Smart Sensors and Controls

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What are Smart Sensors and Controls?

Smart sensors are devices that monitor conditions of the physical environment and building equipment such as temperature, air flow, moisture, humidity, lighting and daylighting levels, offer smoke and CO detection, and collect data about real-time building occupancy, and energy and water use (see Daylighting). Electronic actuators process these measurements, and smart controls utilize the data to adjust building conditions and optimize building performance in areas such as lighting and shading, HVAC systems, security, fire suppression, equipment plug loads, and landscape irrigation.[1] Controls utilize software with standardized communication protocols on networked computing devices such as smartphones, tablets, laptops, PCs or through dedicated hardware interfaces such as wall-mounted controls. Smart buildings consist of an integrated network of advanced sensors and controls and use Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) to connect building systems and enable automated building operations and control.[2]

Figure 1 – Weather-Based Irrigation Control System (Source: Flickr user slworking2)

Figure 1 – Weather-Based Irrigation Control System (Source: Flickr user slworking2)

For example, smart thermostats coupled with smart HVAC systems use multiple sensors and controls to monitor and ensure proper humidity levels and temperature settings, control energy consumption in unoccupied areas, and detect and diagnose issues. Smart appliances such as refrigerators and freezers use sensors and controls to remotely track and manage variables such as temperature, humidity, and energy use. Demand response enabled devices, including smart thermostats and certain appliances, can be controlled remotely by an energy provider to reduce peak power demand (see Demand Response and Peak Load Management).[3] Smart lighting consists of networked LED and linear fluorescent luminaires with advanced sensors that can detect lighting failure and advanced controls that utilize dual-technology infrared plus ultrasonic occupancy and vacancy sensing, daylight harvesting, dimming controls and task tuning (see High-Efficiency Lighting Systems and Networked Lighting Controls).[4] Smart solar window films adjust window tints based on incoming daylight, and window shading systems use auto-controlled devices that open and close at specific times of the day to manage light levels and solar heat gain (see Energy-Efficient Windows).[5] Smart plug load controls, including smart outlets and advanced power strips, use scheduling, motion sensing, or load detection to turn off equipment when not in use (see ENERGY STAR Equipment and Plug Load). Smoke detectors enable automated sprinkler systems to function correctly, and CO sensors trigger alarms to protect building occupants before exposure to dangerous CO levels. Smart security systems automatically unlock doors for building employees using different types of sensors such as facial recognition or mobile phone GPS. Smart water metering and irrigation systems use sensors to monitor water use, detect leaks, and prevent irrigation systems from running when it is raining or when unnecessary.

Smart building technologies can connect users to a smart grid (see Smart Metering). Smart metered buildings utilize advanced meters that record and communicate electricity consumption in short-time intervals back to the utility, providing two-way communication, support for advanced monitoring and payment systems, and remote disablement and enablement of supply.[6] Smart metered buildings with on-site renewable energy generation (see Photovoltaic Systems and On-Site Wind Energy Generation Systems) and energy storage (see Energy Storage and Back-up Power Generation) can signal consumers to use renewable electricity when available, store excess when not needed or sell excess electricity to the grid. Electric vehicles can provide energy storage for energy generated on-site or from the grid when electricity demand is low (see Alternative Transportation).[7] Demand response ready devices and appliances can be automatically controlled by energy providers or incentivized through demand response programs to motivate consumers to reduce or shift energy use to off-peak hours.[8]

How to Incorporate Smart Sensors and Controls

The decision to install smart sensors and controls and the type of technologies selected depends on the size of the building and the building’s intended use. Smart system set-up and installation requires expert assistance. A building can incorporate multiple smart technologies or a single service such as a smart lighting system or a smart security system depending on the needs and desires of the building users. Look for devices with interoperability between smart building technologies and with demand response functionality to allow for changes and updates over time as new products, services and incentive programs become available.

While sensors and controls may require cabling and cable pathways, an increasing number of applications now offer wireless capabilities. While sensors that do not depend on external power are available and recommended, sensors and controls that do rely on the grid and network connections require backup options for electric power and network connection in case of a power or network failure.

Contact the NJ Office of Clean Energy to learn about current incentives and programs that support smart building technologies that increase energy-efficiency.


GSA Green Proving Ground (GPG): Wireless Pneumatic Thermostats

A study conducted by the GSA Green Proving Ground Program found that wireless pneumatic thermostats, which detect space temperature and can wirelessly control HVAC systems, can cost-effectively reduce energy use by implementing unoccupied/occupied energy-saving control strategies.

Panasonic Corporation of North America, Newark, NJ.

Through New Jersey’s Clean Energy Pay for Performance Program, Panasonic received guidance and financial incentives to implement lighting control strategies including daylight harvesting.


Smart building technologies provide tools to detect and manage building operations and maintenance, comfort, and energy performance issues, resulting in better equipment maintenance, higher occupant satisfaction, and reduced energy consumption and costs. Smart metered buildings can also track real-time energy consumption, allowing business owners to monitor and certify peak energy use reductions, and take advantage of lower electricity charges and peak demand incentive programs offered by utilities.[9]


The initial cost, energy savings, and payback of smart technologies vary depending on the technology’s features and capabilities. In general, smart technologies that cover the whole building in one application benefit from economies of scale and cost less to install per square foot in larger buildings than in smaller ones. Individual technologies, such as smart thermostats typically cost less for smaller buildings. Advances in wireless technologies have also lowered installation and commissioning costs compared to wired devices. Savings from the reduced utility demand charges often cover the costs of smart control projects.[10]


Smart controls contribute to a building’s resiliency by providing real-time feedback on the status of critical building systems, notifying building operators when and where a problem exists, and providing remote access for turning systems on or off during potential power outages or other disruptive events. Smart sensors that do not rely on external power or wired networks can continue to provide feedback during power outages. Smart metering and smart devices and appliances with demand response ready equipment also benefit the energy system and promote resiliency by supporting grid stability, reducing peak energy demand, and increasing the use of renewable energy.

[1] Marina Sofos. 2018. “Sensor and Control Technologies: R&D Overview.” Building Technologies Office (BTO). U.S. Department of Energy: Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy. BTO Peer Review. April 30, 2018. (accessed Aug 13, 2018).

[2] Jennifer King and Christopher Perry. 2017. “Smart Buildings: Using Smart Technology to Save Energy in Existing Buildings.” February 2017. American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. (accessed August 13, 2018).

[3] Connected Devices Alliance (CDA). 2018. “Intelligent Efficiency –  A Case Study of Barriers and Solutions – Smart Homes.” March 2018. (accessed August 17, 2018).

[4] Jennifer King and Christopher Perry. 2017. “Smart Buildings: Using Smart Technology to Save Energy in Existing Buildings.” February 2017. American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. (accessed August 13, 2018).

[5] Christopher Perry. 2017. “Smart Buildings: A Deeper Dive into Market Segments.” December 2017. American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. (accessed August 13, 2018).

[6] Connected Devices Alliance (CDA). 2018. “Intelligent Efficiency –  A Case Study of Barriers and Solutions – Smart Homes.” March 2018. (accessed August 17, 2018).

[7] Ibid.

[8] Smart Home. Home Automation Buying Guide.  (accessed May 3, 2018)

[9] Smart Home. Home Automation Buying Guide.  (accessed May 3, 2018)

[10] EPRI. “Estimating the Cost and Benefits of the Smart Grid.” (accessed May 5, 2018).