Sprouting from the back of PCs, internet routers, phones and other network components, Ethernet cables are a fundamental part of the IT infrastructure in offices and homes. In a wired network, they carry the data that is the lifeblood of most businesses. It is their capacity to carry electricity along with that data, however, that is driving their adoption by foodservice operators and in the hospitality sector as a whole.
Power over Ethernet (PoE) offers the convenience of power and data provided over a single cable connection. Electric power can pass alongside data on twisted pair Ethernet cabling, sufficient to power lowvoltage devices such as phones, IP cameras, routers, lighting controllers and network switches.
“Like most innovations, PoE started as the solution to a problem,” explains George Zimmerman, member of Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) 802 Executive Committee, which wrote the industry standards for PoE cabling. “People were accustomed to a phone being a standalone device that did not need a separate power supply.”
First introduced for phones up to 7W in 1999, the ability to power wired Ethernet devices has steadily increased and PoE now eliminates the need to find or wire up a separate power outlet for network devices including not only IP phones, but wireless access points, cameras, and access control mechanisms, using up to 71.3W. In the last 20 years, around a billion PoE ports have been installed.
“I am a foodservice consultant and we are always looking for the latest and greatest technology,” says Stephen Young FCSI, executive principal at YoungCaruso based in Colorado, US. “We have to look at what the future will be, as our projects often won’t be completed for two or more years.” Young always specifies Category 6 (Cat 6) Ethernet cables – the latest generation – for his projects. “We use PoE for the POS system for data collection,” Young adds. “We specify Cat 6 and, eventually, the POS will retrieve power from that cabling. At the moment, there is a limit of 90W on Cat 6 with a low voltage level, which is not yet enough to power the POS, but it soon will be.
“We think in terms of sustainability, so we won’t specify a technology that is obsolete,” he says. “We specify Cat 6 and the client might not use all of that cabling right away, but six months down the line they will realize that it was a good decision.”
The connected kitchen
PoE is already in use in enterprises of all sizes, with small offices and hotels often using it to power cameras, IP phones and wireless access points. Some even have PoE-powered access control, signage, clocks and lighting. These applications are already present in smart homes and hotels, as well as in the hospitality, healthcare and industrial sectors. So, where does PoE fit in the commercial kitchen? Igor, a company that builds PoE-enabled intelligent building solutions, is beginning to answer that question. The company has developed an Internet of Things (IoT) platform, Nexos, that uses PoE to connect and power remoted devices, bringing them within a single systems architecture.
“PoE is part of our work to digitally and sustainably improve the human condition and to create competitive advantage and customer loyalty for our clients,” says Dwight Stewart, founder and CTO of Igor. Though it is just starting to work with commercial kitchens, Igor already has a broader presence in the hospitality sector. For instance, Nexos intelligent disinfection uses ultraviolet light technology to sanitise individual hotel rooms.
“In a kitchen, it can be used with cameras, motion detectors and other sensors to track assets, monitor cleanliness, track temperature or adjust lighting,” says Stewart. “In hospitality, PoE is already used for telephony, access control, IP cameras and other sensors. When you put everything in one platform, the cost to add more applications falls sharply.”
“Using a node spreads the infrastructure cost across many applications, so the cost per application comes down,” he adds. “The payoff comes straight away, but there is also the futureproofing capability it provides. As devices such as lighting systems become more efficient, they can operate with less power, so they come within the capabilities of PoE.”
Futureproofing and cost-efficiency are two key drivers for Young’s backing of PoE, even if its full potential in a new project will not be realised immediately. “It helps with retrofits where there is no electrical cable or where there is limited opportunity to put that cabling in,” says Young. “We are already seeing PoE used for peripheral devices, but in the future it could power the kitchen itself.
“Temperature probes or alarms on walk-in refrigerators fall within the current 90W range of Cat 6 cabling, so we can already use it for data collection and monitoring systems,” he adds. “That is a conversation we are already having with customers.”
Powering the future
For now, PoE does have its limitations. Stewart points out that the current power output is at the limit for installation by someone who is not a certified electrician. Zimmerman notes that distance is another limiting factor. “PoE can only be distributed over the distances that wired ‘BASE-T’ Ethernet supports and is limited by the resistance of the copper cabling,” he says.
“Nominally, this is 100 meters. Going further generally requires either a device to power a second PoE link or proprietary cabling implementations.”
Within those limitations, however, there are few barriers to adoption, whether in kitchens or more widely in the hospitality sector. PoE is easy to deploy and fits into existing wiring infrastructure.
For this reason, Young sees the potential in future to power digital menu boards and POS systems using PoE, and he agrees with Stewart that more devices will eventually be compatible with PoE. “We could soon see more equipment, perhaps lighting systems, powered using PoE,” he says. “There is a trend towards equipment that requires less energy as part of the strong move in the industry towards sustainability.
“Cat 5, introduced five years ago, had a 15W maximum, then Cat 6 pushed that up to 90W, which is a huge jump in a short space of time,” he observes. “The technology could improve exponentially in the next few years.”
The slowdown in the foodservice sector caused by the Covid-19 pandemic provides some opportunity for the industry to think about refitting and refurbishing, and PoE could be a big part of that. There is, however, the issue of cost in a low-revenue market, but Young believes seizing the opportunity is too important.
“You have to work within a budget, but it is short-sighted to take out such technology early in a project,” believes Young. “Technology will only make our lives better. So, we always specify Cat 6 and we will, of course, look at it again in the future. In a year or two, we could be talking about Cat 7.
“This is a future-thinking industry and most consultants are futurists,” he continues. “They want to put in the best technology for the client. If we could power the POS system using PoE then we could save them a lot of money. The savings could be huge.”
As foodservice businesses plan for the future and what many term ‘the new normal’, it is important to look beyond existing needs and constraints. As Young reminds us: “You have to remain in a future-focused frame of mind.”