Not too long ago, today’s consumer expectations for smarter products would have sounded like science fiction. But, as technology is becoming increasingly accessible and interconnected, consumer demand is fueling the rise of intelligent products in the HVAC marketplace.

“Consumers have smart devices, are connected 24/7, and have come to expect getting their information not only in real time, but also remotely, wherever they are,” said Matthew Pine, director of brand marketing, residential HVAC, Carrier. “Today’s consumers want convenience, and they want it at their fingertips. As a result, they have become more engaged and have high expectations in terms of getting more information out of their home comfort products.”

These expectations are affecting both the residential and the commercial markets, and HVAC manufacturers are responding with products designed to meet consumer demands for information and control.

Smart Systems Becoming Reality

According to industry experts, several significant trends are driving the development of intelligent HVAC products.

Ed Purvis, executive vice president, Emerson Climate Technologies, said, one of these trends is an industry-wide “movement away from mechanical components to electronic components.”

“We see microprocessors and electronics in more products than ever before,” said Mike Branson, corporate vice president, product development, Rheem Mfg. Co. “The industry’s adoption of electronics follows many other respected industries; automotive, consumer electronics, and even household appliances now include electronics and advanced interfaces where consumers can engage with these products. … Going forward, we will continue to adopt electronics in HVAC and water heating systems in order to drive greater energy conservation, comfort, and reliability.”

Meghan Daro, marketing manager, Scotsman Ice Systems, noted that products have become more precise as a result of this electronic integration. “The main driver for advanced technology in HVAC products is the need to save energy. That need requires more precision on the part of the product. It must not consume power in an inefficient mode,” she said, explaining that this involves incorporating an electronic control system that can make the distinction between efficient and inefficient modes.

Purvis also pointed to broader tech trends that have impacted the HVAC market, including the rise of broadband and the ubiquity of Wi-Fi in homes.

He continued, “Another key factor is the ability to now build very cost-effective cloud architectures by which we can remotely manage lots of data, allowing us to optimize the reliability and efficiency of all types of facilities.”

Pine noted, “Increased broadband and smart device adaptation have been two of the catalysts driving the rise of intelligent products in the marketplace.”

Michael Bruce, thermostat product marketing, Honeywell Intl. Inc., also said cloud computing is affecting the market.

“The biggest trend in the HVAC industry driving intelligent product development is the consumer expectation that all products, including HVAC products, be connected to the cloud,” he said.

Commercial Demand for Efficiency

On the commercial side, the desire for improved efficiency is related to two common corporate initiatives: the goal to save on energy costs and the goal to limit harmful impacts on the environment.

According to Eric Walthall, regional marketing manager, Danfoss, “Energy efficiency continues to drive the demand for intelligent HVAC products, especially with the increasing focus on demand response capabilities and green buildings.”

Specifically, Walthall noted that he is seeing a trend toward focusing more on electricity demand than consumption. “Intelligent products, which gather data and control operations in order to adapt a system to its environment and provide user feedback — like those using electronics, electronic controls, and variable-speed equipment — can make a significant difference in reducing electricity demand,” he said.

Robert Gray, HVACR business segment manager, Schneider Electric, also noted that the trend toward intelligent HVAC systems is becoming more nuanced in the commercial market. “Over the past decade, the FMs [facility managers] have done everything they can to decrease the energy use in their buildings,” he said. “They have scheduled the HVACR equipment operation via some form of building automation system [building automation systems], retrofitted the lighting, and instituted other ECMs [energy conservation measures], to a point where the FM needs additional help in the effort to drive energy consumption down further. Intelligent HVACR products can provide this bridge to maximize the efficiency in buildings today.”

Gray continued, “It is now necessary to dig deeper into the internal operation of the HVACR equipment and into the control algorithms in order to actually increase the COP [coefficient of performance] of the equipment in the effort to deliver additional energy savings.”

For instance, he said, “Some new intelligent HVACR controllers can instantaneously calculate the COP of the HVACR equipment and provide a snapshot for the FM of that equipment via his BAS or cloud technology.”

And more information is exactly what users need, according to Dan Jones, executive vice president and managing member, UV Resources.

“Improving the users’ ability to obtain even more information about how their comfort systems are performing, especially at the component level, allows them to make informed decisions with minimum time and effort,” he said.

Yet according to Paul J. Rauker, vice president/general manager, systems and controls, Daikin Applied, an even higher level of building performance is on the horizon.

“As commercial building owners have integrated smart HVAC technologies, more data has become available. That information has been underutilized,” he said. “At Daikin Applied, we define intelligent products as those that harness big data through the use of Internet of Things [IoT] technology. This helps people better manage the performance of their buildings and makes them aware of issues before they happen by putting the rich data to work. Intelligent buildings intuitively know and adjust to what building occupants need in terms of efficiency, comfort, and reliability.”

Residential Push for Connected T-stats

Back at home, the residential market is also seeking more data. But for homeowners, the desire for data stems from their expectation that they should be able to check on their home’s system and control it from anywhere. In response, manufacturers are rolling out more and more intelligent thermostats that can be remotely controlled and communicate with both homeowners and their contractors.

“The market for connected thermostats is growing at a very fast rate,” said Tim Storm, heat pump product manager, Trane.

“Millions of people have a smartphone, and the ability to stay connected when away from home is not only desired, but also expected. Remotely controlling home comfort from anywhere is arguably the most heavily publicized trend currently impacting the thermostat controls market. 2013 shipments of remote access controls grew by 46 percent to about 1.9 million units and is expected to quadruple to 5.9 million units by 2017 according to IHS IMS, a leading source for global analytics in the electronics industry.”

Overall, John Peil, regional sales manager, Venstar Inc., said, “The consumer demand for remote access and control of home thermostats has been the main driver for the rise of intelligent controls in the HVAC industry.”

Honeywell’s Bruce further discussed how connecting thermostats to the cloud has enabled products to meet customer expectations. “By connecting a thermostat to the Internet, we open up a new realm of intelligent products that provide real value to the consumer in key areas such as energy savings, comfort, and peace of mind,” he said. “Consumers can now raise and lower their heating and cooling set point when they’re not home so that they can maximize their energy savings. Programmable thermostats are an effective way to save money on heating and cooling bills, but the ability to override a program schedule from your smartphone or tablet when your schedule changes is a way for a consumer to save even more on energy bills.”

Yet there’s another side to this coin. While homeowners expect information about their home’s HVAC system to be available at their fingertips, they also expect their thermostat to manage well on its own.

Summing up this expectation, Craig Kersten, product manager, geothermal systems, Bosch Thermotechnology, said, “An intelligent HVAC product allows users to configure the comfort settings to meet their particular needs — and then forget about it.”

One trend that is making it possible for homeowners to worry less about their home’s equipment is the move to connect their thermostats with their contractor.

For example, Peil noted that his company has developed thermostats with “a suite of responsive error notifications that automatically send an email to the account owner and, if enabled, the homeowner’s HVAC contractor.”

At Emerson Climate Technologies, Purvis said, “We have business models we’re now developing and launching with contractors which allow both contractors and homeowners to remotely track the performance of their home comfort systems and dispatch contractors if there are issues with a home’s heating and cooling system.”

He continued, “This type of connected solution is now feasible, and in the next three to five years we’re going to see more of this type of technology in U.S. homes.”

Down the road, Kersten added, “There is more to come — stay tuned.”

Publication date: 12/16/2013 

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