I like machines that come to life. Two movies are good examples of what I am talking about. The first is a 1986 movie titled “Short Circuit” where an experimental robot comes alive after being struck by lightning. It wasn’t Oscar-winning stuff but it was entertaining, especially when the robot imitated the Three Stooges. Nyuk nyuk nyuk. The second movie was the 2004 release, “I, Robot,” the story of robots gone haywire after being trained to serve humans. Talk about a glimpse into our future. Yikes.

The sci-fi world is entertaining and conjures up a lot of interesting scenarios and fantasies for the offspring of the Star Wars and Star Trek generation, even for more “mature” people like yours truly. I like to play around with the what if scenarios, and the HVAC world has given me - and you - some very interesting things to think about, particularly when it comes to the topic of personification.


We are entering into an arena of smart HVAC - an arena made up of equipment that actually thinks for itself. For example, take the thermostat on the wall. It used to be that the reliable Honeywell round model was the one device we turned to in order to keep cool during warm months and warm during cool months. That little gizmo couldn’t think for itself but it sure was, and is, reliable.

Now we have a whole array of thermostats that look like the miniature version of the computer from the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey.” You know the movie, where an intelligent computer named Hal was the heart and soul of the spaceship’s internal brain, and one who eventually decided that it was he, and not the humans, who should control his own destiny. The new thermostats may not be as big as Hal because as you recall, everything was bigger back in the '70s. (Remember the room-sized IBM computers?)

The new thermostats go beyond just doing what they are programmed for, i.e., delivering heat or air conditioning, controlling humidity levels, etc. These marvels also know when a room is occupied and if the comfort level is where it should be for that occupant. The thermostats also communicate with occupants, either by pre-recorded message or by a signal transmitted wirelessly over the Internet or telephone line.

My mind flashes back to the scene from “Bye Bye Birdie” when the teenagers are all talking on the phone in various split screen shots. Can you imagine a bunch of thermostats gossiping with each other?


Now the equipment that delivers the conditioned air is getting more sophisticated, too. It is no longer just enough to have a metal box with a lot of wires, plastic attachments, and ductwork coming out of every direction. It is important to have a furnace or water heater that knows when to deliver air or hot water to a specific area of the home.

A series of wirelessly controlled dampers can sense when an occupant is in a particular zone in the home or building and open or close, according to the length of time that occupant is in the zone. When someone is in the bathroom at the far end of the home and turns on the faucet, a quick-thinking circulating pump instantly delivers hot water to the faucet despite the distance between the bathroom and the mechanical room.

It may have taken a human technician or installer to program these components, but after the initial setup they pretty much do their own thinking. Imagine what it would be like if that pump, like the fictional Hal, decided to deliver cold water instead, just as a joke.

But don’t laugh - personification may be upon us without our knowing it. That little sensor on the furnace that sends a signal back to the installing HVAC contractor that a filter is plugged and it’s time for a cleaning may also be sending messages to its furnace cronies over the Internet, making fun of the homeowner for living with a dirty filter and for leaving their undergarments too close to the intake (just kidding).

And I haven’t even mentioned that condensing unit in the backyard. Can you say Peeping Tom?

I think personification of HVAC equipment is pretty cool. I can just picture the next blockbuster movie, “I, HVAC.’ OK, it’s time for my nap.

Publication date:07/23/2007