As the popularity of smart phones and tablets continues to grow, consumers are becoming accustomed to multiple features and instant connectivity. And so they are starting to demand more from the other devices in their homes, including the thermostat.

According to Bobby DiFulgentiz, director of product management for controls, Lennox International, “Smart phones are now owned by over 50 percent of all consumers, and tablets are expected to begin outselling laptops sometime in 2012. This shift in technology has redefined consumer’s usability expectations for all products. Most consumers expect their smart phone or tablet to control or interface with everything — and the thermostat is no exception.”

Today’s thermostats — and those that will be released in the very near future — are allowing consumers to connect with their home and its HVAC system in new and exciting ways.

Gauging the Trend

As consumers begin to expect more from their thermostat, they are starting to demand remote access and control capabilities, as well as real-time data about their energy usage. Plus, they are demanding 24/7 access to those capabilities and data from multiple devices, including computers, phones, and tablets.

More and more manufacturers are responding to consumer de-
mand for remote access to their thermostats. According to Tim Storm,
controls and zoning product manager, Residential Solutions, Ingersoll Rand/Trane, “The consumers desire to stay ‘connected’ with their family, friends, and even their home is certainly growing.”

Kurt Wessling, director of sales and marketing, Jackson Systems LLC, confirmed that “the popularity of thermostats with apps that allow remote monitoring, programming, and control are steadily gaining popularity and market share.”

“Consumers want to know how much electricity their homes are consuming on a real-time basis. And, they want to know how much power the major appliances, such as the HVAC system, in their homes are consuming,” added Karl Mutchnik, solutions manager, Connected Home Solutions, American Standard Heating & Air Conditioning.

Geoff Godwin, vice president of marketing for White-Rodgers, a business of Emerson Climate Technologies Inc., agreed that the trend toward connectivity is evident, but pointed out that consumers’ reaction to these trends will take some time to shake out. “We certainly believe today’s connectivity will have an impact on how people manage their thermostat, but it’s still unclear how,” he said. “There are some obvious cases where having the ability to manage the thermostat remotely is of benefit such as forgetting to turn your system off when away from the home for a weekend, or heating/cooling your second home before arriving. But how it will change the daily management of the system has yet to be defined. Obviously, the utility initiatives and connectivity to other devices in the home will have an impact.”

Jim Fisher, product manager — splits, Goodman Global Group Inc., noted that his company continues to gauge these trends and adjust its product line accordingly. “In my opinion, the thermostat has always been the primary contact point between a homeowner and their central heating and cooling system. As options become available to enhance the connection between the thermostat and a homeowner, we follow quickly with enhancements throughout our entire thermostat product line-up,” he said.

Connecting with Remote Access

For the early adopters, manufacturers have already started to provide more options for connecting to and controlling their thermostats remotely. “We have seen remote access become one of most important features for our customers,” said Stuart Lombard, president and CEO of ecobee. As a result, he noted that ecobee’s web portal allows both commercial and residential customers to manage their thermostats from anywhere that they have an Internet connection, including their tablet.

“Our residential product, the ecobee Smart Thermostat, can also be managed from any one of our smart phone applications, available for iPhone/iPod Touch and Android phones,” he said.

Lombard added that his customers are taking advantage of this accessibility. “More than 65 percent of ecobee users access their web portal at least once a week,” he said.

John Peil, product manager, thermostats, Venstar Inc., said he is “continuing to see an increase in consumer demand for remote access and control of home thermostats.” He explained that Venstar offers ComfortCall with its Slimline residential thermostats so that users can remotely adjust their thermostats from any telephone. “Using voice recognition and voice synthesis, ComfortCall literally talks to the user over the telephone and takes voice commands. This makes it easy for users to remotely call and turn their systems on or off, whether they are headed home or are away and just forgot to reset the system to the energy savings setting,” Peil said.

Tim Simon of Radio Thermostat Co. of America noted, “Communicating thermostats is a prime focus of our company.” He continued, “Our interface allows the customer to control the thermostat from their Smart Device, iPad, iPhone, Droid, web, etc.”

At Ingersoll Rand, both the Trane and American Standard brands provide products that “allow homeowners to control their air conditioning system remotely using a smart phone or Internet connected computer by subscribing to our sister company’s Schlage LiNK service,” Storm said. Mutchnik added, “Homeowners can change the thermostat settings from anywhere in the world with most web–enabled smart phones, tablets or PCs. They can also remotely control lights and appliances, door locks, and view what is happening around their homes via web-enabled cameras.”

Analyzing the Data

Not only are consumers seeking to be connected to their thermostat while away from home, they are also increasingly seeking data that will help them get a better handle on their energy usage, and ultimately save on their utility bills. As a result, according to Simon, “Analytical tools are huge.”

DiFulgentiz explained, “Most consumers already know they want to save energy but lack the tools to help them effectively do so. The key is giving them tools that allow them to make informed decisions between comfort and energy usage. Consumers want to not only know how much energy they are using, but also how they can minimize their energy costs while maintaining a certain level of comfort.”

Steve Millheiser, vice president of marketing, Lux Products Corp., noted that “features such as energy usage monitors, filter replacement monitors, and IAQ programmable blowers have been well received by contractors and homeowners.”

Fisher added, “The main analytical tools homeowners are seeking tend to be those surrounding operation issues such as the time that the system is on, and how much energy is consumed by the system on a weekly, daily, or hourly measurement.” At Goodman, he said, “We have partnered with several thermostat suppliers that offer a full array of monitoring options and are actively promoting them to our customers.”

Wessling said that Jackson Systems has also noticed the growing interest in analytical tools. “Tables, charts, and graphs that indicate trending and history of energy use are being asked for more often. The ever-increasing energy rates are driving the majority of the requests as is the upcoming smart grid integration.”

Looking to the Smart Grid

Indeed, it’s impossible to discuss the future of thermostats without considering the impact of the smart grid. According to Pat Tessier, director of product marketing for residential, utility, and light commercial thermostats at Honeywell, “Fundamentally, a smarter electrical grid will help to manage the growing demand for energy and improve the reliability and efficiency of the utility infrastructure. It will do this by allowing consumers — commercial/industrial and residential — to better manage how and when they use their energy based on availability and price. It will also allow for the broader integration into the grid of renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar, and for customers to better control costs and be energy efficient.”

Godwin added, “Smart meters are opening up a new world of possibilities when it comes to understanding energy use, and thermostats are positioned to play a growing role as the interface for consumers to access their energy usage information.” Pointing to the statistics, he noted, “Almost half of the U.S. will have smart meters by 2015. Approximately 20 million smart meters have already been deployed in North America, with another 35 million under contract.”

Using a thermostat to access data from a smart meter could have great potential benefits for consumers — enabling them to make “smarter decisions about their usage behavior when it matters most,” Godwin said. “Consumers want to understand what their utility bill looks like in real time, rather than waiting to receive a bill in the mail two weeks after it’s too late for them to do anything about it.” Plus, he added, “With smart meters come smart rates.”

Tessier explained, “A few utilities in the United States have started to pilot ‘time of use’ or other dynamic pricing models in their territories as part of the shift to a more cost-driven pricing structure. As this trend continues, it will be increasingly important for residential customers to better manage their energy consumption in the home to avoid the sticker shock that can accompany this time-of-use, or variable-pricing models.”

Sidebar: New T-stats Coming Soon

In the very near future, manufacturers have plans to roll out thermostats with ever more futuristic capabilities. According to Pat Tessier of Honeywell, “On Sept. 28, 2011, Honeywell will introduce Total Connect Comfort Services, which will give home and business owners access to remotely monitor and manage their heating and cooling system through a PC, smart phone, or tablet device.” He noted that this access will allow homeowners to view or change any setting to their HVAC system, as well as set up alerts to monitor comfort, safety, and energy.

“Homeowners will get the information they need instantly to decide what action to take,” Tessier continued. “For instance, home and building owners can be alerted when the temperature is too high or low to ensure the comfort of family, employees, or pets while away. They can be notified when the temperature or humidity is too high to prevent property from being at risk for mold and mildew growth. They can be informed when the temperature is too low to avoid putting property at risk for frozen water pipes.”

Geoff Godwin also reported that White-Rodgers will be releasing a new product soon. “White-Rodgers has designed an advanced thermostat that can communicate with smart meters via a wireless protocol called ZigBee Smart Energy. Our new product, due out in early 2012, is equipped with a number of features that will enable homeowners to save money in this smarter networked world.” He explained that the new thermostat will provide an energy usage monitoring feature and a Price Protection™ feature that enables the homeowner to prescribe what the temperature of their home should be under any given pricing condition.

John Peil of Venstar said, “Later in 2011, Venstar will release accessories that allow the current ColorTouch residential thermostat (Model T5800) and ColorTouch commercial thermostat (Model T6800) to connect to the Internet using the building’s wireless Internet network or to an Insteon system, thus enabling full remote access to the thermostat via smart phone and computer devices.”

And one manufacturer noted that not all future improvements to thermostats will involve higher costs for consumers. According to Stuart Lombard, “Being a Wi-Fi-enabled thermostat, ecobee is able to offer all product upgrades to customers at no additional cost, and at no work to the customer or contractor,” he said. “We continue to develop new features and functionality for our apps and web portal at no added cost to our customers.”

Publication date: 09/19/2011