Commercial building owners and property managers have been able to remotely access their facilities over the Internet for many years. This remote access capability has allowed authorized personnel to log onto a secure Website in order to check building conditions, change temperatures, or make sure HVAC equipment is operating properly.
Now that same kind of remote control technology is coming to the residential market, as manufacturers are beginning to offer thermostats that can be accessed via the Internet. These smart devices not only allow consumers to control the temperature of their homes from off site, many also offer features such as humidity monitoring and control, furnace fan control, ventilation control, and flood detection.
Internet-enabled, high-tech thermostats are a perfect fit for the “information-now” generation, which relies heavily on iPhones and PDAs to organize their lives. These smart controls are also a benefit to those who simply want to use the latest technology to conserve energy and save money - all from the comfort of a recliner in the living room or a hotel room in a far-away location.
NEW OPPORTUNITIESAn Internet-enabled thermostat adds a great deal of flexibility to homeowners or businesses and opens opportunities for greater savings than traditional programmable thermostats, said Walter Dray, president, Proliphix Inc.
“A standard programmable thermostat frequently doesn’t live up to the expectations of owners. Trying to program one is akin to programming the clock on a VCR - much more difficult than it needs to be. Even if it is figured out, it’s more likely that it will end up being placed in “HOLD” mode by someone and forgotten; completely eliminating its energy savings potential.”
On the other hand, said Dray, Internet-enabled thermostats - such as Proliphix’s Uniphy Network Thermostats - are simple and intuitive to program, offering a graphical user interface and greater scheduling flexibility. With an Internet connection, homeowners can access and adjust programming from anywhere in the world.
“This is perfect for anyone who travels frequently, has constantly changing work schedules, or owns multiple properties. For the professional with a changing schedule, it is possible to lower the temperature for the day and then adjust it through a Web-enabled phone on the way home. The same can be done with commercial facilities and rental or vacation property, and it’s also possible to check on equipment to make sure everything is running correctly while property owners are away.”
Proliphix’s Internet-managed thermostats are part of the company’s Uniphy Energy Control Solution (ECS). The Uniphy ECS thermostats can be used in light commercial and residential spaces and feature a direct one-for-one replacement of a building’s existing thermostats. They can connect to existing data networks through a standard Ethernet or Wi-Fi connection, and each thermostat is loaded with a Web server that eliminates the need for additional controls and equipment required for a traditional energy management system (EMS).
Each thermostat can be installed and configured in about two hours, and programming takes a matter of minutes and requires little to no training, said Dray. Proliphix’s network thermostats are deployed in countless commercial and residential properties and can be integrated into almost every existing heating and cooling system with the exception of proprietary split system controls. The company also offers an open API for further integration with building management, security, and home automation controls.
Dray noted that contractors who offer Internet-managed thermostats can improve business because they have an edge over the competition.
“Along with demonstrating that they are on the cutting edge of technology and energy conservation, contractors can offer service contracts that allow them to analyze information accessible through the thermostats. Real-time data and alarm notifications sent by SMS text message or e-mail help contractors respond to service needs in real-time and even proactively. This allows contractors to use a recurring revenue model that benefits their customers through active protection of their air conditioning assets.”
GOING GREEN WITH TECHNOLOGYHelping homeowners and light commercial companies conserve energy, save money, and reduce their environmental impact is the goal at ecobee. The company’s Smart Thermostats contain a Wi-Fi chip so consumers can easily control space conditions through the Internet or their iPhone, which ultimately drives energy conservation and savings.
“Once the Smart Thermostat is installed, it scans for an available network, the user registers the device, and it’s ready to go. Very simple and straightforward,” said Stuart Lombard, president and CEO, ecobee. “Our thermostat has a full-color touchscreen, and we have programming wizards, which make it easy to set up and use. When you look at our consumer base, 85 percent of our owners run a program, and that’s significantly better than the industry average, which is in the range of 15 to 25 percent.” That results in energy savings for the consumer.
The Smart Thermostat can control up to four stages of heat and two stages of cool on heat pumps (conventional and geothermal), furnaces, and air conditioners and also control dehumidifiers, humidifiers, and ventilation equipment. The company plans to expand the types of devices that can be controlled over time to include water heaters, lighting, and photovoltaics. “Everything we add will be around energy conservation,” said Lombard. “Our thermostats will also be able to integrate with smart meters, so it will be possible to see real-time electricity use.”
Another interesting bit of information the Smart Thermostat shares with homeowners is the five-day weather forecast, which is available by simply tapping the touch screen. The weather report also helps the thermostat make more intelligent heating and cooling decisions based on the homeowners’ comfort preferences.
Almost any 24-volt heating and cooling system can utilize the Smart Thermostat, including those with proprietary controls. It is a great product to offer, said Lombard, because it strengthens the relationship between contractors and their customers. “The thermostat can send alerts and reminders by e-mail (with the contractor’s logo and contact information) about service and filter changes - even flood detection - and that helps build a contractor’s business. Consumers love this thermostat, and a happy customer is great news for the contractor.”
CONVENIENCE DRIVES ENERGY SAVINGSAprilaire also offers a thermostat that can be accessed via the Internet. “We have a system controller that is the control point for thermostats, schedules, temperatures, and programs,” said Santino Piazza, HVAC automation sales manager, Aprilaire. “Our Model 8870 thermostat can communicate to the system controller, which can then communicate to the computer. To gain access from outside a building via the Internet requires more steps, but it can be done.”
The main reason why consumers like communicating thermostats, said Piazza, is convenience. “When it is more convenient to control heating and air conditioning equipment, consumers will most likely be more energy efficient. If a homeowner is sitting on the couch with his laptop watching TV, will he get up, walk over to the thermostat and make an adjustment? Or will he be more likely to change the temperature if it’s available on his computer? There’s no inconvenience when the thermostat can be accessed by the computer.”
The Aprilaire system can include up to 16 thermostats and integrate into products from 32 home automation manufacturers. “The Model 8870 can control the HVAC equipment, humidification, and dehumidification, as well as record outdoor temperature readings. We also have the flexibility to record multiple different temperatures and humidity points,” said Piazza. E-mail alerts are also available if a temperature gets too high or too low, and the thermostat screen flashes red when an alert is transmitted.
Internet-enabled thermostats are definitely going to become more popular, said Piazza. Which means contractors would be wise to learn about this new technology now. Tech-savvy consumers are finding out about these new thermostats and will likely jump at the chance to buy a high-tech control that is not only convenient but helps reduce their energy costs.