Yesterday’s thermostats allowed a user to increase or decrease indoor temperature on site. Today’s units are much more sophisticated, allowing operators to adjust temperature, humidity, and a number of other variables from anywhere in the world. Additionally, some devices can intelligently learn a user’s schedule, accommodate typical temperature preferences, and acknowledge an individual’s proximity or a structure’s occupancy. And while many are just wrapping their heads around existing technology, HVAC manufacturers are persistently pursuing enhancements that will define the units of tomorrow.

Energy-efficient Opportunities

According to Energy Star, an average household spends close to $2,200 a year on energy bills — half of which goes toward heating and cooling unoccupied spaces. New, Wi-Fi-enabled devices allow users to adjust their temperatures anytime, anywhere, granting home and building managers ample opportunities to take energy efficiency into their own hands.

Geoff Godwin, vice president of marketing for White Rodgers, an Emerson Climate Technologies Inc. company, is excited about the sector’s potential.

“In the past, most people didn’t know what their thermostat did or what their equipment did. They thought they had a Honeywell or White Rodgers system because that was the brand name on the thermostat,” Godwin said. “Consumers are more aware of what their HVAC system does, the amount of energy it uses, maintenance procedures, and whether the system is operating efficiently.

“Wi-Fi-connected, smart HVAC systems are starting to raise consumer awareness, which raises the price points that customers are willing to pay. It raises the ability for contractors to do maintenance, remote monitoring, and things like that,” Godwin continued. “I think our industry is finally starting to break through into the mainstream as a higher-tech-viewed industry.”

The current trend is moving online, so much so that Stuart Lombard, co-CEO, ecobee, believes at least 50 percent of thermostats sold in the next year will be Wi-Fi-connected devices.

“Customers are looking for a great user experience,” Lombard said. “Things are heading to mobile, but that doesn’t mean the in-home experience is not important. One of the things we provide to customers is a weather forecast. It’s a handy device relatively close to the front door. Customers love the weather, it’s one of their favorite apps. I would say 50 percent of customers check weather on our thermostat on a daily basis.”

Lombard also believes consumers are growing more interested in how they are spending energy. “Analytics and the data we collect is another big trend in the market,” he said. “Helping customers understand their energy consumption, helping them find ways to conserve more energy without impacting their lifestyles, and helping them make better choices are very important.”

The Home Automation Puzzle

There’s no doubt the thermostat plays a big role in the home automation puzzle. A recent study by the Consumer Electronics Association found that home automation technologies that offer energy efficiency are the most popular types of installed home technologies among consumers. The study reports that 47 percent of online U.S. households indicate they have a programmable and/or smart thermostat currently installed in their homes.

Many anticipate thermostats playing an even larger role in the home automation market.

“I think it kind of blurs the line to what a thermostat is versus the multifunction user interface that happens to control thermostats and also happens to control other things,” said David Wood, HVAC automation sales manager, Aprilaire. “I come from the high-end automation side of the world, where you can put the color touchscreen system control inside of the house and control whatever it is you want there. We don’t start as the thermostat being the center of the universe controlling everything else. But I think you can control everything else that you choose, and you can decide if you want to add a thermostat or if you want to add a security system. That’s the way of things.”

John Peil, Venstar Inc.’s ColorTouch® brand manager, said home automation is definitely the future, and integration is important.

“Venstar’s Open API is our bet that full home automation is going to get more affordable and more ubiquitous,” he said. “With Open API, Venstar has the ability to connect its thermostats with absolutely every home automation system currently on the market. To date, RTI and Control4 have announced integration with the ColorTouch thermostat.”

New Technologies

Thermostats are much more than temperature-controlling devices. Many manufacturers are expressing this by offering attractive consumer options within their latest devices.

Mike Bruce, product marketing specialist, Honeywell Intl. Inc., said the company continues to introduce new products that are easily connected to the cloud, such as the new Lyric thermostat, Wi-Fi Smart Thermostat with Voice, and Prestige IAQ with RedLINK.

“Voice is a more common way of interacting with products and devices in your home,” Bruce said. “This is evident as more mobile providers are offering voice communications in their smartphones as well as automotive manufacturers offering these services in more and more vehicles. The same need for voice interaction is present in the home, where we can simply say a command and be comfortable or trigger a sequence of events when you walk out the door or go off to bed. Voice offers a more natural interaction method and is a technology we will continue to pursue.”

Raj Hiremath, director of marketing, ClimateMaster Inc., said his company is taking the technology a step further after the launch of its new Trilogy 45™Q-Mode™ variable-speed geothermal heat pump system, which provides 45 EER and additional savings with on-demand hot water generation capabilities.

Hiremath said ClimateMaster partnered with ecobee to launch its Wi-Fi communicating thermostat. “In addition to giving the homeowner access to the system through the website and through the app, we’ve taken it to the next level,” he said. “We worked with ecobee to make the thermostat communicating. The Trilogy has a ton of sensors inside, so it’s measuring everything that’s happening. All that information is not only available through the thermostat in the house, but it also gets passed on to the dealer portal where the contractors can log in and see how the unit is operating, if the homeowner allows them to do it.

“You can troubleshoot and configure the unit over the Internet, which the ecobee thermostat makes possible,” Hiremath continued. “We’re calling it iGate Connect. As you can see from the name, we are treating the thermostat as an information gateway. We’re taking the full power of the Internet and providing the pipeline where the dealers can access it, make changes to the unit, see what’s going on, and see what happened when the unit went down. It allows users to see the conditions at the time of the fault. Once they go through our training, the troubleshooting has been exponentially simplified on any HVAC system, but definitely in the geothermal HVAC industry.”

Nest Labs has had little trouble using its technology to attract customers. The company’s second-generation Nest Learning Thermostat has garnered 2,594 reviews on since its Oct. 14, 2012, release.

“Using its hardware, weather information, and sophisticated algorithms, the Nest Learning Thermostat learns about the unique characteristics of each home and customers’ personal preferences,” said Isabel Guenette, product marketing manager, Nest. “For instance, it learns how quickly the indoor temperature adjusts to heating or cooling to reach target temperatures right on schedule. It matches itself to the customer’s system automatically and programs itself based on the customer’s daily adjustments to deliver optimal comfort and energy savings.”

With features like Auto-Away and Airwave, the Nest thermostat sets itself to a more energy-efficient temperature.

Wood is skeptical whether the technology will prove to be as energy efficient as customers think. “Thermostats can certainly choose to comply with the temperature setting the customer sets when the person is around or not around. I think all of those technologies need to be tested out to see if they save more money than they cost,” Wood said. “If you turn back the thermostat because you want to save energy, but then kick it into third-stage heating in order to heat the house by the time the customer gets home, that is a lot of wasted energy. There are some interesting ideas out there, but whether they’ll prove to be more a marketing gimmick than an energy saver is yet to be seen.”

A New Playing Field

It’s a new world in the HVAC industry, and contractors must be continually educating customers to stay ahead of the competition, according to Tom Jackson, CEO, Jackson Systems LLC.

“I think it’s an interesting time. We see a lot of competition from not only the DIY [do-it-yourself] stores like Home Depot and Lowes, but all of a sudden, Comcast has become a competitor, along with AT&T,” Jackson said. “We’ve got these other people that have been added to the mix, people in the past that we’ve never had to worry about. Comcast desperately wants that ability to control your thermostat. As HVAC people, we have to be aware of that and how it all plays into the mix.

“It’s an everyday occurrence for the contractor because I’m sure they’re getting calls like, ‘why don’t I just get a thermostat from Comcast? Why do I need to get one from you?’” Jackson continued. “We need to continually educate homeowners on why it’s important to work with your HVAC contractor and not Comcast. If something goes wrong, it’s going to be us who have to come out and fix it. You can’t call Comcast to come work on your equipment. That’s just a really big deal as more competitors enter our space.”

The Future of Thermostats

Predicting the future of thermostats is not an easy task. One evolving aspect is the device’s appearance.

“Aesthetics are becoming more important with guys like Nest and others who believe the thermostat should be a museum piece and something that should be stared at as opposed to something that blends into the room,” Wood said. “There is more styling going on as you’re starting to see things like color screens and photographs on your thermostat’s picture frame. There’s a lot of experimentation going on right now, it’s kind of changing up things a little bit. And it’s good to see that kind of excitement.”

Lennox Intl. Inc.’s iComfort Wi-Fi-enabled thermostat allows homeowners to choose a customizable skin to match the room.

“It can blend into any décor,” said Kyle Golden, product manager of controls, Lennox. “Homeowners can go to and pick from hundreds of different skins available or they can upload their own pictures and transform the thermostat into a family photo. Once they make the skin, Nuvango will email a copy of the picture that’s perfectly scaled for the thermostat and send them a skin. Once they get the skin, users can place it around the thermostat bezel. They can then upload a picture that really creates a seamless work of art. Think of it like the skin that goes around your cell phone.

“Ultimately, the design needs to be simple enough where you can use it on the wall, but also have complete control of the thermostat from your mobile phone, so you have to think of the design in two different locations.”

Hiremath believes emerging technologies and products could eventually replace the thermostat as we know it today.

“Historically, in non-communicating systems, the thermostat looks at what the room temperature is, what temperature the homeowner’s set, and the thermostat tells the unit what to do,” he explained.

“The unit has some intelligence based on what inputs come out, timers, and stuff like that, but the thermostat’s really the master. That’s how it’s been in the past. Going forward, with all the communication that’s possible today, not only between the unit at the thermostat, but between the thermostat and outside, the thermostat’s really a slave. All it’s doing is allowing the homeowner to change the temperature. It reads the temperature and feeds it to Trilogy. So now, the thermostat is only an interface and a sensor. Its primary function is sensing the temperature and humidity and sending it to the unit, but it’s also an interface for the homeowner.

“I think the thermostat device itself is going to become less and less important. If you break the function down, right now, it is an interface to the system, temperature and humidity sensor, and is Wi-Fi connected to the Internet. Going forward, those three things could be separated. The thermostat, as it stands today, is going to be gone and the functionality of the thermostat is going to be split into different pieces. I think the sensing and the interface will separate out, and the thermostat as it is today will be obsolete.”

Publication date: 9/22/2014 

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