‘Smart Bricks’ help Holland with snowmelt efficiency

Posted at 10:46 AM, Jul 08, 2018
and last updated 2018-07-08 10:51:07-04

HOLLAND, Mich. (AP) — With one prototype already in the ground, the Holland Board of Public Works is planning to install 10 more “Smart Bricks” along the snowmelt route to monitor surface temperatures and collect data.

What started as a hobby in radio technology for a self-described tinkerer has led to more efficient data collection for the Holland Board of Public Works’ snowmelt system.

BPW’s new “Smart Brick” will use low-powered radio technology to monitor surface temperatures downtown, which will help BPW better run its snowmelt system and potentially save energy.

With one prototype currently in the ground, BPW is now working toward planting 10 of these bricks along the snowmelt routes downtown, the Holland Sentinel reported .

Pete Hoffswell, the brick’s inventor, is more than just broadband services manager at BPW. He also spends his time experimenting with electronics and working with low-powered radio equipment.

Hoffswell came up with the idea for brick a few winters ago after observing the city’s snowmelt system.

Installed three decades ago, BPW’s snowmelt system circulates waste heat through tubing laid underneath 4.9 miles of pavement around Holland.

While it was clear the system worked well, engineers weren’t sure exactly how well it was working. There was no quantitative data to show how the system was performing throughout the city; all BPW could do was survey the streets to make sure they were visibly clear of snow.

Was BPW supplying enough heat to melt the snow? Could BPW be wasting energy by supplying too much heat into the system? How did BPW know how often to run the pumps of the heat system?

When Hoffswell asked these questions to BPW engineers, he got no answers. The techie decided to take matters into his own hands, using his fascination with electronics to try and come up a solution.

After a few prototypes, Hoffswell created a system that monitored surface temperatures and wetness of the pavement it’s placed in. The battery-operated brick uses low-power radio technology to measure data and send it back to BPW through an antenna cast on the top and discretely hidden under a BPW logo.

With a smart brick prototype already in place in front of New Holland on Eighth Street, BPW is preparing to install more throughout the city to collect data on the snowmelt system.

Each brick costs around $120 to produce. But that’s a small price to pay for the amount of data that will be collected for the city.

As for the future of the smart brick, Hoffswell said he hopes to see this low-powered radio network technology be used in other ways around the city. This kind of infrastructure that makes the city run smarter is known as “Smart City” technology, and has already been implemented throughout Holland such as with Kollen Park’s “LimeLight” motion-censored lighting system and BPW’s low-energy LED street lights.

Hoffswell is currently searching for new ideas of ways to implement the technology to monitor other areas of the city. For example, he said, how many pedestrians go down Eighth Street per day? How many visitors go to the farmers market on a Saturday morning? He hopes to find his next big idea for how to use sensors to monitor and collect data that could benefit the city to work more intelligently and efficiently.

Smart Cities don’t have to be overly difficult, Hoffswell said. They can be very simple.

“This brick is just a temperature sensor,” he said. “It’s a thermometer. It’s so simple. But it serves a very particular, unique purpose that’s beneficial.”

While passing through downtown Holland, keep an eye out for one brick that stands out from the rest. This brick, branded with a “BPW” sticker, is working hard behind-the-scenes to collect data for the city to run more efficiently.