Controls: Where Are We Going
When talking about thermostats or controls, Karl Mutchnik, portfolio manager at Tyler, Texas-based Trane, a business of Ingersoll Rand, cited recent growth in the market. Thermostats, while still ubiquitous in homes, are often characterized by a simple on-and-off switch. But a switch, or more accurately a shift from those legacy 24-volt thermostat controls, is experiencing “tremendous growth,” as it continues to move to connected Wi-Fi, cloud-based platforms designed for residential and light commercial applications. Using an additional RF radio-embedded electronic device such as Z-Wave technology, these enable control of a variety of household devices, including appliances.
Mutchnik describes the integrated and greater choice trends that are available because of a “higher level of technology” in products that allow homeowners to control more devices. An example is the Trane XL824 Smart Control, a built-in home automation gateway that is a part of the Nexia Home Intelligence system and is capable of communicating with more than 200 Z-Wave products throughout the home. The new touchscreen thermostat works on all standard HVAC systems and can alert homeowners and dealers if the system is not working properly.
Various Nexia products, when combined, provide for a wraparound protection for consumers who want more active control. Nexia-compatible products allow people to open garage doors, access indoor and outdoor cameras and lock their doors. Homeowners can even connect water sensors to a Nexia system that can help prevent water damage with automatic shutoff capabilities. Through a free smartphone and tablet app, homeowners can monitor energy usage and adjust their thermostat’s heating and cooling levels remotely.
Like apps that consumers keep adding to their smartphones, they will also begin to realize or desire that more features are possible. Who starts the trend or is responsible for its adoption is subject to debate, but reacting to it in a timely manner is what spells success in the channel. “I’d like to say it is the manufacturer” who originates the trend, says an amused Mutchnik. “We get ideas from contractors who are close to their customers. And we also talk to wholesalers who have close ties to their contractors.”
For Eric Stromquist, when it comes to commercial and industrial controls, “big data” is the next big thing. He attributes the explosion to the collapse of pricing for the end-user to gain the data, while the industry still appears to be trying and catching up with how to interpret that information. “The cost has gone way down,” says Stromquist, CEO of Smyrna, Ga.-based Stromquist & Co., a distributor of temperature controls and industrial instrumentation products.
“The cost per data point has dropped dramatically due to advancements in technology such as wireless sensors that give owners the ability to monitor assets, a feature that was impossible to do before,” he says. “You’ve got to get the data in, and you have to have an analytics package that can analyze the data and normalize it. In the past, you used to have reams of data that made no sense at all. If I were to tell you, ‘I’ve got this one building that’s using 450,000 KW per hour. I’ve got this other building that’s using 600,000 KW per hour per month. Which is the most efficient building?’ You wouldn’t know because one building might be twice the size of the other, or the buildings could be the same size, but one of them is occupied and the other is less occupied or empty.” Stromquist calls this “normalizing the data,” which allows the end-user to customize the data and to interpret the information based on specific “filters” or conditions that match the often unique circumstances. Stromquist, the co-creator of www. controltrends.org, a website that monitors the spectrum of all things related to controls, says that the industry will have to decide how to use the big data to maintain its influence.
Once they can do that, they can begin to make intelligent decisions on how to make their buildings more efficient. That’s one trend.
Another trend that Stromquist defines as “huge” on the commercial side is branding your company as being socially responsible. He says commercial real estate people in particular have adopted this approach.
“The other thing that’s going on, a huge trend, which gets back to the commercial side of controls, is ensuring that part of your brand is being socially responsible,” says Stromquist, whose company belongs to HARDI Member Controls Group North America (www.cgnacontrols.net). One of the ways they demonstrate that they are conserving energy and linked to the social responsibility of being energy conscious is by placing a large data dashboard in the lobby of the building so that employees and visitors alike can actually track how much energy is being saved. “Studies have shown that people who do that [publicly displaying energy usage] have higher occupancy rates, and they can charge more per square foot lease,” Stromquist says. “It’s the socially responsible thing to do.”
Tom Roberts, president of Kansas City, Mo.-based cfm Distributors Inc. and HARDI’s secretary/treasurer, takes in the big picture on controls in a chat with Distribution Center, essentially placing the thermostat in the proverbial coffin.
“I believe the thermostat will soon be considered an old-fashioned, clunky interface that has limited operability instructions and collects one data point: temperature,” says Roberts. “The future is the ‘Internet of Things’ where HVAC equipment will become IP addresses, and everything will become application-driven.”
For example, new thermostat technology from Honeywell already includes features like geofencing that alerts the thermostat when someone is approaching or departing the home. But app-driven systems of the future could do much more. Perhaps an application can be interfaced with employee time and attendance data where an office or manufacturing plant has an increase (or decrease) in the presence of employees. Apps like this could understand approaching weather conditions or daily changes in utility rates, and could bring that variable into play, he says. Whether it’s a commercial or residential application, people today still want to regulate two functions: scheduling and controlling temperature, according to Roberts. As Wi-Fi enabled technologies keep improving with greater capability, scheduling starts to fall away, and occupancy sensing or geofencing becomes more important. The actual presence of occupants starts to replace occupied time scheduling because scheduling is just an artificial replacement for actually knowing that somebody is there. If you really know somebody’s in the home or office, then you’re in a better position to match utility consumption for cooling or heating with real need, he says.
People like remote productivity features, but they must be easily controllable. Roberts says the features Ecobee offers are popular with his customers. Most commercial building operators have found that scheduling becomes a nightmare when you exceed four or five traditional programmable thermostats, unless you use Wi-Fi thermostats with a communication application that simplifies global changes. Roberts says we will see more centralized scheduling with easier-to-use functionality that falls somewhere between a thermostat and a full-blown traditional building control system. He points to rapid progress for companies such as Ecobee that produce products that give customers the ability to globally control time and temperature, provide alerts from failing systems and allow remote changes. “Building operators are rapidly adopting these advanced technologies and remote capabilities, which should merge nicely into the future of the development of Internet based app-driven control strategies,” Roberts says.
Where does this end? As with most technologies, there’s no end, only evolution. However, depending on one’s orientation or sensitivities, residential, commercial and industrial users have a bright spot in the Internet sun: thermostats (or controls) that advertise.
According to a Wall Street Journal blog, “Google Predicts Ads in Odd Spots Like Thermostats,” Google sent a letter to the Securities and Exchange Commission suggesting that it might have ads on “refrigerators, car dashboards, thermostats, glasses and watches, to name just a few possibilities.” In an update from both Google and Nest, they explained that it was not their intention to have ads on the thermostats. I guess we’ll see.
Off the Record: Is It A Trend or the Future?
Tom’s Note: In a chat that was not for attribution, a bright, well-known HARDI manufacturer told me the following story.
“I had a conversation with a contractor at the recent AHR Expo in New York City. We talked about this [control trends]. We talked about Google, the Nest and how they are getting into the homes. It [the conversation] also brought up the new technology that the equipment manufacturers have on communicating equipment.
“His concern – this is kind of way out of the box, and he knew it – is that five, 10, maybe 15 years down the road, the equipment manufacturers, again the big guys, are also trying to get into the homeowner. They can relay information directly to the homeowner and get the status of the equipment on a real-time basis, so now the equipment manufacturer can control the contractor, or the service call or the replacement of that equipment.
“Once they have a piece of equipment in the home, they know when it needs to be replaced, and they have the upper hand on going into that home and saying ‘Hey, you know what? Your 15-year-old piece of equipment is not running efficiently. You need to replace it with our model, instead of somebody else who’s selling Brand X.’
“Big brother, I mean technology, is great. Nest and Google [are in] partnership and that is an interesting topic of conversation, but it is also a little worrisome for a lot of people in our industry because of the reach and the technology that they can bring. It could be for good, it could be for bad, or it could be indifferent. There are certainly some people that are a little concerned about big brother getting a little too much control.”
Is this a worrisome note, or is it simply an alarmist reaction? It might be too soon to know, but it is certainly the budding of future conversations.