In business, owners look at fast-growing markets that they can turn into an excellent opportunity. For residential HVAC contractors, that continues to be the smart home market.

The smart home market is expanding at a great rate, not only in products for the home but also adoption by homeowners. The numbers speak for themselves. A total of 47% of millennials, a group that is just starting to purchase homes, have at least one smart product in their home. In addition, according to Statista, 33 million North American homes rely on smart thermostats for temperature control.


Homeowner Expectations

Much of the smart home focus has traditionally been on thermostats. Initially, they allowed homeowners to control their HVAC system inside and outside the home through the thermostat mobile app via a simple Wi-Fi connection. Now, those same thermostats are able to control homes based on homeowner interaction and trends. They learn behaviors to improve both comfort in the home and efficiency of the HVAC system.

While awareness is certainly increasing, it is still up to the HVAC contractor to educate the homeowners about the benefits that today’s smart home products can offer.

“A lot of the new installations we do will replace the old dial thermostats,” said Scott Merritt, owner of Fire & Ice Heating & Air Conditioning in Columbus, Ohio. “While customers do not always know the full range of smart home options, they know that many can be controlled remotely from a phone app. So we field those questions the most. Fortunately, that’s standard on many thermostat models these days.”

While smart homes and thermostats are closely linked in the minds of contractors and homeowners, manufacturers want contractors to realize smart homes are much more than that.

“Another technology that is increasing in popularity is high-end systems with zoning capabilities,” said Jason Wilson, product manager at Johnson Controls. “York recently launched the new Hx3 Communicating Zoning System, which offers individual temperature and humidity control in up to eight zones in a home.

In addition, we also see smart sensors evolving. One such example is the availability of window sensors that are capable of alerting homeowners if windows are open while their system is running, thus wasting energy. Those same sensors come equipped with abilities to read temperature, humidity, and other air quality measurements — all with the capabilities to tie back into cloud-connected mobile applications for control at homeowners’ fingertips.”

This is one of the few times where the market dictates where it needs the industry to go. Mike Smith, senior marketing manager at Mitsubishi Electric Trane HVAC US, said that in order to keep pace with homeowner expectations, the HVAC industry needs to evolve the approach toward residential HVAC systems. Contractors and salespeople need to be more responsive to homeowners’ desires to keep their homes and families comfortable and secure without making multiple trips to the thermostat.

“This can be achieved with innovative sensors and equipment designed to adjust according to occupancy or climate conditions,” Smith said. “For example, our 3-D i-see Sensor® on the indoor unit scans the room in three dimensions to analyze the temperature profile, then determines how many people are in the room and where they’re located. The system can react to this information by increasing or decreasing the amount of heating and cooling based on the load, and the indoor unit can then direct the airflow either directly to the individuals or indirectly according to preference settings. If the room is vacant, the system can switch to an energy-saving mode. Multiple operating modes are available to automatically maximize comfort, convenience, and cost savings.”


Moving Toward A Mainstream Market

While the smart home market has already arrived, research shows that it will continue to grow in the next three to five years. SmartEnergy IP, a leading research and advisory firm focused on customer experience in energy and utilities, released its industry report entitled “Customer Preferences Dictate the Future of Smart Home Business Models: Exploring the Role of Smart Home in the Utility of Future Business Model” in September 2020.

They found a few themes:

  • While the “cool factor” does drive interest in smart homes, energy reduction solutions top the list of motivators to buy.
  • Customers aged 35-54 prefer bundled solutions.
  • The majority of customers expect smart home solutions from their utilities.

Smith is bullish on smart sensors and the future of smart home technology.

“The adoption of smart sensors will increase, especially those detecting other indoor environmental conditions like moisture and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), to help improve indoor air quality,” Smith said. “We expect the demand for hybrid multi-zone systems to continue to grow. Homeowners and utilities will direct more attention toward high-performance heat pumps powered by renewable energy sources. Home automation, along with the integration of cloud-based controls functionality and IFTT, will also become more mainstream.”

The future of smart HVAC includes enhanced sensing capabilities, expanded home automation with intelligent appliance and device connectivity, and responsive, energy-efficient zoned comfort systems. The benefits for homeowners are personalized comfort, improved indoor air quality, greater convenience, and reduced energy consumption, which is good for the bottom line and better for the planet. The development and adoption of smart HVAC systems will continue with those objectives in mind.