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Our VP of Energy and Operations, Tim Burke, explains how IMS Evolve's IoT solution is helping retailers navigate through the so-called 'new normal'.

June saw retail sales in both the UK and US return to pre-COVID levels for the first time since lockdown. While this was partly driven by a rise in ecommerce, in-store shopping is showing signs of slowly returning to normal. However, as customers start coming back through the doors, retailers are having to adapt in ever-changing and more innovative ways.

When we talk about adapting to the new normal in a food retail setting, we think about customers waiting outdoors, social distancing in aisles and the wearing of a facemask. But, the heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC for short) systems in your local supermarket have the potential to form a big part of the response to COVID-19 and help shape the new normal. This is where IMS Evolve plays its part. 

For years we have been digitalizing HVAC systems for some of the largest and best-known food retail stores around the world. We’ve done this using our Internet of Things (IoT) solution that gathers and analyzes data from assets such as a store’s air conditioning system. The solution works by monitoring and processing data sets like temperatures, humidity, economizer details and other machine health check information in real-time. The IMS Evolve solution then leverages these insights to drive and deliver automation by enacting small to large scale changes, thus enabling the assets to perform more efficiently while improving  their health and extending their lifecycle.

From detecting the very first signs of a potential fault through to preventing an asset from being overworked (and therefore consuming too much energy) the IMS Evolve solution has been proven to deliver numerous benefits. Our approach to HVAC optimization forms part of our solution that monitors various other store assets including lighting, refrigeration, energy meters and even CCTV. This approach helps to deliver a complete transformation that enhances the in-store experience for customers, reduces energy consumption and ultimately improves a retailer’s bottom line.

So far so good – but what does this have to do with COVID?

Digitalization doesn’t just help with driving down costs and lowering a retailer’s carbon footprint. At IMS Evolve, we believe that an IoT solution has to be robust, reliable and adaptable to meet new business needs as and when they arise. To that end, the past few months we have seen retailers turning to digitalized HVAC systems to help with their response to the pandemic. From air filtration to dynamic scheduling (sophisticated on/off timings), the IMS Evolve solution is being used in a number of ways to help reduce potential COVID-19 related issues. 

Air Filtration 

Air filtration is one of the primary focuses in the HVAC industry at the moment, but how can air conditioning within a supermarket be used to keep aisles free from pathogens? The solution is actually quite simple and relies on the same technology that IMS Evolve has already integrated into stores to monitor fresh air and CO2 levels.

CO2 monitors are placed within a store and are connected to a central controls panel which reads and analyses the store-wide data. The sensors detect the levels of CO2 instore and signal if they begin to drift past a pre-determined base level. When they give that signal, the HVAC system is automatically alerted and provides more fresh air into the store. Keeping the air fresh is important, as COVID-19 transmission depends on respiratory droplets being able to move from person to person, which is easier when air is stagnant and stale. 

The combination of evaluating all relevant sensor data (humidity, temperatures, CO2 and shopper traffic etc.) allows retailers to make sure the air in a store is turned over properly and consistently fresh, thus keeping the chances of airborne transmission as low as possible without the need for lots of extra energy use. 

Dynamic Scheduling

The IMS Evolve solution can also help retailers adapt to the practical and financial changes required as a result of the pandemic. With store opening times continually changing, fewer people inside a store at any one time, and staff performing additional cleaning routines after hours, the requirement for optimum store temperature has moved from static to dynamic.

Pre-pandemic, HVAC systems could be set to keep the average store at an optimum temperature between, say, 7am and 11pm. It would have to work a little harder during the lunch time rush and post-work peak; a mostly predictable routine that the system could be programmed to follow. 

Now, store opening times are continually adjusting and social distancing regulations are changing, meaning varying shopper traffic and peak times have changed dramatically. Through remote management enabled by the IMS Evolve solution, new schedules can be deployed across the HVAC system rapidly, while real-time monitoring of temperature and customer volume in the store enables the systems to run more efficiently by only filtering in the amount of air that is actually necessary.

Controls Agnostic

All of the above is helping retailers to cope with the new demands of COVID-19, but it can be done without the need for the costly replacement of infrastructure. The IMS Evolve solution is machine and controls agnostic, which means it can connect to any addressable device regardless of its manufacturer or age and integrate it into the IoT layer. In practice, that means that retailers will be able to digitalize their stores to help with their response to the pandemic without the need to rip out old machinery and replace it with expensive building automation systems. Essentially, the IMS Evolve solution acts as a plug and play system that, amongst other things, enables retailers to weather the storm of the pandemic as well as react to any other unforeseen future challenges such as adverse weather or new sustainability policies, both quickly and effectively.

The IMS Evolve IoT solution is being used across some of the biggest supermarkets in the world to reduce energy consumption, enhance customer experience and ultimately improve the bottom line. As retailers prepare for in-store shopping  to return to near normal levels, they have to be prepared to ensure customer and staff comfort and safety, while adapting to the new economic climate by making efficiency savings where they can. The IMS Evolve IoT platform is proving to be a breath of fresh air for food retailers as they navigate the new normal.