Amazon Alexa, Connected Devices Grow in HVAC Importance
The use of voice-enabled speakers, such as Amazon Echo and Google Home, is continuing to gain popularity as more people become comfortable with the technology. Indeed, according to the research firm, eMarketer, almost 36 million Americans used these devices at least once a month in 2017, which is a jump of almost 129 percent over 2016.
As prices continue to drop on these so-called digital assistants, expect even more homeowners to embrace the technology and also demand additional functionality. Instead of just asking Alexa or Google to play a long-forgotten tune from the 1980s, users will likely want to ask them to turn off the lights or turn up the heat. On the latter request, boiler manufacturers are already poised to make that happen.
In the near future, smart boilers will be compatible with numerous devices the end user and contractor can control in a variety of ways, predicts Dan Moffroid, director of product management, Bosch Thermotechnology.
“The smart home system will allow one device to control numerous smart features in the home, and the heating system is part of that,” he said. “Voice-controlled thermostats are already entering the market and will continue to grow as part of a smart home ecosystem.”
The smart control Bosch currently offers is the CT100, which is specifically designed to control its Greenstar condensing boilers. It is essentially a thermostat integrated into the intelligence of the boiler through a wired connection. The CT100 can modulate the boiler and maintain the correct temperature, thus optimizing the entire system, which saves money and energy, said Moffroid.
All the data from the CT100 is kept locally in the system, allowing homeowners to have control over the information. This is important, noted Moffroid, because one of the biggest challenges in designing smart and Internet of Things (IoT)-enabled boilers is data protection. With this smart control already available, Bosch plans to offer IoT-enabled boilers in the near future.
“For residential boilers, homeowners tend to interact with the thermostat to control the boiler more so than interacting with the boiler itself, but we are working on bringing the interaction of the IoT onto the boiler,” he said.
In response to the increasing popularity of IoT-enabled devices, Navien recently launched its NaviLink™ system, which includes a Wi-Fi module, power supply, and a cable connecting the Wi-Fi module with the boiler control panel. The free NaviLink app gives users wireless control of their home heating products, including Navien’s NPE series tankless water heaters, NCB series combi-boilers, and NHB series boilers.
“NaviLink was primarily designed to enable homeowners to turn the boiler on and off, control temperatures, access usage data, activate recirculation system on NPE-A tankless water heaters, and receive alarm notifications for all Navien products,” said John Kopf, boiler product manager, Navien Inc. “However, service technicians also benefit from having access to historical data, alarm notifications, and unit diagnostics.”
Using an open protocol, NaviLink could easily integrate with Google Home, Apple HomeKit, and Amazon Echo smart devices, noted Kopf.
“I think the Amazon Echo platform is quickly becoming the smart home hub that can link other devices into a single system,” he said. “In fact, Amazon launched a software development kit (SDK), which allows developers to create voice-controlled applications that can encompass a number of functions, including home security, lighting, doors, etc. NaviLink could be one of those many applications available for interaction with Alexa.”
BENEFITS AND HURDLES
While some may view voice-activated digital assistants as novel gadgets, there are real benefits to homeowners utilizing a smart or IoT-enabled boiler, including increased comfort, energy savings, remote access to boiler status from anywhere in the world, notifications, and alarms, according to Kopf.
“Some utilities also offer discounts for smart thermostats, and insurance companies sometimes provide additional savings for smart homes,” he said. “In addition, boilers can be serviced proactively before they fail, so homeowners don’t have to deal with costly equipment failures.”
Comfort and convenience are the biggest benefits for homeowners, said Moffroid, because smart or IoT-enabled boilers give end users control of their heating systems while outside the home.
“By simply using an app on their phone, they are able to control the temperature of their home, save energy, cut costs, and have peace of mind knowing they are in control of their home no matter where they are,” he said.
Smart boilers also benefit contractors, as they can access the boiler’s operating status, historical data, and alarms. They can also run remote boiler diagnostics and make sure they have the right tools and parts before they arrive at the job site to fix the boiler, said Kopf.
“There are few things more important to contractors than being able to finish the job on time while making profit and without future callbacks,” he said. “A successful service call means future references and more customers.”
Of course, all these benefits come at a premium, as smart and IoT-enabled boilers often cost more than standard boilers due to additional material and development costs, noted Moffroid.
“However, homeowners are seeing the value in investing in these types of products,” he said. “According to a 2016 study from Houzz, nearly half of homeowners are installing smart systems or devices during their renovation projects. Homeowners have higher expectations for smart features, and developers are quickly adapting to this growing trend.”
But there are challenges associated with this trend. For end users, that may include uncertainty over which controls platform to pick, lack of experience, initial cost, potential loss of privacy, and possible lack of heat due to power failure, noted Kopf.
“By far, though, the biggest challenge for homeowners is the integration of all the smart components into a single and reliable system,” he said.
Boiler manufacturers are facing challenges, too, as some simply don’t have the expertise in embedded networking, while others have outdated boiler controls that cannot be easily integrated with wireless communications, said Kopf. Still, the next generation of smart boilers is likely to be robust, as they will focus more on energy savings, increased ease of integration with home automation systems, better data collection, preventative service advisory, advanced analytics, improved IoT integration, and self-learning capability and notifications.
Sounds like it won’t be long until homeowners will be able to say, “Alexa, fire up the boiler!”
Publication date: 2/19/2018