent temperature of cool air over time, a fan-belt break or data showing that a unit may simply be too small for the job.
“Sometimes we find a unit is running all its compressors full-on from when the doors open until they close, and still never achieving the desired [temperature],” Markie says. “That means the unit is undersized … which usually means that equipment will have a shorter-than-usual life.”
The technology is “starting to bring these situations to light,” Markie says.