The role of connector technology in the smart building revolution
Gone are the days when a building was just walls, one or more floors and a roof, with a few doors and windows. Today’s buildings are highly sophisticated living/working spaces that have the ability to monitor and control themselves, and can also communicate with the world around them. Technology is bringing whole new levels of comfort, security and operational efficiency to such premises’ occupants, operators and owners.
Guest blog written by Mark Patrick, Mouser Electronics.
Even legacy constructions are getting involved in this push towards smarter functionality - as advanced systems are starting to be retrofitted.
There are many reasons for wanting a building to be smart, often depending on the type of building and what it is primarily used for. The energy consumption of smart homes can be curbed through integration of intelligent thermostats and lighting controls, while inclusion of connected appliances deliver greater convenience. Remotely accessible entry systems and timed lighting programs ensure greater security when occupants are away. In offices, air quality sensors, connected HVAC mechanisms and remotely operated windows enable an optimum working environment which improves productivity and protects the wellbeing of workers, as well as reducing day-to-day costs for the owners.
Warehousing is also benefitting from new features and functionality, as sensing systems can detect the presence of people and control the lights accordingly. Furthermore, by analysing occupancy patterns, building operators are able to gain a better understanding of how efficiently goods are located and take steps to optimise the layout.
These days, the smart concept is being applied to almost every building type - offices, warehouses, factories, hospitals, airports, etc. All are being fitted with hundreds, if not thousands, of small sensors and controls in order to allow them to participate in the new smarter era. The intricate web-like networks of devices rely on a wide range of power and signal connector formats. These deliver the necessary interoperability and facilitate simple installation, while still maintaining reliable connection in what are often relatively harsh environments, where they are exposed to rainwater, wind and extreme temperatures.
The breadth of potential applications means that an extensive range of different connectors are needed by the smart building sector. The power connector associated with a system that drives a motor (perhaps for a large fan in a factory) will have significantly greater dimensions than the power connector for a simple IoT based device, such as a smart thermostat - although in both cases the objective is to deliver power. Some connectors may need to comply with established industry standards, but there can be a twist. For instance, USB was originally developed to connect computer peripherals - which thereby implies solely indoor use. That said, as smart devices may need to be mounted on the exterior of buildings, weather-proof versions of USB connectors are now increasingly becoming a mandatory requirement.
Terminal blocks provide a straightforward and dependable means of connecting modules and can easily carry power. In most cases, the only tool required is a humble screwdriver to clamp the wire, although certain types may even have spring-loaded clamps that facilitate tool-less use. Two-part pluggable arrangements are available which allow cable assemblies to be formed first before simply plugging devices together. The OQ series from Amphenol Anytek offers a huge variety of options - including crimp, push-in and screw connectivity, up to 36 positions, plus pitches from 2.5-8.0mm. These pluggable terminal blocks can accommodate wire sizes as large as 8AWG and currents as high as 32A, while smaller sizes (30AWG, 4A) are available for connecting power to more compact devices.
Phoenix Contact’s PTS series of terminal blocks offers heightened convenience for installers - speeding up installation times and reducing the related costs. The pluggable devices connect to a simple PCB-mounted pin header and the time saving push-in connection mechanism means that no tools are required. Colour-coded actuation levers make the connection process intuitive, saving debugging time and reducing the risk of potentially damaging misconnections.
Designed specifically for lighting applications, Amphenol LTW’s Smart Solutions in Lighting (SSL) encompasses a vast range of connector types. For indoor applications, SSL 1.1 connectors are available in board-to-board, board-to-wire and wire-to-wire versions. Where sealing is required, SSL1.2 connectors are rated to IP68 - permitting submersion in up to 1m of water for a period of 24 hours, with both wire-to-board and wire-to-wire options supplied. The latching features that SSL connectors can employ make them highly suited to implementation in challenging environments, such as factory machinery where heavy vibrations may be present. They also have temperature ratings exceeding 100°C.
Some smart building devices require a hardwired connection to a computer or hub, meaning that interface technologies, such as USB or Ethernet (among others), need to be used outside - where the connections will be impacted on by the effects of the elements. Fortunately, Bulgin’s Buccaneer connectors are designed to provide power, USB (standard, mini- and micro-) and Ethernet. The shielded 4000 series micro-USB Buccaneer connectors offer sealing up to IP68/IP69K when mated. They are available as cables and panel mount connectors with a multitude of accessories - including sealing caps, gland packs and coloured O-rings for identification. Alongside these are the 4000 series power connectors - which offer similar levels of sealing and functional scope in a variety of pole configurations, while being able to carry power up to 13A or 600V. These products are housed in an UL94-V0 flame retardant moulded housing and carry UL, CSA and VDE approvals, as well as EN60068-2-xx approvals for salt mist and vibration resistance.
Figure 1: Bulgin connectors.
Interconnection technology is often perceived as not exhibiting the same degrees of innovation as many active components do. In reality though, due to emerging applications like smart buildings, there continues to be considerable technological progression within this sector. New, ingenious products are regularly being introduced that are helping to address the challenges posed by the smarter, automation-led society in which we now live.