Low-Cost Wireless Sensors for Building Applications

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Lead Performer: Oak Ridge National Laboratory - Oak Ridge, TN
Industry Partner: Molex – Lisle, IL
DOE Funding: $750,000
Cost Share: $875,000
Project Term: October 2013 - Ongoing

Project Objective

Regulating comfort in small buildings could become more efficient and less expensive thanks to an innovative wireless sensor technology being developed by researchers at ORNL. ORNL has established a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA) with Molex, a premier international electronics manufacturer, to make the low-cost wireless sensors commercially available. The objective of the CRADA is to achieve greater than an order of magnitude in cost reduction and provide market access to this exciting new technology.

Energy-consuming systems such as heating, ventilating, and air conditioning (HVAC) units in buildings are under-, or poorly, controlled, causing them to waste energy. Buildings could increase their energy efficiency if control systems had access to additional information. HVAC, lighting, and other systems would benefit from additional data such as outside air and room temperature, humidity, light level, occupancy, and pollutant levels but currently, collecting this information is cost-prohibitive, whether the information is gathered by inexpensive conventional sensors that must be wired, or by using today’s expensive $150–$300 per node wireless sensors.

ORNL’s new wireless sensor platform could reduce costs to $1–$10 per node by leveraging advanced manufacturing techniques such as additive roll-to-roll manufacturing. If successful the advanced manufacturing processes will enable electronics such as circuits, sensors, antennae, photovoltaic cells (or other energy harvesting devices), and batteries to be printed on flexible plastic substrates (base materials). The self-powering, long-life nodes can be installed without wires using a peel-and-stick adhesive backing.

The ultra-low power smart sensors collect and send data to a receiver, which can capture data from many different peel-and-stick nodes and provide information to the energy-consuming system. The more information received, the better the building’s energy management. Both new construction and retrofitted buildings can benefit from ORNL’s smart sensors.

Project Impact

Buildings in the United States consume approximately 40 quads of energy annually. Of this, 9.5 quads are consumed in smaller commercial buildings (50,000 square feet or less) without building automation systems. According to a recent study, whole building energy consumption can be reduced 20-30% (TIAX 2005) through the improved control of energy consuming systems that low-cost wireless sensors enables, suggesting a roughly 2-3 quad energy savings technical potential. Given that there are no building automation systems in many commercial buildings larger than 50,000 square feet, and homes would also benefit from the technology, the savings potential may be significantly larger.

If commercially available at the target price point, there would be endless application possibilities where the installed cost to improve the control of energy-consuming systems would pay for itself through lower utility bills in only a few years. This technology has the potential to cost-effectively provide the information that enables ongoing continuous commissioning, fault detection and diagnosis, and service organization notifications when needed, ensuring optimal building system operations throughout their service life.

(TIAX 2005) Energy Impact of Commercial Building Controls and Performance Diagnostics: Market Characterization, Energy Impact of Building Faults and the Energy Savings Potential, TIAX Report D0180, for US DOE under Contract 030400101, November 2005.


DOE Technology Manager: Marina Sofos
Lead Performer: Teja Kuruganti, Oak Ridge National Lab

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