Industrial Sensing a Critical Piece in Sustainable Transformations

By Adithi Murthy

Product Line Director, Industrial Sensors & Switches

Sensata Technologies

May 25, 2023


Industrial Sensing a Critical Piece in Sustainable Transformations

Over the past few years, it is clear that the push for sustainability has reached critical mass.

Once considered a “nice-to-have” in many corporate strategies, more earth-friendly designs are now a must around the globe. Recent filings have down that 81% of the world’s top companies report on sustainability as a corporate priority, and more than 90% of the S&P 500 has issued a sustainability report.

This momentum extends to everything – companies’ facilities and buildings, their manufacturing processes, and their products. And in each of those strategies, industrial sensing can play a key role in helping to drive change.

HVAC Efficiency Gains and Heat Pump Transformation

Sustainability conversations often focus on the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning vertical – generally for good reason. Data estimates from the U.S. Energy Information Administration found that the energy used to cool residential and commercial buildings accounted for a full 10 percent of total electricity consumption. Driving down that energy use has a far greater impact than improvements elsewhere.

This industry has been gripped by two major shifts – the expansion of heat pumps and the proliferation of more advanced (and efficient) architectures such as variable air volume systems.

Heat pumps function by extracting heat from the surrounding air, ground, or water and using pressure to transfer that energy to a refrigerant coolant. The coolant is then compressed - which significantly increases its temperature - and transferred to the location designated for heat.

Compared to transitional resistive heat sources, heat pumps are more efficient than traditional electric heaters because they only use electricity to operate the compressor, pump and fans. They are generally efficient enough to even reduce energy usage when accounting for losses in the transmission of energy from the electrical grid.

Even compared to natural gas or oil systems, heat pumps result in a lower overall energy use. One study from Northeast Energy Efficiency Partnerships (cited by the U.S. Department of Energy) found that heat pumps could deliver annual savings of more than 6,200 kilowatt-hours compared to oil systems in many colder areas of the U.S.

Government incentives and other programs worldwide are driving a massive increase in heat pump systems -- Sales of heat pumps globally increased 15 percent in 2021, with 190 million units in use accounting for 10 percent of cooing worldwide.

Other sensor-driven systems also allow for a more efficient cooling of space. In a traditional constant volume air conditioning design, the volume of airflow is constant, but the temperature of the air is changed to reach the desired target. In a VAV design, the system supplies air with a constant temperature, but meters its flow to reach the same goal.

The energy savings in this system design are driven by a reduction in fan usage, and it also results in reduced compressor wear and fan noise. While energy savings can vary, some data has shown energy savings of nearly 40 percent.

Smarter Metering Reduces Losses in Supply

Sensing technology is also making a significant impact on the supply side of the sustainability conversation, with advances in metering helping to reduce transmission loss in both water and natural gas pipelines.

Natural gas is used by roughly 50 percent of homes in the United States and a wide variety of commercial buildings, accounting for 26 percent of total consumption. It is also the largest source of household energy use in the EU, accounting for nearly a third of residential energy consumption.

These networks have countless points where leaks could occur. And the fact that most of the network is accessible only underneath streets and other infrastructure – making regular checks or maintenance impractical – creates the ideal environment for sensor and smart metering technology which can be monitored remotely without the need for on-site access.

Many meters are already designed with technology to monitor usage for billing. By adding additional pressure sensors, utilities can map pressure in their network in real time to monitor for potential leaks, or even trigger remote shutoff valves to protect the building in case of an overpressure event.

In a similar fashion, sensor technology can also be deployed into water distribution networks. Whereas the use of natural gas helps reduce the potential for global warming, a more efficient water network helps to reduce strain on river basins and reservoirs everywhere.

While water resources continue to move through the water cycle in a variety of ways, the availability of water in specific areas continues to be a concern – with scarcity in many parts of the world continuing to become more acute.

According to the United Nations, 2.3 billion people live in water-stressed countries, with roughly a third of those people living in countries listed as high and critically water-stressed. With populations around the world continuing to grow, this problem is likely to only continue to worsen in the coming years. By 2025, two-thirds of the world’s population may face water shortages at least part of the year.

By incorporating pressure sensors into the network – either at the water meter, fire hydrant, or other nodes throughout the distribution network – utilities can identify where leaks may be present and ensure that the water which enters the distribution network is not lost before it reaches its destination – resulting in reduced draws from rivers, reservoirs, and other water sources.

Continued Drive for Ongoing Improvements

Smarter sensing is also enabling continued sustainability-driven transformations in a wide variety of other industries worldwide – from clean energy to electric vehicles and beyond.

One example of this is the shift of HVAC systems from hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) refrigerants to hydrofluoro-olefins - through the Kigali Amendment to the United Nations’ Montreal Protocol.

These new coolants create less of a carbon footprint, but are slightly flammable. To ensure their safety, new sensor technology designed to monitor leaks allows for the industry to pursue the switch. The goal is an 80 percent reduction in HFC consumption by 2047, which could avoid up to 0.5 °C increase in global temperature by the year 2100.

No one process will provide all the sustainability improvements needed. But smarter sensing will play a critical role in making a more sustainable future.