Smart, connected, communicating controls offer myriad benefits for building professionals. Increased use of artificial intelligence will provide even more comfort and energy savings.
This is an article that I wrote for publication in TMB Publishing plumbing-heating-cooling magazines.
IF YOU AREN’T offering homeowners and building owners smart, connected, communicating controls as part of a hydronics or HVAC equipment package, a substantial percentage of them are going to wonder why you didn’t. If a homeowner can buy an internet-connected video doorbell, then a smart thermostat or a connected/communicating boiler control should be a natural part of your product offering.
“In the future we see everything connected in smart homes – the garage door opener, the washer, the dryer – so, where do we take our technology to give the homeowner or the facility manager a better experience,” says Dan Rettig, the product manager in charge of CON•X•US, Lochinvar’s connected and communicating boiler control. “What we’re hearing now from both the end users and from the contractors is that they are starting to expect this technology and if you don’t offer it, then why not?”
The smart thermostat market is being driven, at least in part, by the integration of multiple devices such as lighting, smart speakers or garage door openers controlled by voice command smart home hubs. For homeowners, the value in smart home technology comes from devices that communicate and understand each other, says Stuart Lombard, CEO of ecobee, and the engineer who founded ecobee in 2007 and introduced the world’s first smart Wi-Fi thermostat. The thermostat can coordinate with the lighting when you’re on vacation to save energy while making it look like you’re at home.
There’s also plenty of room to grow, Lombard points out. Smart speakers are the top product category, present in 25-30 percent of homes with smart devices and smart thermostats at number two in 15-16 percent of homes. Better yet, growth of the smart thermostat market is accelerating.
Contractors need to be aware of the technical/marketing battle in the smart thermostat market over two-wire vs. three-wire thermostats. Some two-wire thermostats recharge their internal battery when the equipment is not operating, a technique referred to as “power stealing.” In conditions of extreme cold or heat when equipment is running non-stop, the thermostat battery cannot recharge, and the thermostat may shut down.
Thermostat manufacturers who require three wires and thermostat manufacturers who use two wires will likely tell contractors that the other guy is wrong, so contractors need to use their own judgment and experience in their individual markets when selecting a smart thermostat.
tekmar, a Watts brand, has both types, says product manager Jay Vath. It gets around the limitations of two-wire thermostats by offering a switching relay that’s mounted in the mechanical room that can handle multiple functions simultaneously, such as indoor air quality equipment or a heat pump or remote room sensors. tekmar also has a three-wire thermostat that incorporates radiant floor sensors, and even allows rooms to be maintained at different temperatures, such as 80 F for the bathroom floor, but 68 F – 70 F in other living spaces.
State of the art
Smart controls “expand comfort expectations,” says Eric Ashley, product development manager for Navien products, including its NaviLink control.
Navien’s goal is to seamlessly integrate the smart control into its water heaters, boilers and combi-boilers. Homeowners can check their gas usage or schedule the recirculation pump that’s built in to the NPE series water heater. Contractors get push notifications of error codes, so they can proactively schedule maintenance with the homeowner.
“This month we are releasing the new EcoNet Smart Thermostat with Wi-Fi, which provides both control and monitoring capabilities of all Rheem EcoNet-Enabled products,” says Laurie M. Adams, IoT marketing manager.
The Rheem products are equipped with sensors that are monitored throughout the day, and if conditions change or maintenance is required, the smart thermostat is alerted. The thermostat then sends push notifications to the homeowner’s phone via the EcoNet mobile app. Both the EcoNet control and the smart thermostat have one-touch contractor alerts to expedite service calls.
Lochinvar’s CON•X•US control and app monitor more than 100 points of operation for commercial and residential products. Lochinvar’s app has a “site manager” function that would be the homeowner in a residential application or the facilities manager in a commercial application. It allows the customer to designate up to three persons who can access the equipment, although the app typically gives them monitoring access, but not the ability to change operating parameters. The manufacturers want to leave access decisions like that up to the homeowner or facility manager. What if, for example, a contractor got into a payment dispute with a homeowner and decided to remotely turn off the boiler?
On the horizon
All of the parties contacted say that artificial intelligence will play a larger role in the next year to 18 months.
Smart residential devices will more frequently use voice control, such as Siri or Alexa, ecobee’s Lombard says. More devices will have more sensors to gather more information to allow smart devices to make better decisions. Energy cost savings algorithms will help users conserve energy when fuel rates are high because the device will have an understanding of how a home heats up and cools down, and then combine that data with real-time energy price information to drive additional savings for consumers.
At tekmar, Vath also sees increased use of real time weather data, but he also expects more and better diagnostic data, such as predicting equipment failures or the need to replace consumables such as UV lamps.
“We would like to be able to proactively tell them that they have an igniter issue,” Rettig says. “We like to believe that all of these units are getting routine maintenance, but we know that they’re not. Maybe there’s no budget for maintenance. So, it would be nice if we could tell them they have an issue before the coldest day of the year.”
Adams predicts that, in the water heater arena, we will see more leak protection functions, such as Rheem’s LeakSense and LeakGuard solutions. Water damage is probably the number one cause of homeowners’ insurance claims. In HVAC, smart zoning and geo-fencing will provide savings and enhance comfort. Smart controls and thermostats will provide better energy and water usage reports and Rheem is continually re-designing its EcoNet mobile app to improve the connected experience.
Smart controls and apps can be used as sales tools, too. Rettig says some Lochinvar dealers are using CON•X•US to secure maintenance agreements. Lombard says that the value that an ecobee thermostat delivers to a contractor is many, many times its price in terms of service, maintenance and replacement sales.
Economy BAS system
An interesting side effect of smart controls on boilers and smart thermostats is that they have turned into economy building automation systems. A Crestron custom smart house control costs in the neighborhood of $100,000. BACnet is about $1,000 per control point. Those prices cool the interest in building management systems for an owner of a strip mall or string of fast food restaurants.
“Connected ecobee thermostats give the building owner 80 percent of the value at 20 percent of the cost,” Lombard says.
It allows a convenience store operator, for example, the ability to monitor walk-in cooler or freezer temperatures from a smart phone.
It also expands the market for contractors, Lombard points out, because now they can offer temperature control services to facilities that previously only had a thermostat underneath a locked plastic cover. Moreover, the energy savings, especially for a multi-location commercial account, are much higher than for residential.
“Building owners like it for a couple of different reasons,” Rettig says. Often a BMS system is the first thing that gets “value engineered” out of a project. And even if the owner has a BMS system, a smart boiler control that sends alerts to maintenance personnel is a pretty affordable and handy add-on.
On the other hand
There are two completely different objections to smart, connected, communicating controls that have nothing to do with each other. One is that smart speakers and home assistants are intrusive, and the other is that smart controls take money that should be spent building better buildings.
I can guarantee you (from my own experience) that Navien’s Ashley is not alone in his reticence about smart home assistants, and he believes many consumers are similarly hesitant. Even though Ashley says he has every connected gewgaw on the market, he has an Apple HomePod because his wife doesn’t want smart devices listening to their conversations. Amazon and Google are advertising companies that make money selling user data, he says, and as soon as Google bought Nest, he replaced his smart thermostat. He also appreciates Apple’s rigorous approach to privacy and security.
“I believe you shouldn’t spend one cent on internet technology before you fix the building system,” says industry icon Robert Bean, R.E.T., P.L. (Eng.).
Bean is adamant that money is better spent on a better structure, better insulation, better air sealing, better glass, a better mechanical system (especially a combo of radiant for comfort and ducted for air filtration), better indoor air quality and natural interior finishes. He believes that spending money on a high-MERV air filter is a better investment than buying a smart thermostat.
“When you build a high-performance building like a Passiv Haus, there’s no reason to put a smart thermostat into a Passiv Haus,” Bean says. “It becomes dumb because it has nothing to do; there’s no load to begin with.”
Bean’s top recommendation to building owners these days are thermostatic radiator valves. They’re bulletproof, accurate, inexpensive and available at every wholesaler.
Bean’s advocacy of better buildings and simplicity has a lot of appeal because, well, he’s right. However, we live in a world where there are a lot of buildings that need a boatload of help to achieve comfort and energy savings. Those are the structures that benefit from smart, connected, communicating thermostats and controls.