ACHRNEWS

Ultimate Intelligence: A House That Thinks

December 12, 2011
Nogginhaus 1
The HVAC trade has a wide array of intelligent products at its fingertips, including thermostats that talk, furnaces that call contractors when there is a problem, and mobile phone applications specifically designed for service techs in the field — to name just a few. Now there is one more intelligent product that can be added to the mix — one that has drawn a lot of looks and which could ultimately lead to new revenue streams for HVAC contractors.

It’s called Nogginhaus. Nogginhaus by definition is “a house that thinks for itself.” It may be easier to call Nogginhaus a living entity rather than just bricks and mortar. The idea of Nogginhaus intrigued two brothers, owners of a New Jersey HVAC contracting business. They became interested in the concept back in the late ‘90s and their curiosity has grown into a new company which is taking thinking homes to a new level.

Jim and Jeff Stanch, owners of Runnemede Heating Co. in Runnemede, N.J., are getting attention for how they meet technology head-on.

“Jim and I established Nogginhaus LLC in 2007, but years before — in the late ‘90s — we noticed more and more of the equipment we installed and serviced every day included circuit boards,” Jeff said. “Increasingly, those boards included LED lights and even com terminals. We knew that blinking LEDs and com ports meant there was data on those boards. We wondered why we couldn’t get access to that data, get it out of the equipment, and use it to help us run our business better.”

The twin brothers are self-professed geeks, and they began to tinker around with different circuit boards. “We let the smoke out of a few boards but managed to make a couple of rigs and upload some .csv files,” Jeff said. “It was a lot of gibberish, but we quickly learned that we could indeed get the information out.”

The Stanchs acknowledged that hardware was expensive and it took an IT expert to install it and set it all up. They were persistent, pestering OEMs at trade shows along the way. “But we knew that, eventually, our idea would become reality,” Jeff said.

Jeff noted that by the start of the 21st century, it seemed that anything a person bought had some sort of logic circuit in it, such as coffee makers, refrigerators, boilers, water heaters, condensate pumps, and water filters. “As it happened, our discussions became less about this technology helping us run our business better and more about this technology helping the home run better, safer, more comfortably, and healthier,” he added, “more conveniently, helping the home think for itself. 

“I remember one of our installers coming to me with a question. They were installing a new four-zone Arzel dual-fuel system with top-of-the-line thermostats. They had just finished installing the five outdoor temperature sensors, prompting the question “Hey Jeff, why do we have to install five outdoor temperature sensors? I mean we have one for the zone panel and one for each thermostat. We spent half the day running those wires and hanging those sensors. Why couldn’t we just install one?”

That got the brothers thinking. “We don’t have a printer for each computer in our office, we have a network printer,” Jeff said. “We don’t have a backup hard drive for every computer in the office, we have a network drive. Why can’t a thermostat share its outdoor temperature reading with whomever is interested?”

That thinking — and pestering — caught the attention of Joann Donelon of ClimateTalk Alliance, an organization of companies “committed to developing a common communication infrastructure for HVAC and smart grid devices.” “She had heard about us pestering other OEMs with our ideas,” Jeff said. “We’ve been members of the ClimateTalk Alliance ever since, where we get to work with like-minded people to develop the operating system of the home.

“We all agree that we’re quickly entering an era of ubiquitous computing. ClimateTalk is an open protocol that will allow the creation of the network and encourage participation from OEMs. Nogginhaus will leverage the network to help the home think for itself. We’ll help contractors change their business models to adjust to the new paradigm and at the same time work with OEMs to encourage them to join the network.”

A Call to Contractors

Jeff said that HVAC contractors are likely to be very interested in the Nogginhaus concept for many of the same reasons he and Jim became interested. “There’s no doubt that such a network in the home will help make life more comfortable, safer, more convenient, more energy-efficient and healthier, which happens to describe the role of the progressive contractor for the past 20 or so years,” he said. “Our family has been in the contracting business since 1948, so we see this as an opportunity to address some glaring challenges we face. The industry has been dealing with the same issues for years — the cost of delivering the level of customer service consumers expect and the difficulty of finding talented technicians.”

Jeff noted that in a recent industry study, most contractors are conducting business in a professional manner. He said that the HVAC industry has worked hard to increase its level of professionalism. “Best practices groups like Service Roundtable and Nexstar Network have taught us the importance of delivering better service, on-time appointments, clean trucks, smart, friendly, uniformed technicians, extended-service hours, live office staff, etc.,” Jeff said. “The fact is, customers have come to expect this level of service, yet they don’t expect to pay more for it.”

He feels that these expectations don’t jive well with another problem in the HVAC trade: the lack of technical talent. “The pool of good, sharp technicians seems to shrink every year,” Jeff said. “In 2003, Arizona State University surveyed high school students, asking them to rank 500 occupations in order of preference. The trades came in 498th. Another poll of American parents found that they knew the trades offered good-paying careers for someone else’s child.

“Jim and I have become convinced that technology is the only way we can overcome the technician shortage while not sacrificing the level of service customers have come to expect. How? By embracing ClimateTalk’s open communications standard — the only one of its kind in the industry. Open standards, like ClimateTalk, drive adoption, which drives collaboration between OEMs, which then drives innovation, which leads to new products and services. Contractors who choose to install ClimateTalk-enabled equipment now are laying a foundation for the future of their business by establishing a network of equipment in the home.”

Future business is the foundation of any service trade, especially HVAC, and the Stanch brothers want to make Nogginhaus the torch bearer for technology that brings HVAC and its customers into the 21st century. “Nogginhaus aims to make it easy for contractors to implement this technology in their business,” Jeff said. “A simple datalogger/gateway device will get network data out of the home and into a dashboard where the contractor can easily monitor customers’ systems performance, track service and repair history, link to appropriate service bulletins, manage warranty claims, and interact with customers.

“The contractor will be able to perform virtual maintenance checks on a daily basis and will be able to respond to minor or major faults long before their customer even realizes there’s a problem. Customers will appreciate their newfound ability to access their comfort systems remotely, monitor their usage habits, even chat with technicians, schedule service calls, order consumable items specific to their systems, and compare their energy usage to that of their peers.

“For the contractor, this means the ability to provide a higher level of service while lowering direct costs and overhead. Contractors can expand their service expertise to include all manner of energy use, health, comfort, safety and convenience.”

Jeff said that HVAC systems already use advanced technology but there are many new paths to follow. “Zone controls and water heaters will follow shortly,” he said. “But why stop there? Within the next few years, we’ll be able to connect a variety of appliances to this network.

Water heaters, solar PV inverters, solar thermal controllers, smoke detectors, carbon monoxide detectors, sprinkler systems, well pumps, sump pumps, water conditioners, refrigerators, freezers, humidifiers, security systems, air cleaners, ventilators, and on and on.

“Each has valuable information to contribute to the network to help the home run better. We, as an industry, are evolving to become the providers of managed services for the home. Demographics are pushing it and customers want it. If it’s not us, it will be Best Buy and Radio Shack. So, we’d better get our geek on.”

Publication date: 12/12/2011