Striving for Simpler, Smarter T-stats

September 20, 2010
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Trends in the diagnostic and communicating capabilities of thermostats are aiding homeowners in the effort to conserve energy.


It may seem to be a total contradiction in terms, but thermostat manufacturers say that their products are simultaneously becoming simpler and more complex. According to some of the industry’s leading manufacturers, the trends in future thermostat design are all about balancing the desires of consumers for simple, intuitive controls while also enhancing the diagnostic, technical, and communication capabilities.

Kurt Wessling, director of sales and marketing at Jackson Systems LLC, summed up this approach, noting, “There have been huge strides made in making the programming and use of thermostats simpler.” However, he continued, “At the same time, the thermostats themselves are becoming more complex in their capabilities. While thermostats are simpler to install and program, they can also perform many more tasks than previously possible.”

SIMPLIFYING THE COMPLEX

Across the board, all manufacturers report that the top complaint of their consumers has been that newer, feature-laden programmable thermostats are too difficult to use.

According to Geoff Godwin, vice president of marketing for White-Rodgers, a business of Emerson Climate Technologies Inc., “Even though many homes still have mechanical, nonprogrammable thermostats, almost all new installations will include a programmable model. With this, we receive more homeowner calls asking about how to program a thermostat than any other request.”

Godwin said that White-Rodgers has taken two paths to address the requests for simple-to-use thermostats. “On high-end systems,” he explained, the path “can be described as ‘simple sophistication.’ These consumers want ease of use but with some flair like high definition screens and touch capability.” Meanwhile, on the other end of the spectrum are the “simple to operate” thermostats, which he said tend to have less clutter on the screen along with easy-to-understand buttons and commands. According to Godwin, White-Rodgers is designing thermostats with “one-button quick programming” that allows the homeowner to run a typical energy saving program at the touch of a button.

According to Honeywell’s director of product marketing for residential, utility, and light commercial thermostats Pat Tessier, Honeywell is another manufacturer that has been hard at work to make its thermostats easier for consumers to use. He cited a 2003 Honeywell homeowner study, which found that “70 percent of people who own programmable thermostats keep them in the ‘hold’ mode at all times because they think they are too complicated to use, and never realize the energy savings they could have.”

As a result, Honeywell’s latest products feature a patented, interview-based interface that walks a homeowner through the set-up process by asking a series of questions about his or her routine. Tessier said the homeowner’s answers help the thermostat program itself.

Steve Millheiser, vice president of marketing at Lux Product Corp., said his company’s “primary design criterion has always been to provide a thermostat that is uncomplicated for the end-user.” And he explained that the shifting demographics across the country are changing perception about that end-user.

As the U.S. population ages, Milheiser said, “The trend, as far as Lux Products is concerned, will continue to be to offer models with lighted displays and large digits that are easier to read, controls that are easier to install, program, and configure.”

Jim Fisher, product manager for gas furnaces, ComfortNet, and IAQ at Goodman Global Group Inc., added, “This is especially important as the population ages and senior citizens will expect more from their central heating and cooling systems compared to previous generations as they have experienced the product longer in their homes.”

He continued, “Complicated or confusing programmable thermostats will simply not survive in the future. Too many folks in the HVAC industry have experienced a programmable thermostat that was programmed to the same temperature 24/7 because the homeowner didn’t understand how to effectively program the thermostat.”

In addition to the most common complaint about the difficulty of programming, Wessling said that a complaint that is a close second is the ability to read the display. “Larger text display helps and is made possible by larger screen sizes used in touchscreen models,” he said.

INTEGRATION AND COMMUNICATION

Yet as thermostats become simpler to read and operate, their capabilities to integrate and communicate with central heating and cooling systems are becoming increasingly complex.

Godwin said that one trend will be to install more temperature sensors in various locations around the house to improve comfort. “This means thermostats will have more capabilities to accept multiple inputs and run more sophisticated systems like zoning or variable-capacity systems.”

He added that the ability to command thermostats remotely will continue, and become common even for mid-tier systems. “Homeowners will also be able to control their thermostat from many different places throughout the home, including the computer or even a television control,” he said.

Others agree that access and communication capabilities will be enhanced in the future. “Communicating thermostats offer the best viability for future design considerations with their ability to allow automatic configuration of the HVAC system, and offer homeowners a wide assortment of features and benefits not found on earlier temperature-setting-only thermostats,” Fisher said.

Stuart Lombard, president and CEO of ecobee, added that consumers are already catching on to the trend of immediate access to thermostat data. “Last year we launched our iPhone application and, to date, have over 10,000 downloads. We are in the process of developing a similar application for other mobile devices.” Lombard reported that he also sees increasing trends toward thermostats that include a focus on energy-saving features, ease of use, and two-way communications. He noted that customers seek a solution that can meet all their needs in one tidy package. “With all of the technology available, customers are more inclined to purchase an all-in-one solution that meets all of their needs in the present and future.”

Tessier specifically noted that wireless products are becoming increasingly attractive to consumers due to their convenience. He noted that wireless thermostats also provide an advantage to the contractors that install them, since they can spend less time wiring “and more time solving the problems that homeowners care about.”

According to Wessling, these new communicating features are “expanding the horizons of what thermostats can do.” He explained, “Wireless thermostats have allowed contractors to move thermostats or install zoning systems in areas that were not possible before. Also, web-based, remote-access thermostats are allowing end-users and contractors to more tightly control and monitor how the HVAC system is operating. This allows for energy savings and tighter control over who makes any changes to the system.”

Tim Storm, controls and zoning product manager of Trane Residential Solutions at Ingersoll Rand, elaborated on the concept of how future thermostats will allow for more control. He said, “They’ll be easy-to-use central planning centers with everything you need right at your fingertips - from keeping you perfectly comfortable inside to knowing how to dress for going outside, zoning for optimal room comfort, accessing the weather, and helping with energy efficiency while it’s at it.”

And he hinted that Trane’s latest thermostat model release in this direction is just around the corner. “We’ll be introducing a revolutionary new product early next year that’s designed with the busy homeowner in mind,” he said. “It’s easy to use, see, and understand with simple programming features, service reminders, and a system runtime monitor, which includes weekly and monthly views, all in an effort to provide consumers with the perfect experience within their home that they can always rely upon.”

EFFICIENCY AND FEEDBACK

Thermostats are also primed to aid consumers in the effort to conserve energy through the installation of higher-SEER systems. “As more and more homeowners seek higher efficiency systems - or more appropriately, energy-saving and money-saving systems - communicating thermostat systems will become more traditional and installed at a higher rate over time,” Fisher said.

“High-end (16 SEER and above) system installations continue to outpace the overall HVAC market,” Godwin said. “The thermostat will need to be more sophisticated to manage higher SEER systems. These controls will also need to manage signals from utilities and energy service providers in order to perform peak demand load shedding and send usage data to the homeowner.”

Godwin and Fisher also both noted that diagnostic feedback capabilities will continue to expand in thermostats as homeowners and contractors continue to adopt higher-end systems. And the improved diagnostics will benefit both the customer and the contractor.

“More and more customers are looking for accountability with their energy usage,” Lombard said. “Having the ability to have immediate access, feedback, and diagnostic capabilities is huge for the thermostat market.” He added that ecobee provides users with e-mail alerts for immediate notification of issues as well as an online reporting function that provides overall system performance in a graphical, easy-to-read format. “We polled our customers in a survey and 42 percent said that they ‘regularly review my energy usage reports and find them very useful.’ We expect this number to be even higher in the coming years as this becomes a more sought-after feature.”

In addition to the customers, contractors will also benefit from improved diagnostics. Storm said, “We’re excited about the advances we’re working on to provide our Trane dealers with another innovative solution that will provide enhanced diagnostics and wireless zone sensors like we’ve never offered before. We’re talking about a troubleshooting menu that will make the dealer’s job easier. In addition to providing embedded diagnostics, the tool will guide them through historical information all in one place.” He said that this history will detail the problems the system has been experiencing with date and time stamps for each incidence.

Wessling added that the diagnostic trends will continue to be integrated in new, more powerful ways, such as displaying compressor run time, faults, and error codes. Looking ahead, he said, “I can visualize the manufacturers integrating more features of this nature in the thermostat and creating a powerful interface tool for the contractor.”

Yet no matter how high-tech the future thermostat becomes, it’s also clear that manufacturers will be striving to simplify and clarify the operation process for the consumer.

Publication date: 09/20/2010

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Communicating Thermostats

Rick Greenquist
September 21, 2010
Thank you for your comments on communicating residential thermostats. Communicating thermostats have been used in the commercial HVAC industry for a number of years with great results. However for residential use, using IT based communications that integrate through an iPhone app or wireless web portal offer some simple and very useful features - especially when integrated with the air handling unit. For example, if you are on vacation in the winter, you could log on to the web and check the indoor temperature of your house. Or how about if your furnace needs repair - your favorite contractor could log on and perhaps focus in on the problem before showing up at your door – and perhaps with the repair parts in hand! And how about an everyday benefit – like showing the family how much money was saved by simply setting the thermostat back a few degrees! It isn't a huge leap for manufacturers to offer this technology as an option on their equipment since most internet technology is non-proprietary, and free for the taking.

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