What’s next: Power over Ethernet, explained

Get the basics of this technology that powers smart devices and smart buildings.

The world today is more connected than ever – and our web of smart devices is only growing. The numbers are pretty staggering: one estimate suggests that we’ll have 500 billion devices connected to the Internet by 2030, just a decade away.
 
We’re a far cry from the early days of dial-up and cell phones. So, it’s only natural that as homes and businesses become “smarter,” how these devices get powered would too. That’s where power over Ethernet comes in.

 

What is power over Ethernet?

Power over Ethernet (PoE) allows power to be carried through an Ethernet cable. Ethernet cables are typically used to deliver data to your computer in a local area network (LAN) – a space with devices connected by a network. Through PoE, these connections carry electricity, too.
 
Think about the devices that fall under the umbrella of “Internet of things” (IoT) – in other words, smart, connected devices. Most of them can benefit from PoE. Today, PoE is useful for low-power devices that require both a network connection and a power source, such as Voice-over-Internet Protocol (VoIP) phones, security cameras, digital signage and smart lighting.

PoE for smarter buildings

PoE isn’t a new technology, but it’s becoming more common. Standards for PoE actually go all the way back to 2003. However, as corporate real estate needs change and technology evolves, we’re now firmly in the era of the smart building, with intelligent, Internet-enabled devices designed to make work and life easier and more productive.
 
In a truly smart building, everything is connected, from security systems to elevators to blinds to lighting, powered by an Ethernet connection. While we’re far from PoE overtaking traditional power cables, it is likely to grow as more buildings become smarter.
 
One data centre in Long Island, NY, for example, installed power over Ethernet for its LED lighting, with the goal of using 70 per cent less energy than through traditional LED light bulbs alone. (For their part, regular LEDs are a dramatic improvement over compact fluorescent lighting, since they use far less energy and last longer, which lowers maintenance costs.)

The intelligent PoE system complements the more energy-efficient bulbs by giving the operations team more granular control over how the centre uses lighting, such as dimming the lights when lower levels are sufficient, or using occupancy sensors to turn lights off entirely when people aren’t around. Plus, it can now gather data about how lighting is used in the data centre, to make adjustments that will potentially save energy.

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Benefits of PoE

Using power over Ethernet cuts both the time and expense of installing electrical power cabling. It’s also flexible. Since PoE doesn’t rely on where electrical cables or outlets are already, it means you can potentially put devices wherever you need them, such as placing security cameras in areas that are otherwise difficult to access.
 
PoE is also reliable and potentially safer than traditional systems. Power over Ethernet moves low-voltage power, which can reduce the risks associated with higher voltages (such as fire and injuries). As with any smart technology, you’ll need to be sure your network is reliable and able to support powering these devices. If needed, PoE can be backed up with an Uninterruptible Power Supply unit, which is used to protect hardware from potential power disruption.

PoE for smarter energy management

One of the big advantages of PoE is its ability to give building managers insight into how the space is being used and control over electronics and devices, even empowering real-time repair and maintenance tasks.
 
More connected devices can also help facility managers make energy-saving adjustments accordingly. For example, in one case, based on historical data, a facility manager could recommend closing off an entire floor until 8 a.m., or advise the cleaning crew on where they are or aren’t needed, based on the day’s office use (pdf). Some systems can even measure ambient temperature, detect motion and measure electricity consumption.
 
Smart buildings can potentially propel energy savings forward. Networking company Cisco, for example – which itself makes the technology for PoE – created an IoT-connected space in its downtown Toronto headquarters (pdf). Connected lighting enables IoT sensors to help optimize building operations. As a result, it expects to achieve energy savings of about 177,000 kilowatt-hours, or $45,000 annually.
 
The benefits of power over Ethernet also go beyond energy savings alone. For example, facilities managers can program their PoE lighting to follow different light frequencies and lighting temperature. Those changes can potentially enhance occupants’ concentration, boost productivity and even improve their mood.1,2
 
So, whether you’re ready for a fully smart building or just taking small steps to improve your organization’s energy efficiency, start exploring how you can use PoE to improve your business.