Residential Controls / Thermostats / Building Automation Systems

Offering Homeowners Choice and Control

Intelligent HVAC Contractors Considering Smart Technology

August 26, 2013
Trans

When people think of automation, they often think of it in factories, businesses, or retail settings. The most common examples reside within automated machines such as ATMs and self-checkout machines at supermarkets.

However, home automation is growing exponentially, and if your house does not feature some form of automation, it’s likely that a family member’s friend’s, or neighbor’s likely does.

The “Consumer Perspective on Home Automation” study, by the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), found that almost half (49 percent) of consumers are familiar with home automation systems that allow them to remotely monitor and control one or more technology system(s) in their homes. And, as smart technology becomes more accessible and affordable, this market is certainly set to rise in popularity.

Communication Is Key

Home automation has different meanings to different people. The Custom Electronic Design & Installation Association defines home automation, or a “connected home,” as a system that allows a house’s residents to control appliances and other devices through a main network that can be controlled from a control panel or remotely. Lighting, HVAC, security, and audio/video entertainment systems are just some of a home’s elements that can be controlled in this manner.

Because there are a variety of products involved in home automation, often from different companies and even different industries, it takes some effort to operate any combination of products seamlessly together. The communication protocols Z-Wave and Zigbee are two of the most popular protocols used by HVAC home automation products. Each allows products to communicate with each other despite their brand names.

The Nexia™ Home Intelligence Bridge — a home automation hub in the home that connects to a router — provides a working example of this, said Matt McGovren, marketing leader, Nexia™ Home Intelligence, a business of Ingersoll Rand. “It uses a low-power, wireless signal (Z-Wave) to communicate with all of the Z-Wave-enabled devices throughout your home. The result is control of your home — locks, thermostats, lights, sensors, and more — from anywhere you and the Internet happen to be. It’s that simple.”

Nexia is also working with partners, such as Trane and American Standard Air, “to optimize HVAC performance by adjusting thermostat settings to reduce energy consumption without impacting comfort,” McGovren said.

He noted the system works through sensors, which determine when occupants are absent from the home. The system also can precool a home in the morning by a few degrees when the air conditioner doesn’t have to work as hard to cool the house, and can monitor the system’s run cycles to ensure that run time is not wasted just before the house is scheduled to be occupied.

Nexia is also working with various industry partners to provide contractors an HVAC system’s diagnostics before they make a house call, thus determining if a visit is needed, and if so, enabling a dispatcher to send “the right person, with the right parts, and the right information,” said McGovren.

Proprietary Protocols

Though some products use Zigbee or Z-Wave, some don’t.

Geoff Godwin, vice president of marketing, White-Rodgers, a business of Emerson Climate Technologies, said that White-Rodgers makes “thermostats for open standards including Zigbee and ClimateTalk, as well as other radio-connected devices using proprietary radio controls.”

Stuart Lombard, president and CEO, ecobee Inc., said that ecobee offers its Smart Thermostats and supports home automation with its Smart Plugs and Remote Sensor Modules. But, besides designing its own products, it works “with other partners to integrate into home automation systems that run on Wi-Fi and ZigBee,” he said.

Ecobee further provides support for products that control electrical outlets, load controllers, pool pumps, water heaters, as well as integration into the smart grid, Lombard said.

“We also provide open APIs [application programming interfaces] so others can build solutions that integrate around our products,” he said. “We currently have over 150 companies developing products around our thermostat platform.”

Lombard referenced Unified Computer Intelligence Corp. (better known as UBI), which is developing a product that controls home automation-enabled devices via voice activation from a central hub. The UBI product is not yet available for consumers.

As the various options become more accessible, contractors shouldn’t shy away from networking with other home automation companies, said Brad Paine, director of product marketing, environment combustion and controls, Honeywell, noting that companies should even consider partnerships with those beyond HVAC.

“Now that more affordable options are available for connectivity, we believe HVAC dealers can and should begin to offer a wider range of connected products beyond HVAC, and also form relationships with other system providers in the home, such as security dealers, to be able to provide a seamless experience to their mutual customers.”

Why, it’s Wi-Fi

While home automation has been using wireless communication protocols such as Z-Wave and Zigbee for a while, home automation is embracing Wi-Fi technology, with which homeowners are much more familiar.

“Demand is increasing for automation and control from smartphones and tablets,” said John Clements, senior marketing manager, residential products/channel marketing, Mitsubishi Electric US Cooling & Heating Division.

Homeowners are craving Wi-Fi-type control using only their fingertips and smartphone or tablet devices.

“The future of home automation will be to unify each of the home’s existing functions — HVAC, lighting, security, television, and entertainment systems — into one convenient, universally controlled system. They’ll expect to be able to have this control from anywhere, not just through a wall-mounted controller.”

Lombard agreed, saying, “Consumers are expecting their devices to be Internet-enabled. The market is about convenience, connectivity, and having smarter connected devices that think for you, so you can have peace of mind.”

Paine said that Honeywell has been involved for decades in home automation, but the company has seen rapid growth in the category over the last several years due to remote access via smartphone apps. “Honeywell is currently involved in home automation with remote access/apps starting with stand-alone thermostats all the way up through fully automated security and homes including lights, locks, blinds, etc,” he said.

Something else that’s happening in the home automation arena right now is that more types of products are becoming connected, said McGovren. “Products that have historically been ‘mechanical’ or ‘not smart’ are now becoming part of the home automation network.”

Consumers want products in the home to be able to work together. “For example, when you arrive home, the thermostat and lights automatically adjust when you open the door,” said McGovren. “Consumers want to know that leading brands and industry leaders are working together to make their products compatible.”

Outside Involvement

As home automation grows, more players are getting into that industry, said McGovren. He added, “This is helping to drive consumer awareness of the possibilities.”

Godwin remarked that more products for the home use cloud-based solutions and more people are accessing and controlling those products instantly from iPhone and Android devices, changing the traditional meaning of home automation.

“What this means for our traditional piece of the home, as far as the HVAC and comfort piece, is that the lines of ownership will be challenged by security, telephone, and utility companies trying to connect with the HVAC system,” said Godwin. “I think there will be some overlap in some system component installations where a home automation company might install a thermostat for instance, but that has been happening for some time.”

According to Godwin, “The value of trained and certified [HVAC] contractors and the channel that supports them will likely not be influenced specifically by home automation.”

The good news for consumers these days is affordability and choice. In terms of an HVAC system, Godwin said the cost of controlling one’s home remotely is decreasing, while “the number of [HVAC] companies offering connected solutions is increasing dramatically.”

Clements predicted that the HVAC industry soon will embrace home automation and keep producing technology that offers the convenience of automation to homeowners. “Going forward, we’ll see a rise in the number of solutions created to increase the ease with which end users can interact with their HVAC systems,” he said.

Energy-Wise

The HVAC system can already provide in-depth information regarding energy which can benefit the homeowner, and home automation promises further analysis, promising more detailed information about how energy is consumed, and how additional energy can be saved.

And HVAC contractors will surely remain large stakeholders in home automation, simply because of the amount of energy an HVAC system consumes.

“As homes become increasingly sustainable and homeowners become more environmentally conscious, HVAC systems will play an important role in complete home automation because they impact the home’s energy consumption in a big way,” said Clements.

Godwin said, “We’ll likely see more sophisticated ways to integrate energy efficiency, demand response, or variable-rate energy costs, and system control — all from our personal devices.”

Home automation systems — large and small — are specifically defined by the individual homeowner. It doesn’t take a huge investment to get started. Homeowners can purchase one home automation product at a time.

Paine said this level of accessibility has made automation within almost everyone’s reach and that HVAC dealers now have a number of connected products and services they can add to their repertoire.

In summary, Lombard said, “The future is bright in home automation; it is only limited by our own imaginations.”

Publication date: 8/26/2013 

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