Are Smart Buildings Smarter Than Alexa?

For December 20, 2017

Hi WN@TL Fans,

This weekend I was back in Dixon IL for a Christmas get-together, and I had the chance to drive my kids past the house I grew up in from 1957 to 1970.  Back then the homestead at 118 College had electricity, running water, a flush toilet, a shower & bath.  It had a phone, radios, a TV, an electric fridge and a gas-fired water heater and stove, a clothes washer and dryer.  It had no AC.

In 1957 it was heated by a coal-burning fire-breathing octopus of a furnace;  I’m not sure the furnace even had a thermostat.  In the winter, if we wanted the house warmer, Dad shoveled some more coal in the furnace.

In the summer, if you wanted the house cooler, you opened some doors and windows and maybe put a box fan in a window to suck out the hot air.

If the power went out, you had to troubleshoot whether it was out across the whole neighborhood, across the whole house, or just on one circuit; and you had to test each circuit by looking at each fuse to see which one had blown.

It took a lot of brawn to heat and cool that house.  To monitor their energy use, my parents had only the monthly bills for coal, gas and electricity, and the semi-annual bills for water.

In contrast, my kids came back home Sunday night to an old house with a new Ring security camera at the back door, a programmable thermostat to control the gas-fired furnace and the central air, and a WiFi signal in every room.

Furthermore, MG&E lets me track online my use of electricity use and gas.  And last spring, the city water utility emailed me a notice when my usage at night indicated a significant leak somewhere in the house. It was a toilet flapper valve: the little bugger cost $2 to fix and dropped my water bill by $50 the next month.

Our house isn’t a smart building, but it’s in the transition that most large buildings like the Genetics Biotech Center have made to being equipped with devices that can sense, adjust, record, analyze and anticipate the need for and use of electricity, gas, AC, water, and air quality.

This week (December 20) we get to hear Raj Gopal speak on

“Smart Buildings:  Are They Smarter than Alexa?”

Here’s how Raj describes his talk:

“This talk will address demand response to real-time pricing and automatic fault detection and diagnosis in large office buildings. During this Q&A session, a well-known guest speaker will briefly critique Gopal’s assertions, and Gopal will respond with a rebuttal, followed by questions from the audience.”

About the Speaker

Raj Gopal has been a Wisconsinite for more than 40 years, and his professional experience includes working as a scientist for a leading building-automation systems company and as a demand-side management engineer for two large electric-power utilities. He has also taught as an adjunct professor at UW–Milwaukee and the Milwaukee School of Engineering. Gopal has a PhD in mechanical engineering from the University of Akron and a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology in Madras, India. He holds patents in thermal energy storage and solar energy and has several publications to his credit.


As a biologist, it seems to me that smart buildings are redefining “home-ostasis.”  Gathering lots of data to monitor and adjust how a building is working can save lots of dollars, and it can help reduce the environmental impact of our buildings. And as the case of my leaky toilet flapper shows, it’s a rewarding enterprise to make our buildings savvy.

Next week:  WN@TL goes Dark.  Happy New Year!

In two weeks, strap on your scuba tank and curb your claustrophobia as Tamara Thomsen and Mark Langenfeld take us into the flooded iron mines of Sauk County.

Hope to see you soon at Wednesday Nite @ The Lab!

Thanks again,

Tom Zinnen
UW-Madison and UW-Extension

UW-Madison:  5.8 million owners, one pretty good public land-grant research university.

Visit UW-Madison’s science outreach portal at for information on the people, places & programs on campus that welcome you to come experience science as exploring the unknown, all year round.