Home Health + Comfort: No Communication Breakdown Here

August 23, 2010
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In order to sell communicating thermostats effectively, contractors need to be able to demonstrate the benefits of each type of these devices. (Courtesy of White-Rodgers.)

Gone are the days of the basic round thermostat on the wall, and in its place is a sophisticated control that can juggle multiple stages of heating, cooling, and ventilation, as well as provide various levels of communication with HVAC components and utilities. The microprocessors embedded in many of these thermostats not only ensure precise temperature set points, they can often supply homeowners with the information needed to better manage their power usage. Many can also help contractors in the field provide better service through advanced diagnostics and system setup guidance.

These advanced thermostats include numerous benefits and are also significantly more expensive than the round thermostats of yore, which make them a profitable add-on to any system sale. However, contractors should be aware that there are many different types of communicating thermostats on the market (see sidebar below) and each comes with its own set of benefits and limitations.

KNOW WHAT YOU'RE SELLING

There is a great deal of confusion over what communicating means in regard to thermostats, said Geoff Godwin, vice president of marketing, White-Rodgers, a division of Emerson Climate Technologies, St. Louis, which is why the market has not grown as rapidly as it should have. “In addition, multiple closed protocols and general resistance to smart HVAC systems have resulted in a fragmented approach to serial communications. This is expected to change now that all major OEMs have a smart HVAC line out, as well as pending regulations that will increase minimum- efficiency requirements.”

This is why contractors need to be more proactive in educating themselves and their customers about the benefits of communicating thermostats, said Pete Pierret, smart energy business manager, ICM Controls Corp., North Syracuse, N.Y. “Consumers who have educated themselves on the benefits of these types of products are the ones who have been driving this market. While contractors could do more to educate the average consumer of the benefits of such devices, they must overcome the stigma associated with these devices that they are cost-prohibitive and/or are considered luxury items vs. necessities.”

Contractors should explain that having a communicating thermostat adds convenience, comfort, and energy savings, noted Santino Piazza, HVAC automation sales manager, Aprilaire, Madison, Wis. “Price objections can be overcome by pointing out the benefits and value in having a sophisticated HVAC control system.”

Discussing the ROI for communicating thermostats is helpful in closing the sale as well. Piazza noted that consumers become more cognizant of the energy their HVAC systems use if they have a convenient way to control their thermostats, which translates into lower utility bills. Consumers may also be able to benefit from rebate and/or other incentive programs offered by their utility company in exchange for installing a Smart Energy-like device, added Pierret.

First and foremost, though, contractors need to understand the type of communicating thermostat they are selling because the value proposition changes depending on the sophistication of the device. As Godwin noted, the ultimate thermostat would encompass smart HVAC systems, remote access, and energy awareness, but that is a tough product to sell with the fragmentation in each of the three product segments.

To further clarify each product segment, smart HVAC thermostats must be sold with smart HVAC systems in order to obtain the full benefits of autoconfiguration and diagnostics. Smart HVAC systems can either use open standards such as ClimateTalk, or proprietary protocols from specific OEMs, said Godwin, but selling a smart HVAC thermostat really means selling a full smart HVAC system.

A remote access thermostat is typically either wired with CAT 5 cable from the thermostat or uses a WiFi bridge that usually gets installed near the furnace control panel. Both require programming and Internet access. Godwin noted that contractors could sell these devices to homeowners who want remote access to their thermostat (often for use in a second home).

Thermostats that feature energy awareness are often tied into local utilities, which can control the set point based on how they are implementing Smart Energy. “If utilities are installing ZigBee-enabled meters, they will require a programmable communicating thermostat with a ZigBee radio that will likely be given to the homeowner at no cost or sold to them at a discount. Traditional HVAC contractors might not even be involved in the sale or the installation of these thermostats,” said Godwin.

Learning about all these technologies definitely pays off, noted Pierret, as contractors who not only appear to be knowledgeable on the latest innovations in thermostats, but then are able to demonstrate the benefits of these devices - especially in cost savings and efficiencies - will be favored long term by the end user. “This should result in extended service contracts, recommendations, and other business opportunities.”

Aprilaire offers a turnkey HVAC automation system that consists of a system controller that is accessible from a computer via a web browser. (Courtesy of Aprilaire.)

NEW PRODUCTS SATISFY NEEDS

Manufacturers are responding to consumer demand for communicating thermostats by introducing a variety of different devices. White-Rodgers’ latest communicating thermostat is a smart HVAC thermostat: The Emerson Blue2 Hi-Def thermostat provides full-color user menu screens and intuitive programming for smart HVAC systems using ClimateTalk open standards.

Emerson is also investing in technologies that will enable the contractor or homeowner to add one of a variety of standard wireless radios for either remote access or energy awareness functionality. “We are considering ZigBee, Bluetooth, and WiFi connectivity for maximum flexibility in applications that require external communications,” said Godwin.

The SimpleComfort® SE5000 programmable communicating thermostat is the latest offering from ICM Controls. Based on ZigBee’s Smart Energy profile, the SE5000 features an in-home display (IHD) coupled with a residential thermostat, providing direct HVAC load control by utility companies serving Smart Grid customers.

Pierret explained that ICM Controls is also in the developing stages of an enhanced thermostat that will utilize WiFi technology to allow it to communicate with today’s SmartPhones and other Internet-enabled and/or smart communication devices.

Aprilaire offers a turnkey HVAC automation system that consists of a system controller that is accessible from a computer via a web browser. Through this system homeowners can monitor, control, and schedule their thermostats and humidifiers or dehumidifiers. In addition, they can set lockouts and limitations and even receive e-mails if temperature or humidity falls out of range. “Our communicating thermostats are used extensively in the home automation market and integrate with over 30 manufacturers’ home automation control and security systems,” noted Piazza.

It is a given that manufacturers will continue to turn out a variety of new and improved communicating thermostats in response to consumer demand, as well as utilities’ needs. Keeping up with this technology may be a challenge, but it is necessary in order to stay competitive in this brave, new, smart world we’re entering.

The SimpleComfort® SE5000 programmable communicating thermostat from ICM Controls features a residential thermostat, providing direct HVAC load control by utility companies serving Smart Grid customers. (Courtesy of ICM Controls.)

Sidebar: Definitions

There have been some inconsistencies in the terminology used to describe today’s more complex thermostats, which is why White-Rodgers offers the following definitions:

Smart HVAC System: Uses serial communications to simplify installation, provide advanced control and comfort, as well as real-time system and diagnostic information among the HVAC components (thermostat, indoor unit, and outdoor unit).

Legacy HVAC System: Majority of installed base today, where a thermostat provides basic 24-V analog signals/call for heat, call for cool (R/C/Y/W/G).

Programmable Thermostat: A thermostat that has the ability to use predefined settings and scheduled setback periods.

Communicating Thermostat: This could mean a thermostat that communicates internally or externally. An internally communicating thermostat is one that controls smart HVAC equipment. An externally communicating thermostat could be web-enabled for remote access or connected to other external networks such as a Smart Grid-type application.

Smart Grid Thermostat: Thermostat can receive either demand response or variable pricing information and respond by shedding load to reduce the demand on the grid.

Programmable Communicating Thermostat (PCT): Defined in the Open HAN and ZigBee Smart Energy™ 1.0 specifications as an energy-aware thermostat that can shed load in response to demand response or real-time pricing information in compliance with the Smart Energy profile.

Residential Climate Control: New name the Environmental Protection Agency has given to thermostats under consideration for the Energy Star program. The requirements are in development, but initial drafts include programmability and capability to communicate externally. While not specified, it is implied they would provide energy-awareness responses. The initial revision of the specification does leave the door open for remote access and does not define requirements for smart HVAC system control.

Remote Access: In today’s market, this is typically Internet-based communication with a thermostat that provides the user with the ability to change settings of a legacy system. Possibly tied into a home automation system that provides one look and feel for HVAC, lighting, etc. This could also be expanded for contractors to access diagnostic and real-time performance information on smart HVAC systems.

Publication date: 08/23/2010

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