Expert Insight: Use smart building technologies to mitigate COVID-19 risks

America is re-opening to an uncertain economic environment.

Business owners are eager to get back to business, and consumers are eager to get out of the house. But apprehensions on both sides of the equation make navigating crowds and high-traffic public spaces a potentially dangerous activity. With no established roadmap for retailers to operate in the age of pandemics, it’s easy to see how one misstep can lead to onerous cleanup costs, contagion, and public flight from your business.   

COVID-19 presents challenges including required operational changes like daily deep cleaning and sanitation activities, as well as behavioral changes from the public. To up the stakes, all these steps must be executed in an environment where retailers are already struggling after weeks of mandatory closures.

A COVID-19 mishap would involve significant financial costs including biohazard-level cleanup measures before a building returns to operational status. A recent Bloomberg Businessweek article estimated the costs to disinfect a facility with confirmed or potential COVID-19 exposure at about $3,000 to $4,000 per hour, or up to $10 per square foot.

So how do American businesses minimize exposure to a potential COVID-19 event? In part, the answer lies in existing technologies that can be repurposed to fight COVID-19.   

Security cameras: A powerful COVID-19 fighter
Repurposing your security camera system is a simple first step for developing a COVID-19 mitigation strategy. At first glance, this may appear to be a complete upgrade, as retailers may have a mix basic and advanced camera technologies deployed across buildings. Artificial intelligence upgrades can bring advanced capabilities to even the most basic camera systems.

One of the key CDC recommendations is social distancing - maintaining a minimum distance of six feet between people. Video analytics can be programmed to alert when people form small groups, violating the social distance policy. Retailers can define their own response procedures when this happens – a discreet reminder by staff to the group, or a recorded message or other sound to remind people to disperse.

Intelligent video analytics also can serve as a strategic planning tool, giving better insights into how spaces are used by the public. Consider the following activity map, which indicates which areas of a cafeteria are most (and least) used during the day.   

During the last few years, most retailers across the globe have modified store layouts to optimize revenue. Retailers will now have to reassess floor layouts to protect public health and revenue. Hot spots may indicate a need to re-plan the layout to more evenly spread out shoppers.  

The same activity map also can be used to develop a daily cleaning and disinfecting plan for janitorial staff.  Using this strategy, facilities managers can more easily point cleaning staff to priority areas.

The same approach can be used to “heat map” where the janitorial staff has actually cleaned. Did they really target the hot spot and spend more time there?  Or did they do a cursory cleanup for convenience’s sake? 

Intelligent video analytics can be generated to meet almost any requirement. Do you need to ensure staff wear masks or other protective equipment to enter an area? Need to check that staff wash their hands for two minutes before they enter a kitchen area? Analytics can be deployed over an existing camera system. There’s no need to buy and install new sensors or wiring.   

Building controls now save lives in addition to energy
For the last 20 years, building controls have primarily focused on energy savings and operational efficiencies. Building sensors measure occupancy, humidity, temperature, and airflow in different rooms. Building automation systems (BAS) use sensor data to establish operating conditions for vents and compressors and optimize comfort while minimizing energy and equipment wear. 

With COVID-19 in play, facilities managers will reassess how they configure BAS in their buildings. Occupancy sensors can be used to establish new maximum occupancy in a room that once permitted 30 people, but now must limit occupancy to six people. Building managers used to prioritize air flow across rooms to ensure maximum fresh air in every room. In the winter, when COVID-19 is expected to make a resurgence, they may take the opposite approach to minimize air flow between rooms in ways that help avoid contamination.

Don’t become ‘Big Brother’
One of the biggest risks in deploying intelligent video analytics is the creating the perception that your business is an all-seeing, all-knowing enforcer over staff and customers. Employees and the general public treasure personal privacy even when they know they need to adapt to support public health.

As you deploy intelligent video analytics and other sensors, educate your staff and customers on what data you are collecting and for what purposes. If you need to “nudge” people to change their behavior, do it discreetly and politely. For example, if your heat map indicates that people congregate near a central spot, maybe put a large potted plant there to disperse the crowds. 

Just as 9/11 brought about changes in the ways we use public spaces (bag searches, more security cameras, for example), our society will adapt to COVID-19 and new social norms will develop. As we continue reopening over the coming months, we will adapt and learn. With some reconfiguration and rethinking, retailers already have the basic tools needed to fight COVID-19. 

James Caton is the global leader for smart infrastructure and cities at SAS

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