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Swimming in Sensors

Moen's new M-Power faucet

Moen's sleek M-Power sensor-operated faucets are awash with intelligent features that can help reduce bacteria and maintenance hassles. Photo: M–POWER chrome sensor-operated lavatory faucet by Moen.

From our municipal infrastructure and built environment all the way down to individual devices, sensors are playing a growing role in controlling water usage and quality.

By Cheryl Weber

Sensors are part of almost every facet of life these days. Fitness buffs use the Fitbit to track their exercise, eating, and sleeping habits. The Nest thermostat learns household patterns and adjusts its settings accordingly.

From big-picture applications in the built environment all the way down to individual devices, intelligent sensors that gather data or automate our buildings are evolving as a long-term trend. They will usher in enormous changes to the way we do things, says Susan Eustis, president of WinterGreen Research, Lexington, Mass. Her technology and communications research company puts the current size of the sensor market at about 65 million devices, but it is forecast to reach 2.8 trillion devices by 2019.

On a systems level, facilities managers and engineers are beginning to implement technologies that track and analyze data about every loop in a building's operation, allowing them to optimize an entire facility. Plumbing-system sensors, in particular, are poised to play a pivotal role in creating smarter buildings and cities. Water consumption has grown twice as fast as the global population over the last century, according to an IBM report. Domestic and industrial water consumption quadrupled from 1950 to 1995 and is expected to grow another 50 percent by 2015, straining municipal budgets and an aging infrastructure.

In an era where tracking is the ticket to resource efficiency, sensors will help city planners set limits, which could lead to better utility rates for buildings that meet water-use targets, Eustis says. And the sensors can provide building managers with new ways to control water costs by measuring overall flow rate and differentiating usage by department and floor level.

"That information lets you investigate whether there are leaks, or whether someone leaves the shower running when it's not in use," Eustis says. "If you just have gross numbers, there's no way to target usage in different parts of buildings, and that's what will be quite important."


Today's latest fixtures incorporate state-of-the-art sensors that continue to reduce wasted water while improving users' health and hygiene.


While sensors are vital for gathering data about our buildings, they continue to evolve in the electronic fixtures that engineers specify as an integral component of smart building design. Sensor-operated faucets have been used in commercial facilities since the late 1980s, when building owners began specifying restroom fixtures equipped with motion detectors that trigger the flow and shut-off of water. This innovation neatly solved several problems by reducing water waste, stopping the spread of infection, and helping people who have trouble turning or reaching the handles.

Today's latest fixtures incorporate state-of-the-art sensors that continue to reduce wasted water while improving users' health and hygiene. For example, Moen M•POWER sensor-operated faucets have new precision software that starts and stops water flow flawlessly, a feature that clears stagnant water from the line every 24 hours, and a maintenance mode that deactivates the sensor for cleaning and upkeep. Laminar flow kits are also available to help prevent airborne Legionella and other bacteria in applications such as healthcare.

At all points on the spectrum, "water sensors give you control you can't have any other way," Eustis says. "As people get interested in the cost and quality of water, they will make a huge difference."