Alliance Works for Open Protocol in Residential HVAC

December 14, 2009
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David Strumpf, president, Embedded Electronic Design Solutions (EDC), demonstrates how his company has utilized ClimateTalk at the recent Greenbuild Expo.


The advent of communicating equipment in the residential HVAC market has allowed homeowners to achieve better comfort and energy efficiency from their high-end systems. Contractors have also benefited, as the use of intelligent controls often speeds up installation time and troubleshooting in the field.

Manufacturers who have incorporated communicating technology into their new residential heating and cooling products have seen a huge demand for these smart systems. That increasing demand is the main reason why the ClimateTalk™ Alliance was formed earlier this year.

The ClimateTalk Alliance is an organization of companies that is committed to developing a common communication infrastructure for HVAC and smart energy devices and enabling the interoperability of diverse systems. Members of the alliance are collaborating to address the fragmentation in the HVAC communications market, as well as working to expand the ClimateTalk model into other industries and establish it as the preferred communications model and perhaps, the industry standard.

ClimateTalk uses an open model approach that can communicate common messages and commands that are fundamental to applications. It can expand message sets and applications and allow for the addition of new components without upgrading the user interface, offering ease of integration and flexibility for the OEM and allowing for OEM differentiation within a common framework.

As the demand for intelligent systems increases, ClimateTalk also enables a path for interoperability and connectivity of all energy consumers on the network. Instead of on or off responses, the alliance states that communicating interoperable equipment can make better decisions to provide reduced energy consumption without sacrificing homeowner comfort or convenience.

FOLLOW THE TRENDS

By examining the current trends in the industry, it can easily be seen why a common communication infrastructure is needed in the residential HVAC market now more than ever, stated Geoff Godwin, vice president of marketing, Emerson Climate Technologies, White-Rodgers Division.

“The first trend is increased energy efficiency. With regional standards coming, the level of efficiency will be raised to 14 or 15 SEER, and there will be a need for OEMs to create higher SEER systems for differentiation. This will drive the use of variable-speed compressors, variable-speed motors, and higher levels of electronics throughout the system,” said Godwin. “In the next two to five years, systems will become more and more complicated due to the increased use of electronics.”

That increased complexity could directly collide with the second trend, which is the large number of technicians who are retiring from the industry. “There is a huge gap between the number of technicians who are leaving the industry compared to the number entering the industry,” said Godwin. “We have roughly 100,000 contractors today, and that number is expected to drop 20 to 25 percent or more over the next five years. That will result in a younger, less experienced contractor base right at the time more sophisticated systems are being used.”

The third trend is still evolving, but it concerns the impact of energy, energy consumption, and the need to control HVAC components in order to take advantage of load shed, demand response, and variable-rate pricing. “If you look at these three trends, and you look at how we, as an industry, are developing communicating systems, what you see is a fragmented approach,” said Godwin. “There are system OEMs, as well as component OEMs, and as a result, a number of different protocols have evolved.”

These myriad protocols combined with a younger, less experienced contractor base, could open up the industry to outside intervention - probably in the form of utilities and energy service providers. These entities could take it upon themselves to create their own methods of connecting to HVAC systems and components, which is why the industry needs to come together to devise an open protocol, said Godwin.

“The last thing we want in the HVAC industry is to have utilities and service providers taking over the components in the HVAC system - especially a system that is a high SEER, high comfort, complicated system. In that scenario, all that would be allowed is that the system could be turned on and off, and homeowners would lose a lot of the benefits they purchased. That is why an open protocol is needed.”

Joann Donelson, Emerson Climate Technologies, Geoff Godwin (middle), and Kelvin Kleman prepare their presentation about ClimateTalk at the recent Greenbuild Expo in Phoenix. Kleman stated that ClimateTalk’s ease of use should appeal to some manufacturers, as it is virtually a plug-and-play system.

OBSTACLES TO ADOPTION

Some OEMs have already invested heavily in the research and development of their own proprietary communicating systems, so the idea of an open protocol may meet with some resistance. These manufacturers may also be questioning whether ClimateTalk is going to be the accepted long-term industry protocol and whether it is the right platform for their particular equipment. That is going to be the alliance’s big challenge, said Godwin, convincing manufacturers that because ClimateTalk is designed specifically for residential HVAC - as opposed to other open, non-industry-specific protocols such as Modbus - it is the right platform to choose.

ClimateTalk’s ease of use should appeal to some manufacturers, as it is virtually a plug-and-play system, said Kelvin Kleman, engineering manager, electronics and controls, Rheem. “It’s self-configuring and has fewer wires, so it’s very easy to install. There’s also protection against miswiring. With communications and intelligence, it’s possible to make sure installations are done correctly.” This ease of installation is especially appealing for technicians who are new to the industry.

ClimateTalk is essentially a four-wire system, and once connected, it will “find” all the equipment in the system - similar to hooking up a USB device to a computer. It can also notify the contractor as to whether all the components in the system are operating correctly. This becomes especially important when multiple pieces of equipment are installed, especially IAQ products and zoning.

“If not applied correctly, zoning can be detrimental to the equipment,” said Kleman. “Being able to communicate system information to the zoning system provides a better opportunity to properly manage that system and to prevent early failure issues.”

Manufacturers who are skeptical about using an open protocol such as ClimateTalk may want to ask themselves a few questions, said Godwin. For example, how do they plan to support and expand their component base long-term? Are they willing to invest the resources necessary to continue to maintain a unique protocol? How are they going to connect their protocol to other communication devices - specifically, wireless?

“If they’ve gone down the path of Modbus, connecting to a wireless network is going to be a challenge,” said Godwin. “With an open protocol like ClimateTalk, OEMs have the advantage of drawing from multiple suppliers of electronic components in order to develop and fine tune how their system expands.”

There is still much work to be done in order for the ClimateTalk Alliance to move forward in its quest to convince the residential HVAC industry that a common communication infrastructure is needed. As Godwin noted, the whole process has taken a lot longer and involved a lot more work than expected, “But it’s definitely well worth it.”

The current members of the ClimateTalk Alliance are Consert Inc., Embedded Electronic Design Solutions (EDC), Emerson Climate Technologies, E-Senza, EWC Controls Inc., Microchip Technology Inc., Rheem Manufacturing Company, Tendril, and Watsco Inc.

For more information, visit www.climatetalk.org.

Publication date: 12/14/2009

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