Parents working from home. Kids playing video games or on the iPad doing remote learning. Everyone’s glued to their smartphone. And the Zoom meetings — the blessing and curse of 2020 — seem to just keep coming. It’s an all-too-common scenario in American households as pandemic-related shutdowns continue.
It could also be messing with the smart thermostat — or any of the host of IoT devices that adorn consumer households which, if all functioning at once, can overload the internet capability and cause the Wi-Fi to flake out during that Zoom call, prompting cries of “You’re freezing up!” from exasperated coworkers.
According to Veego Software, the number of devices participating in live internet services has increased 2.5 times since the pandemic, while each device is spending much more time consuming those services. Total consumption time per home has more than tripled during a typical 24-hour period.
“No question, the pandemic has caused at-home internet usage to skyrocket, and with all of that added internet attention, people have developed new interests in web services like Zoom meetings or delivery apps for food,” said Scott Cochrane, president and CEO, Cochrane Supply & Engineering. “This has bled over into smart homes with a new interest in devices that can improve personal experiences, just like all the other cool new apps they started using during the pandemic.
“This has caused an increase in demand now and for the foreseeable future,” he predicted. Which means anyone working with IoT devices that run via Wi-Fi — HVAC contractors included — needs to know how to deal with bandwidth issues if a customer runs into them during this period of altered normalcy.
Battle of the Bandwidth
Among the connectivity issues Veego identified, two stood out in terms of frequency: Wi-Fi neighbor interference (52 percent increase since the start of the pandemic) that causes bad streaming and gaming experiences, and intermittent connectivity failures (42 increase increase) that are responsible for slow downloads and other annoying conditions. Many of the connectivity failures were due to bad Wi-Fi link quality caused by improper configuration of extenders.
Neighbor interference means just that: a next-door neighbor’s services competing for your Wi-Fi.
“Now there is 10 times as much neighbor interference because your neighbors are stuck in their home, the same as you are, with more devices and more services competing with each other,” said Amir Kotler, Veego CEO and founder. “The infrastructure ISP will be under a lot of pressure because of the consumption growth inside your home. [ISPs] didn't imagine that you would change your consumption in this way; it's too much. … And because of the starvation fight between services and devices inside the home, we might get to the point when devices and services will get less than they need. That's why the experience of using them will go down.”
On top of that, there are five points in the chain of connectivity where things can go wrong.
“Today, the device itself can be the cause of the problem. The Wi-Fi can be a problem. The router can be the problem. The wiring can be the problem, or the cloud can be the problem,” Kotler explained.
Setting Up a Smart Thermostat
When setting up a new smart thermostat, an HVAC contractor should take steps to make sure there is sufficient bandwidth to support the device.
“Smart thermostats use protocols like MQTT to make their data packets very efficient, and they do not take up much bandwidth,” Cochrane said. “Even so, we should be sensitive to the owner’s bandwidth, as many providers limit or charge extra if over-usage occurs.”
For starters, a contractor can simply ask the customer about their internet connection.
“If it is a reliable network, more than likely a single smart thermostat will do nothing,” Cochrane said. “If they have existing issues, there is a chance they will have problems with a smart thermostat app as well.”
Wi-Fi routers, if accessible to the contractor, will typically have a log of devices connected with bandwidth usage, he continued.
“Additionally, each internet plan has a data usage agreement for a certain amount of upload and download sizes, so you can try to calculate it based on that. But even with that information, many devices on the network eat up bandwidth only when used, and it can be impossible to predict the usage. So, technically bandwidth problems are like the weather — they come and go.”
Veego’s connected home support solution helps expedite troubleshooting by pinpointing where in the connectivity chain an issue is occurring and which device is causing an issue.
“If you open an old computer with a bad Wi-Fi card that sucks up 40 percent of the bandwidth inside your home, we will immediately understand that your thermostat is facing problems because someone is blocking what it needs in order to create a good experience,” Kotler said. “We will automatically understand that there is a starvation involved. We will detect that innovation in your home, we will find the points getting more or less than they need, and we will find this computer that is getting 40 percent of the entire broadband package.”
HVAC Guys Are … the new Tech Guys?
If a contractor gets a call from a customer whose Wi-Fi thermostat isn't working, it could be one of multiple issues. Determining what is causing the malfunction — the thermostat, an aspect of the internet connection, or the thermostat app on a mobile device — is “a huge challenge,” Cochrane said.
“Each one of these could be the culprit, not to mention the HVAC system it is controlling.”
To troubleshoot a problem, he suggests starting with the app for the smart device. The app may need a software update, or the user may have signed out.
“If the app is working correctly but can’t see the device, then check to see if there is any internet connection or any bandwidth from within the house,” he continued. “You’d do this by finding out if other devices that are connected to the internet are still working properly or have seen recent similar disruptions.”
If the app is working and the house has a good internet connection, the next step is to make sure the device is connected to that home network properly.
“If that’s all working, it is likely a thermostat or an on-site issue that will have to be dealt with through a visit to the location,” he said.
Ultimately, Cochrane said, the best way to prevent smart thermostats from malfunctioning due to insufficient bandwidth is to stop that situation before it happens.
“It may seem like a hard answer, but don’t sell network-based equipment without proper support,” he said. “In other words, if they don’t have a good internet connection or if they have an unstable network, be able to provide them one as a part of your service.
“There are so many smart devices going into our homes today — it is widely recommended to put those devices on a separate network away from your TV’s computers and especially guests,” he added. “We are selling routers, switches, firewall, VPNs, and all sorts of network gear to HVAC contractors every day. Many are also taking additional training and hiring new network-savvy people to enable these capabilities and support them on an ongoing basis.”