As technology has advanced, so have thermostats. Temperature control devices have rapidly evolved from the simple analog dials into digital, attractive, easy-to-use, programmable, and even remotely accessible device that not only looks good on the wall, but also efficiently operates the home’s HVAC system.

More accurate sensors and remote accessibility have resulted in a new breed of controls that provide energy savings without compromising occupant comfort, all while allowing consumers to monitor and control their HVAC equipment from almost anywhere at any time.

But even with these advances in technology, industry leaders agree that only time will tell what features and services might become standard on future generations of high-end thermostats and controls.

A Shifting Market

As digital programmable thermostats become more popular, mechanical thermostats are declining, though they aren’t likely to disappear entirely, said Geoff Godwin, vice president of marketing at White-Rodgers.

“There is still a very strong market for simple, basic mechanical, or nonprogrammable thermostats,” Godwin said. “Even for some states that require programmable thermostats to be installed in new construction, there are a lot of very plain thermostats being installed.”

Still, Godwin said the simplest mechanical thermostats are quickly losing ground in the market as digital higher-end thermostats — especially Wi-Fi-enabled devices — gain traction. But the largest section of the market still belongs to the middle-of-the-road thermostats — those with digital displays that may or may not be touch-screen or color.

“That market is, by far, the biggest segment, and frankly, it isn’t changing a lot, either, except for aesthetics,” Godwin said. “They want it to be easier to read, have basic buttons — things that look good on the wall. They want it to look newer, but they don’t necessarily want a touchscreen or color screen or Wi-Fi thermostat; it’s more about how it looks on the wall and how easy it is to operate.”

Bells and Whistles

For technologically inclined homeowners, programmable Wi-Fi thermostats can be very appealing, though Godwin said the people who are purchasing those thermostats are not necessarily your usual suspects.

“Some of the studies we’ve done focusing on who would buy Wi-Fi thermostats, or remote-access thermostats, it’s very interesting that demographics plays almost no part in that,” Godwin said. “You’d think it’d be a younger generation — Gen Y, the Apple generation — but in the end, there’s almost no correlation to age whatsoever. There are just as many connected seniors as there are connected juniors. It is really interesting.”

Many manufacturers — including Honeywell, Nest, and others, are catering to those who want a sleek, high-tech, Wi-Fi-connected thermostat they can control from anywhere.

“Smaller and sleeker is better when it comes to consumer electronics, and now the same can be said for Honeywell thermostats,” said Beth Wozniak, president of Honeywell Environmental and Combustion Controls. “We’re packing more features into a lighter, thinner body to help them complement home décor, while managing roughly half of a home’s energy consumption — and half of a homeowner’s energy dollars — more effectively than any other thermostat on the market.”

Honeywell’s Prestige IAQ Thermostat is available in three frame colors and features a 4.3-inch high-definition touch-screen display with a customizable color-matching palette. The thermostat connects to the Internet through Honeywell’s free Total Connect Comfort cloud-based application.

Similarly, ICM Controls is getting ready to launch a full series of affordable touch-screen thermostats at the AHR Expo in January 2014. The units will have a large display and will feature an easy-to-use dynamic interface as well as Wi-Fi capability.

“The grumblings and collective desires of our customer base for the past few years have centered upon an affordable touch-screen thermostat,” said Kevin Jobsky, director of marketing and aftermarket sales for ICM Controls. “Our engineering team has masterfully constructed a series of thermostats around the latest innovative technologies that will finally drive the cost of a touch unit — including a wireless model — significantly down to where everyone can participate, while still enjoying healthy margins.”

At Nest Labs, catering to the customer who wants an easy-to-use, sleek, remotely accessible thermostat has been their mission since 2011, when Nest released the first-generation Nest Learning Thermostat. The device learns a homeowner’s habits, creates a custom schedule, and automatically turns itself down when it senses the home is empty. The thermostat also collects and stores data and sends email reports on the home’s energy use to the user.

“Nest has clearly struck a chord with consumers,” said Gene LaNois, general manager at Nest. “The company is also committed to creating mutual success for installers by partnering closely with the professional channel.”

Also designed to be aesthetically pleasing and functional, the Venstar ColorTouch programmable thermostat features a color touchscreen with a customizable background as well as Wi-Fi connectivity. Once users register online, they can remotely program the thermostat, monitor the indoor temperature at multiple sites, view a pictorial display of current weather and forecasts, and check energy use from their computer or mobile device.

“Venstar’s ColorTouch residential and commercial thermostats provide the very best in programmability, comfort, convenience, and energy cost savings,” said Steve Dushane, president and CEO of Venstar Inc. “ColorTouch’s cutting-edge technology keeps indoor environments at the peak of comfort and gives users access to program the thermostat, whether they are on-site or away using the mobile application.”

Residential Controls

Just as thermostats are getting smarter, so are controls. On the residential side, new products from manufacturers like Aprilaire, GeoStar, and York efficiently control multiple zones to provide maximum comfort and energy savings, all from an easy-to-use, easy-to-install device.

Aprilaire’s Home Comfort Control two-part control system utilizes an intuitive touch-screen user interface, which connects to an equipment control module with standard 3-wire connection, eliminating the need for separate controls for humidifiers, dehumidifiers, ventilation, and temperature control systems.

“Home Comfort Control provides contractors with an affordable, simple-to-install, and easy-to-operate control center for all IAQ products,” said Mike Rimrodt, marketing director at Aprilaire. “This system gives homeowners confirmation and complete control of humidity, air cleaning, ventilation, and temperature.”

Geothermal manufacturer GeoStar offers the IntelliZone2 zoning solution, which is controlled from a color touch-screen thermostat with a 4.3-inch display that gives homeowners information and reports on the home’s energy use. The IntelliZone2 works in unison with Aurora controls to provide precise temperature control in up to six separate zones, so homeowners can condition where and when they choose.

York designed its Affinity Zoning Communicating Control to be easy to use, as well as easy for technicians to install, said Mimoun Abaraw, product manager at Johnson Controls. “The Zoning Communicating Control not only ensures maximum system efficiency and homeowner comfort, but also equips contractors with a reliable, distinctive tool to increase profits and build their business,” he said.

The Affinity touch-screen zoning communicating control can be used as a master and zoning sensor, providing up to six zones of control with a single zone panel. The control communicates with all key components in a home comfort system to provide maximum system efficiency.

Remote Control

For homeowners who want to be able to remotely monitor and control their zoned HVAC systems, manufacturers like Lennox, Schneider Electric, and Trane offer products to keep the homeowner connected from virtually anywhere.

“In addition to the unique in-zone thermostats, Lennox’s iHarmony is also compatible with the iComfort Wi-Fi thermostat, enabling homeowners to control the temperature in individuals’ rooms from a Web-enabled device anytime, anywhere,” said Kyle Golden, product manager for Lennox Industries. “Plus, each of the four zones can be programmed with their own unique schedule for every day of the week, which creates customized home comfort.”

Schneider Electric’s free Wiser app for Android and Apple mobile devices lets users control the Wiser thermostat and smart plugs. Wiser users can view energy usage, shift energy use during peak times, and customize settings for optimal comfort.

“With our Wiser home management system, we are providing a solution that fits with homeowners’ lifestyles and needs to manage energy costs with access to information anywhere, anytime through digital platforms” said Yann Kulp, vice president of strategy and business development at Schneider Electric. “We are enabling utility providers to empower homeowners by giving them easy access to their energy usage, so that they can make their homes more energy efficient and comfortable while benefiting from cost savings.”

Trane’s XL624 Z-Wave comfort control features a black-and-white touchscreen and works with Nexia Home Intelligence to enable homeowners to remotely control and monitor indoor comfort conditions from anywhere via a personal computer or mobile device. Homeowners can also receive high- and low-temperature alerts, system temperature alerts, and reminders.

“When the Trane XL624 Control is paired with Nexia™ Home Intelligence, truly amazing things happen,” said Karl Mutchnik, product manager at Trane Connected Home Solutions. “Nexia provides users with remote climate access to their home comfort system on most Web-enabled devices — from anywhere in the world.”

Commercial Controls

On the commercial side, controls are becoming increasingly remotely accessible. But a bigger trend, said Charles Miltiades, product manager, controls, Mitsubishi Electric US Cooling & Heating Division, is in how commercial controls are collecting, interpreting, and using data from the building.

“On the commercial side, we’re seeing the sensor network and the data being tracked to optimize the building,” Miltiades said. “We can track the data, compare it, and figure out why this unit is working harder than that unit, and that’s the direction the commercial market is going. It’s about being able to gather all that data.”

Manufacturers, including Jackson Systems, offer products that can track and analyze system information and send reports to the user. The company’s Web Comfort Energy Management System — which integrates the HVAC system, lighting, fans, metering, and plug loads — can be accessed remotely to control energy consumption and generate reports.

“If connected to an HVAC contractor, a service professional can also receive alerts from the system, providing them the opportunity to respond more quickly to their customers’ needs,” said Tom Jackson, CEO, Jackson Systems.

Johnson Controls’ Simplicity Intelli-Comfort II also monitors the equipment to predict any issues or maintenance needs, which can reduce unit downtime and save money in the long run. The Intelli-Comfort II conserves energy through the intelligent control of fans, economizers, compressors, and other functions.

Easy to Install

In addition to making new products that are easy for the end user to operate, manufacturers like EWC Controls, Daikin McQuay, KMC Controls, and Mitsubishi Electric are also doing what they can to ensure their controls are easy for the technician to install.

“EWC Controls has built a truly innovative, plug-and-play, 4-wire communicating zone system for any application,” said Mike Reilly, president, EWC Controls. “The UT-3000’s design allows the zoning system to talk to the equipment and thermostats to reduce labor time and optimize performance.”

The UT-3000 communicating zone system is compatible with all communicating systems that are built on the ClimateTalk protocol; the panel produces a true proportional signal to control the fan speed during all zoning operations.

Wally Bjorkstrand, controls product manager at Daikin McQuay, touted the company’s MicroTech Integrated System for water-source heat pump applications as being simple and quick to install. The system features the MicroTech System Manager, a touch panel with an easy-to-use Web browser-based interface that can be accessed from any PC, tablet, or smartphone.

“We can provide contractors and building owners with an affordable option to big building automation systems for water-source heat pump systems that helps to make their jobs easier, their facilities more efficient, and their operating costs lower,” Bjorkstrand said.

KMC Controls’ Appstat system is also easy to install, according to the company, and offers a unique, cost-effective combination of networking, application, and sensor options along with easy, intuitive configuration, and operation.

“We designed AppStat to be a cost-effective alternative for unitary control in commercial or institutional applications,” KMC product manager Erich Kreuter said. “AppStat is equally suited to stand-alone environmental controls or as part of an integrated BACnet control system.”

Miltiades said Mitsubishi Electric is devoted to making its products easy for the technician to install — and easy for the user to operate. “We spent a lot of time making the SmartME as simple as possible,” Miltiades said. “We’re really targeting that Generation Y user who’s really comfortable with that kind of interface.”

Mitsubishi Electric’s SmartME Zone Controller can control up to 16 indoor units in a single zone and features an intuitive backlit touch-screen interface with dual set point functionality and LED color status indicator. The SmartME works with the EB-50GU-A Central Controller, which allows the user to “monitor all the points on the SmartME,” Miltiades said.

“We can send out some reports, and we can do some trending,” he added. “By tracking the room temperatures and set points, you can see how systems are performing and even use that information to do preventive diagnostics. If you’re getting mobile access, then you’re always connected.”

In the end, the main goal for manufacturers is to be able to provide more options to achieve optimum comfort while also saving as much energy as possible — something Miltiades said is not easy to accomplish.

“Trying to find that balance between energy savings and comfort is a control’s enigma,” Miltiades said, adding that manufacturers, in general, are doing their best to give customers the features they want without making the equipment too complicated to use or install.

“We’re giving you more, but we’re trying to make it as easy as possible for you to set up.”

Publication date: 9/23/2013 

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