HVAC Residential Market / HVAC Light Commercial Market

Consumers Catch up With Thermostat Technology

September 24, 2007
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Contractors like Alan Slobodkin, a partner with Western Allied Corp., have been hearing about wireless advancements, and are curious about their potential applications.


Handheld consumer electronics have been proliferating at a very rapid pace. It’s often harder to find a person without a cell phone, than a person with at least one.

Consumer comfort with high-tech toys, combined with rising energy prices, have created a good market for manufacturers of thermostats and controls. It’s a far cry from the problems of just a few years ago, when too many homeowners seemed far too willing to override the energy-saving settings on their programmable t-stats.

From the manufacturers’ points of view, emerging technologies will continue to develop in flexibility, adaptability, connectivity, and wireless communication.

“Five years down the road, it’s safe to say there will be more wireless thermostats themselves,” said Jay Wirts, director of distribution marketing for White-Rodgers, a division of Emerson Climate Technologies.

Universal operation is a feature that is prized by contractors, said John Sartain, marketing manager distribution, White-Rodgers. Thermostats are communicating today, but likely you’ll see more communication and wireless technology,” he said. “We did some research with contractors on it. The top feature they want is that it is universal; that it can be used in any staging operation.”

“We have been learning from computer technology,” said Ignacio E. Monteros, product manager - controls, Bryant Heating & Cooling Systems. “It’s been an evolution over time from the mercury thermostat.”

The extraction of information from the Internet into the home is another trend, said Monteros. He predicted future capabilities to integrate that information into electrical devices, and to control “everything from lighting to electronically controlled fireplaces.”

“Everybody is also becoming more ecologically conscious,” he continued. “There’s no doubt that the green trend is on the rise. We all know that the HVAC system is the biggest electrical user in the home; we need to recognize that and manage it via the control of the HVAC system.”

“From the consumer standpoint, saving energy has been top of mind,” agreed Dan Joyce, director of trade channel marketing, Honeywell. “With the press on the conscious movement to address Global Warming, there is a lot of increased interest in how to get more efficiency from our heating & cooling systems. The energy savings interest is tied in with energy bills, but now the eco movement is heightening that interest even more. That’s favorable for our marketplace; contractors can certainly satisfy that consumer desire.”

CURRENT TECHNOLOGIES

Some of these trends are already evident. “We’re using a module in the outdoor unit that can talk to the indoor thermostat, that can control and protect the compressor, as well as increase indoor comfort through dehumidification,” said Marc DeLaurent, product/brand manager, Nordyne. “The controls have a dehumidification mode that can control humidity in summer, as well as controlling a humidifier in winter.

“One trend I’m waiting for is remote control for the thermostat,” he added. “They’ve migrated from TVs,” and are fairly common with ductless and window units, but seem to have skipped the unitary market.

“The timing is prime; everybody is getting Internet savvy. Even our cars have touch screen navigation controls,” DeLaurent said.

Dealer installation benefits of the Preferred™ Series from Bryant include their shape, which is square. “In retrofit, they have a horizontal shape,” said Monteros. It answers the question of, “Can we fit a new thermostat without having to do some drywall fixups?” “It fits nicely and is easy to install with a horizontal or vertical frame, Monteros said. “The other thing is the ability to couple the user interface and equipment control through a versatile two-wire installation.”

“Our technology breaks out what needs to be in the hands of the homeowner and what the HVAC system needs to operate as expected,” he said.

Kevin Jobsky, marketing manager for ICM Controls, said there might be a slowdown in technology adoptions due to economic factors. “You’re seeing a slowdown in the housing market. People planning to upgrade to these bigger systems may start to rethink the costs of implementing or upgrading,” he said. “For the short term, cost will still impact some of the decisions to be made.

“A lot of people are looking right now at quality,” he continued. “A lot of the technologies in thermostat and temperature control are already on the market, and they are copied so fast. But one thing that’s often overlooked is the desire for reliability and quality, which is the backbone of a good product. For instance, a lot of manufacturers may come out with wireless products, but if the technology isn’t quite there, reliability still will drive how fast the market grows.”

ICM’s CC750 comfort control system is a retrofit product for single-phase systems. “By controlling the blower motor, our device can offer more effective humidity control with greater energy efficiencies in existing a/c or heat pump systems,” Jobsky said. “Extensive field programmability allows contractors to maximize the benefits for each environment that the unit is installed into.”

“An important difference leveraging the latest technology, but still making it an easy user experience for installers and homeowners,” said Joyce. Often people think ‘technology’ and they immediately think “complexity,” but it can be an enabler towards simplification as well. You can leverage technology; iPod is an example of simplified technology.

Honeywell is designing products differently than we’ve done in the past,” he said. “We use extensive consumer and contractor research to learn where people get naturally confused by a product, and re-design the product until the user experience is consistently easy and great.

Consumers and contractors are a component of the system, he said. “How is it going to be applied, installed, and interfaced with?”

“Our sales of programmable thermostats shot up dramatically when we used the latest technology and also simplified the experience. And contractors are regaining confidence without a risk of callbacks.

“We are just releasing a new line of zoning panel,” he continued. “In the past the industry has done a good job of overcomplicating zoning panels. Honeywell TrueZONE takes away all the headaches and complications. It increases the contractor’s confidence in offering zoning.

Thermostats like ICM’s Simple Comfort Pro Series model offer simplified installations for contractors, and intuitive use for homeowners.

WIRELESS ADVANCEMENTS

Wireless technology offers contractors a great deal of ease and flexibility. “How and where a thermostat is located and the benefits of what it can do all changes with wireless technology,” Joyce said.

“As the leader in wireless technology used in home security systems, we see a world where wireless will play a greater role in HVAC. Right now the contractor has to pull wires in retrofit applications which is often a hassle and very time-consuming. Wireless frees up possibilities for easily relocating the thermostat; there are advancements in ease of use and integration; and it better supports the growing movement towards residential retrofit zoning,” he said.

“Zoning has been the norm for decades in commercial buildings, there is an uptick in zoning being a norm in homes as well,” Joyce said. “There is a definite tie-in with wireless technologies making that more possible.”

Wireless technology can have strong applications in both residential and commercial projects, said Emerson’s Wirts.

“We will have wireless product in October, a wireless remote sensor; the thermostat is wired, but the remote sensor is wireless. If you had one of these in your home, you would have the thermostat in the hallway or wherever it is wanted, and you can put the remote sensor wherever you want it.

“Wireless is quicker and easier to install,” Wirts said. “It can be put in an optimal location. If a remote sensor requires a wire, you’re held captive a little bit by the construction of the home.”

The wireless sensor adheres directly to the wall. “You can put it in an optimal location, and it can control temperature in some other location than the thermostat.” Typical applications in a home could be an upstairs bedroom that is too hot in the summer, for example, or in the baby’s room, Wirts said.

A pulse signal from the sensor constantly updates if there is a sensor change or a user-initiated change, said Emerson’s Sartain. “The thermostat is the receiver of the remote sensor signal. The thermostat also has the ability to look at the sensor, give priority to one temperature reading, or give an average between the two readings. It can give priority to the sensor upstairs,” he said.

In the commercial retail market, “The person managing an area can turn off control of the remote sensor and have it run just as a sensor,” Sartain said. “For example, in the dentist’s office, the receptionist would not be able to change the temperature.”

The sensor can send messages up to 200 feet, said Sartain. “In a steel-framed office complex, the range might be reduced somewhat,” but in general the signal is robust because it is intermittent: “If there is another electronic device in this frequency, the frequency would be intermittent. Devices that operate in this frequency range all pulse their signals as required by the. FCC,” he said. “It may overlap once in a while, but it’s not going to happen all the time.”

“There is an interest in wireless in general,” said Wirts. “Roughly 50 percent of contractors said they expect the wireless impact to be significant in less than five years. We think the big reason contractors like it is that it makes installations up to an hour faster. No extra wiring is required in the walls.”

The sensor and thermostat come as a kit that’s “matched together from the factory, so a lot of the setup is already done,” said Sartain. The two components are already transmitting on the same code.

Nordyne is planning a wireless introduction in the near future for a zoning system in partnership with Arzel, said DeLaurent. “A receiver would be located near the equipment. The indoor thermostat could be located anywhere,” he said.

“Contractors are asking for wireless, particularly in zoning applications,” he said. It could solve a lot of problems, for instance, where there are two existing zones and the thermostat is on the first floor, but they also need one for the second floor.

“There would be an added hassle and labor of pulling wires to the second floor without wireless technology. Wireless is very good in any situations where you’re putting in a new system and you don’t have the correct numbers of wires in the walls, or for zoning an existing house. Our iQ drive is 23 SEER, there are four wires from the thermostat to the indoor system, five wires to the outdoor unit. Other systems use eight to 10 wires. I have a multistage heat pump with backup heat and an outdoor sensor, and I had to pull extra wires. That’s a case where wireless would be good.”

In the future, DeLaurent said, “I think you’ll also see more colorful displays, in addition to the current orange or blue touch screens.”

CONSUMERS ARE READY

“One of the primary problems that homeowners talk about when we do our focus groups,” said Wirts, “are hot and cold spots in the home. This is a product that can help with that problem.”

Consumers are looking for answers. In a recent Honeywell consumer survey of 2,500 home-owners, married, age 35-54, some 51 percent felt their HVAC system costs them more to operate than it should.

“There’s an emotion out there that people want energy savings but it means sacrificing comfort. But our industry can help consumers save money while increasing comfort.

“We’ve found in the Decision Analyst report, folks who were older had just come to accept that discomfort in the home is just the way it is,” Joyce said. “Younger folks have a higher expectation.

In general, homeowner use of PCs in the United States and Canada has increased to 85 percent; 55-plus percent have Internet access, according to market research firm MetaFacts. “Nowadays, most every kid that is a teenager has grown up with computers and the Internet is becoming a fact of life. Having a thermostat to integrate with that device is a key to that feature,” said Bryant’s Monteros.

“Honeywell is doing it different than we’ve done in the past,” Joyce said. “We use consumer and contractor research to learn where the break points are. We monitor it in a blind situation, see where they get stuck.”

Consumers and contractors are a component of the system, Joyce said. “How is it going to be applied, installed, and interfaced with?”

“Homeowners want to derive efficiency that is easy to interface with,” said Bryant’s Monteros. Touch ‘N’ Go™ technology, programmability through the home computer, and a memory card that can transfer information from the computer to the thermostat, are advanced features. “What we’re shooting for is further integrating things that homeowners and kids have gotten used to,” he said. The flash port, a separate accessory, was described by Monteros as “a very simple peripheral, yet very powerful in how they learn about their thermostat.”

“With the sophistication of the electronics comes the complexities of electronics,” Monteros said. “It’s not your grandma’s thermostat any longer.”

Quality and simplicity were the focus of Jobsky. “The general consensus is that the technologies were already there, easy to program and easy to use.” The company’s new CC750 Comfort Control Center is billed as the first variable-frequency/variable-voltage blower motor speed control “that provides the installer the means to fine-tune key parameters for establishing a latent and sensible cooling ratio best suited to control moisture at each unique install.”

Jobsky also predicts “a little bit of a technology hiatus, a little bit of a breather during this downtime for the market.” In the meantime, “Wireless will start to find its roots. Then a lot more products will become more user friendly, working on ease of programming, simplifying the experience for the end user and contractor.”

Publication date: 09/24/2007

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