Better Sensors in Buildings to Decrease Energy Consumption

by Niti Nagar

Buildings account for about 40 percent of the total energy consumption in the United States. Researchers at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) predict advanced sensors and control have the potential to reduce the energy consumption by 20–30 percent. To develop low-cost wireless sensors, ORNL researchers are experimenting with additive roll-to-roll manufacturing techniques. Roll-to-roll is a technology still is development that allows electronics components like circuits, sensors, antennae, and photovoltaic cells and batteries to be printed on flexible plastic.

Director of ORNL’s Building Technologies Program, Patrick Hughes says, “It is widely accepted that energy-consuming systems such as heating, ventilating, and air conditioning (HVAC) units in buildings are under, or poorly, controlled causing them to waste energy.” Providing control systems with additional information such as outside air and room temperature, humidity, light level, occupancy and pollutants, could increase energy efficiency. However, currently collecting these data is cost prohibitive, whether the information is gathered using inexpensive conventional sensors that must be wired, or by using expensive $150-300 per node wireless sensors. ORNL proposes to solve this issue by creating a new wireless sensor that could reduce costs to $1–10 per node by using advanced manufacturing techniques such as additive roll-to-roll manufacturing. The nodes can be installed without wires using a peel-and-stick adhesive backing. The smart sensors would collect and send data to a receiver, which accumulates data from many peel-and-stick nodes. The idea behind the design is the more information received, the better the building’s energy management.

Hughes says, “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.” ORNL is currently in negotiations to establish a research and development agreement with a premier international electronics manufacturer to make the low-cost wireless sensors commercially available.


Oak Ridge National Laboratory. “Energy use in building: Innovative, lower cost sensors and controls yield better energy efficiency.” ScienceDaily. 27 February 2015. <>


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