Retrofitting: The Internet of Things

Graphic of devices included in the Internet of Things

(Source: Global Sign)

One obvious distinction between retrofitting (see last week’s blog) and repairing or fixing, is the growing attempt to repurpose new technologies into existing infrastructure. The novelty of these emerging capabilities is not waiting until the infrastructure breaks down. In many cases, the potential benefits of incorporating emerging technologies into “perfectly” functional “old” infrastructures justify the expenses. Such incorporations have been labeled the Internet of Things (IoT). I did a Google search, and AI compiled the following:

The Internet of Things (IoT) is a network of physical objects that are connected to the internet. These objects are embedded with sensors, software, and other technologies that allow them to collect and share data. The purpose of IoT is to connect devices and objects so they can be remotely monitored and controlled.

The following examples come from the same source:

  • Connected cars
  • Smart appliances
  • Connected security systems
  • Smart agriculture equipment
  • Connected retail
  • Connected healthcare monitors
  • Connected manufacturing equipment
  • Connected cities
  • Digital personal assistants like Alexa, Siri, and Cortana

IoT devices can include mechanical and digital machines, Consumer objects, Televisions, Security cameras, Exercise equipment.

Some history of this recent concept is given below:

The main concept of a network of smart devices was discussed as early as 1982, with a modified Coca-Cola vending machine at Carnegie Mellon University becoming the first ARPANET-connected appliance,[13] able to report its inventory and whether newly loaded drinks were cold or not.[14] Mark Weiser‘s 1991 paper on ubiquitous computing, “The Computer of the 21st Century”, as well as academic venues such as UbiComp and PerCom produced the contemporary vision of the IOT.[15][16] In 1994, Reza Raji described the concept in IEEE Spectrum as “[moving] small packets of data to a large set of nodes, so as to integrate and automate everything from home appliances to entire factories”.[17] Between 1993 and 1997, several companies proposed solutions like Microsoft‘s at Work or Novell‘s NEST. The field gained momentum when Bill Joy envisioned device-to-device communication as a part of his “Six Webs” framework, presented at the World Economic Forum at Davos in 1999.[18]

The concept of the “Internet of things” and the term itself, first appeared in a speech by Peter T. Lewis, to the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation 15th Annual Legislative Weekend in Washington, D.C., published in September 1985.[19] According to Lewis, “The Internet of Things, or IoT, is the integration of people, processes and technology with connectable devices and sensors to enable remote monitoring, status, manipulation and evaluation of trends of such devices.”[20]

Often, IoT devices come with the descriptive title of “smart.” We will meet a few examples as we go along.

Recently, I did a webinar about the matter; I hope to continue involvement with the concept.

A cost benefit analysis is absolutely essential for retrofitting any well-functioning infrastructure with new technology. One good example where such an analysis was missing is the marketing of smart toasters. This toaster is listed for around $400; even so, it already has 255 ratings on Amazon.

My emphasis going forward will probably be focused on applications that adapt existing infrastructure and repurpose space and resources to further environmental efforts. This means things that help to minimize waste, minimize energy intensity (ratio of energy use to produce a desired product), and participate in the global energy transition. All of these actions and applications come under the close scrutiny of tight cost benefit analyses aimed at resilience against disasters. A good example of such an effort is the relatively recent development of smart thermostats:

Smart thermostats are Wi-Fi thermostats that can be used with home automation and are responsible for controlling a home’s heating, ventilation, and air conditioning. They perform similar functions as a Programmable thermostat as they allow the user to control the temperature of their home throughout the day using a schedule, but also contain additional features, such as sensors and Wi-Fi connectivity,[1][2] that improve upon the issues with programming.

Like other Wi-Fi thermostats, they are connected to the Internet via a Wi-Fi network. They allow users to adjust heating settings from other internet-connected devices, such as a laptop or smartphones. This allows users to control the thermostat remotely. This ease of use is essential for ensuring energy savings: studies have shown that households with programmable thermostats actually have higher energy consumption than those with simple thermostats because residents program them incorrectly or disable them completely.[3][4]

Smart thermostats also record internal/external temperatures, the time the HVAC system has been running and can notify the user if the system’s air filter needs to be replaced. This information is typically displayed later on an internet-connected device such as a smartphone.

Smart thermostats, which can be checked and adjusted from a distance, are capable of minimizing energy use, taking into account the specific needs, conditions, and limitations of the host building (regulating temperature based on how many people are there, varying weather, insulation, etc.).

Next week’s blog will explore more examples, including smart electricity meters.

About climatechangefork

Micha Tomkiewicz, Ph.D., is a professor of physics in the Department of Physics, Brooklyn College, the City University of New York. He is also a professor of physics and chemistry in the School for Graduate Studies of the City University of New York. In addition, he is the founding-director of the Environmental Studies Program at Brooklyn College as well as director of the Electrochemistry Institute at that same institution.
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6 Responses to Retrofitting: The Internet of Things

  1. Zoe P. Davis says:

    Hi Professor,

    I really enjoyed this blog post. I think thermostats that rely on wifi would be an interesting development. I am interested in the discourse going on underneath the post as well. I understand where all the commenters are coming from.

    In order for discussions on climate change to be effective, we have to discuss possible solutions. We have to be creative in what we come up with, and we must believe that they will work. As Nelson Mandela said, our choices (and conversations – he didn’t say that but I’ll add it) should reflect our hopes. Not our fears. We’ve got to keep a positive mindset.

    However, I do think that when brainstorming solutions, it doesn’t hurt to ask the necessary questions. I thought Kong and Zanghi brought up a good point – I mean, wouldn’t a world where most things rely on Wifi leave room for connection issues to have grave impacts? I don’t know much about this concept, but I think that’s a valid concern. I don’t think it’s a negative or pessimistic to ask about the potential downsides of the solutions we come up with. What *would* be pessimistic is to completely shoot down the idea.

    Failure is always a possibility and pretending like it isn’t will only hurt us in the long run.
    You can be positive AND realistic <33

    I would love to learn more about this! It's fascinating. Thanks for this blog post.


  2. Lina Yusuf says:

    Hi Professor,
    I think that the problems people face with the wifi like online lectures, or slow internet because of how many people are on it make me believe that depending on wifi for thermostats could result in instability and malfunction when we really need them. In such cases, programmable thermostats would be a more dependable option. While I understand the advantages of having wifi thermostats as they can help save energy, it might be difficult for many people to want to use them.

  3. Hello Professor,

    On the thought of wifi thermostats and how using wifi lowers emissions, I wanted to bring up how advanced we can become as a society. Tech is blowing up as we progress into the future, and i feel as though if we use it more like this, carbon emissions may actually begin to digress as the years go on. This is just a food for thought, but it would be something that is extraordinary to feat.

    Nikita Bangiyev

  4. Kai Wen Chen says:

    Hi professor Tomkiewics,

    My reply will mostly be a response to the comments left by VingGa Kong and Niamh Zanghi. While the concerns over whether or not smart thermostats and other internet-connected devices are necessary, I think they may be overstating the issue. As the professor mentioned, a cost-benefit analysis is necessary to consider whether existing infrastructure should be retrofitted with new technologies. In my own experience -heating, lighting, and almost every device in my home is wifi-connected- smart devices have enormous utility. For example, if I want to work in the living room, I do not need to turn on all the lights in the living room. With my smart lights, I can selectively choose which lights I want to use and at what brightness. Now, I run 50+ smart devices off a small wifi router with speeds of less than 100Mbps. (many companies now are even pushing towards very unnecessary 1Gb (1000Mb)/s internet). The reason why I say Kong is overstating the issue of connection issues is because the major devices that retrofit existing infrastructure (lighting & heating) use very little bandwidth (very little wifi). Then, there is the ‘what IF’ my internet is unreliable. Many devices will have redundencies built into their design; For example, even without wifi, my thermostat will still work. It just won’t connect to my phone anymore; Without wifi, my lights can still turn on/off just as normal lights would. Now, I haven’t done a cost-benefit analysis of all my smart devices. But, it also wouldn’t make sense to as the ‘benefit’ I get from many of these smart devices often comes in the form of the utility they have to me and not the literal cost savings.

    I want to posit the idea of a future society where every car and road is powered by the internet and AI systems that plan driving routes for cars. Such a system would need to operate in real-time and, by extension, use a lot of internet bandwidth and energy. However, such a system would almost eliminate the chances of accidents. A cost-benefit analysis here would inevitably weigh the cost of this against human lives. And, if failures do occur, redundancy might be in the form of allowing drivers to take manual control of their vehicles. I only posit this as a thought for Zanghi and Kong because their positions look through the pessimistic lens where the technology does fail. In the same respect that internet/AI-powered roads/cars could save lives, the benefits of having smart thermostats are energy savings that could far outweigh the inconvenience of uncommon power outages and internet failure.

  5. VingGa Kong says:

    Hi Professor,

    My comment will be similar to the previous comment. I also believe that smart thermostats and Wifi thermostats may be harder to manage and keep working. Even now, many students and teachers have technological issues during online lectures because their wifi or internet connection is unstable. If thermostats were really to be reliant on their connection to wifi, then it might become unstable and during times when it’s really needed, it might just end up being better if we have programmable thermostats. Although I understand the attempt to help climate change here, I believe that it wouldn’t convince a lot of people because no one would want their thermostat to go out during a cold winter just because their internet is unstable.

    Thank you,

  6. Niamh Zanghi says:

    Hi professor,

    I appreciate how you mentioned smart thermostats and WiFi thermostats in this blog post. You wrote how, because they are connected to the internet, they reduce energy emissions because these thermostats can be more easily controlled than manual thermostats, and therefore leave no room for error. I can acknowledge how WiFi thermostats are more appealing to energy conservationists like yourself, but I have a concern.

    Because WiFi thermostats are dependent on a connection to the internet, then what happens when the internet goes out? Think about it: thermostats are most needed in times of extreme weather, such as snow storms and heat waves. Both instances can lead to power outages, as we have seen as recently as the Manhattan blackout of July 2019. Similar blackouts can happen in the winter, as I remember from my childhood. In these times of extreme weather, I think connecting our thermostats to the internet is dangerous. There needs to be a way to control a thermostat manually and separate from the internet.

    Niamh Zanghi

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