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READER FAVOURITE FROM HPAC’S ARCHIVE: New Technology Enters The Residential Mix

Are you ready for home automation and its implications for your business?


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June 2, 2014 by IAN MCTEER

Effect of system renovation repairs on HVAC system performance. Source: NCI certified contractor survey
Effect of system renovation repairs on HVAC system performance. Source: NCI certified contractor survey

The Internet of Everything (IoE) is a worldwide phenomenon; in fact, a research report released by Raymond James and Associates earlier this year concluded that every day at least 80 “things” connect to the Internet for the first time every second. James reports that by 2020 the number of connecting devices will increase to 250 every second. In the last couple of years the once lowly thermostat has become a prime IoE target because, we are told, many consumers want to be directly connected to their HVAC systems.

HVAC control manufacturers are producing lines of residential thermostats that can talk to the internet, the so-called smart thermostat. Seemingly ubiquitous wireless network access means homeowners can monitor their HVAC systems from anywhere in the world. The idea is to help householders manage energy consumption by allowing almost unlimited management opportunities. However, I noted this disclaimer published by one DIY thermostat manufacturer:  “Usage reduction and savings are not guaranteed and are contingent upon, among other factors, customers taking action on proposed opportunities for optimization.” I would argue that only a professionally designed, installed, commissioned and maintained system will provide not just a comfortable home, but the energy savings consumers want.

System design is crucial, especially when you consider a document such as ASHRAE’s Standard 55, which states that “The comfort of a given individual is affected by many variables: health, age, gender, clothing, activity, and so on. None of which will be identical for all occupants, thus room conditions throughout the building must be provided that will satisfy so that the majority of occupants will feel comfortable.” While everyone knows that turning the thermostat down a few degrees at the appropriate time will save some energy, many homeowners have come to accept second-rate heating systems that waste energy during every cycle.

No heat distribution system is perfect. Striving for near perfection should be our goal; remember, providing comfort is the primary job of HVAC. Only a properly designed, properly installed, and correctly commissioned system will provide the energy savings all of us want. The day we got away from a centralized heating plant in favour of convoluted distribution systems is the day comfort and efficiency died. It is ridiculous to me that a residence with a forced warm air heating system might require a mini split in the second floor master bedroom to overcome a massive temperature difference between the first and second floor. Even a thermostat with the brain of Watson the supercomputer cannot be expected to save energy in such a situation, of which there are many. In a near perfect situation, room occupants will not be aware of equipment noise, heat level or air motion.

Thus, assuming the residential building was designed with a focus on an efficient central heating system, then it is a great candidate for wireless automated technology.

A very successful man who made his fortune in the smart hand-held devices business decided to build himself a home. As the story goes, Mr. Smart Handset developer was appalled that the entire HVAC controls industry had absolutely no thermostat good enough to grace the walls of his new home; he set out by himself to revolutionize the lowly thermostat. And revolutionize it he did: you can now buy it from Amazon.ca for $249.00 (gift wrap available).

Did he miss the point? I think yes, I have already argued that any thermostat simply controls a system that itself needs to be near perfect. A poorly performing HVAC system will not provide adequate comfort or energy savings so even a thermostat as smart as IBM’s Watson supercomputer will not make a difference. But, the handset maker’s device has achieved a place in thermostat history: it has sharply focused the public’s eye on wireless and remote control technology.

But, we have been doing wireless and remote control long before Mr. Smart Handset developer came along. Honeywell, Canada’s own Ecobee, and Trane’s SchlageLink (now Nexia) to name just a few had wireless offerings featuring internet portals several years before this third party device came along. Traditional HVAC controls just are not sexy enough: lesson to be learned, we need to better market our products to the end user. If you have not been paying attention, a new industry called Wireless Home Automation is quickly developing. The question is this: “will wireless automation be good for HVAC or will DIY self-monitored devices simply disrupt and cause chaos in the residential HVAC industry? See the sidebar to learn how the savvy residential HVAC contractor could benefit from the wireless automation trend.

Wireless Networks

Canadians are among the highest users of digital media in the world. Many Canadian homes have wireless routers currently used for high speed internet access required by smart phones, computers, and entertainment systems. The wireless router is the key ingredient in any home automation system. All these connected homeowners are prime candidates for automation devices that you, the HVAC contractor can sell to them, or, more importantly, a horde of third party automation orientated businesses you have never heard of before are gearing up to sell to them. Let’s take a look at the three most commonly used wireless network protocols: Wi-Fi, ZigBee, and Z-Wave.

Wi-Fi Network – Wireless networks utilize radio frequencies that are part of the electromagnetic spectrum. Radio frequencies are longer wavelengths compared to light waves for example. Radio frequencies (like light waves) are ubiquitous; radio engineers (IEEE: Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) focus low energy radio waves into discrete frequencies so that data and voice information can travel safely between devices. Wi-Fi is everywhere; in your home, office and public places transmitting data back and forth between millions of smart phones, tablet computers, cameras, routers, and so on.

A network is multiple computing devices that can “talk” to each other. Wireless devices have the ability to “talk” to each other on a certain frequency. Wi-Fi is an alliance that runs on the 802.11 network. Wi-Fi, is a mechanism that allows electronic devices to exchange data wirelessly over a computer network. Originally named “IEEE 802.11b Direct Sequence”, the bulky moniker was changed in 1999 to Wi-Fi meaning Wireless Fidelity. The Wi-Fi signal occupies several channels in the 2.4 GHz band.

Currently, a broad range of manufacturers have begun making smart home devices that work with it. Wi-Fi is seen by some to have a key drawback: interference and bandwidth issues. Too many existing Wi-Fi-connected gadgets (TVs, game consoles, speaker docks, laptops, phones, tablets, etc.) means smart devices will have to compete for bandwidth and will potentially be slower to respond. Wi-Fi also consumes a lot of power, so it’s not ideal for battery-based smart devices like moisture sensors and door locks.

ZigBee Network – The ZigBee network operates on IEEE. 802.15.4 utilizing frequencies on the 2.4 GHz band. ZigBee is an alliance of device manufacturers producing automated smart components like light switches, wall receptacles, thermostats; to date some 600 certified devices. ZigBee has been around for more than 10 years and is becoming more influential every year. ZigBee is an “open” network making it easy for network savvy programmers to leverage other devices to talk ZigBee. For example, Ecobee’s SI thermostat has an optional ZigBee plug-in module allow
ing the SI to become a hub for other smart Zigbee devices. Ecobee’s Application Programming Interface (API) allows users to integrate Ecobee into their own platforms or to create new useful wireless solutions.

Devices with ZigBee  radios installed in a home (such as moisture detectors or garage door openers) are battery operated and are aware of each other. Once enough devices are activated in a building, they form a “mesh network” allowing signals to pass to and fro and ensuring the network will continue to operate in the event one device goes down for some reason. ZigBee devices conserve battery power by going to “sleep” periodically, waking up to pass information along to the ZigBee hub. Thus, the remote devices speak ZigBee to the hub (which could be the thermostat) and the hub speaks Wi-Fi to the customer’s wireless router.

Z Wave Network – A few years ago a group of diverse manufacturers decided to start building automated devices using a different radio protocol. ZigBee devices can suffer from interference caused by the IoE equipment already using the overcrowded 2.4 GHz frequency.  Z-Wave uses a sub-gigahertz frequency: 908.42 MHz thought to be somewhat more immune from radio interference. Unlike ZigBee, Z Wave devices use proprietary software so you must purchase Z Wave devices and set them up as prescribed.  Z Wave devices never sleep; they are always ready to receive information from another device.  Like ZigBee, Z Wave devices form a self-healing mesh network, and very low power consumption means battery life is conserved. Z Wave/ZigBee can be easily embedded in consumer products such as: smoke detectors, entertainment systems, remote controls, laundry equipment and any other appliance ready to adapt to the IoE. Trane’s Nexia™ uses the Z Wave protocol. A Nexia™ hub (or bridge) can handle 232 Z Wave devices.

Third Party Devices

There is a tsunami of automated devices and services out there. Many are meant for self-monitored do-it-yourself (DIY) installation while other devices will be packaged offerings from cable companies and utilities. All residential HVAC contractors will be participating in home automation in one way or another within the next year; IoE is unstoppable in my view. Here’s just a very brief look at what is coming:

• General Electric (GE) partnered with a company called “Quirky” to start turning out automated devices. Quirky devices are being sold by Home Depot (among others) in the U.S. and is probably coming to Canada soon. No Quirky devices, so far, control HVAC systems but are capable of sending alerts when seasonal temperatures are out of range. Question: who gets the service and failure alerts? If your customer installs a Quirky device, he could easily assign your competitor as the service provider.

• Lowes (U.S. currently) is selling a DIY Z Wave thermostat called IRIS. This could be coming to Canada soon. What if a customer attempts to install an IRIS system on your installation and causes a failure? 

• Internet stores and retailers such as Staples, Tiger Direct, and SmartHome are selling DIY devices; again, will the DIY installer make a mess out of your HVAC installation?

• A Canadian company called Blacksumac was recently purchased by iControl Networks. The Blacksumac Piper is a self-contained Z Wave hub that includes a panoramic true IR camera (tilt/pan/zoom), temperature sensor, accelerometer, ear piercing siren, and microphone. If you sell a Z Wave thermostat, it could talk to the internet using the customers Piper device.

• Prodea Systems has developed a “protocol agnostic” platform called the Residential Operating System (ROS) that can talk to all wireless devices regardless of wireless protocol. Prodea’s platform also connects to home health care and telemedicine devices. Prodea is targeting emerging service providers and retailers including those who would prefer to private label home automation products. Prodea has been in talks with cable companies, wireless carriers and other service providers.

• iControl Networks and Universal Remote Control (URC) have partnered to bring a complete home automation system including audio visual integration targeted at large service providers like Comcast Xfinity, Time Warner Cable and Rogers Smart Home Monitoring among others. Their platform can be set-up for either professional monitoring (fee based) or self-monitoring by the end user (typically no fee or low monthly fee for internet portal use).

• Centralite, an electrical components manufacturer, recently introduced a thermostat meeting the latest power consumption standard for a battery operated Zigbee device.  The Centralite “Pearl” thermostat runs off four AA batteries and requires only four wires (or hardwire) to operate the HVAC system. And, it pings the electrical circuits telling the installer which wire goes where. I cannot wait to see how well that works. The Pearl has similar features to the Nest and is, apparently, $100 cheaper. Did I mention this device is aimed at cable companies and utilities? 

Since most homeowners are very conscious of energy consumption these days, one common thread of all these third party manufacturers marketing programs is the potential for energy savings by continual user management of home heating and cooling systems. While I agree with the central theory, I cannot help but go back to my original argument that only properly designed/installed/commissioned/maintained systems by HVAC professionals will provide the energy savings that consumers want. But the IoE is out there making itself known to our industry in a big way every day.

The question is how do you feel about cable companies, utilities, and other service providers monkeying with your HVAC installations, and, in the process, potentially sucking up your customers?  Let’s see how it goes from here.  <> 

Ian McTeer is with Trane Supply and has worked in the HVAC industry for 35 years. He was recently named Training Manager and is also a Field Service Rep. McTeer is a refrigeration mechanic and Class 1 Gas technician.

WHAT SHOULD RESIDENTIAL HVAC CONTRACTORS DO? 

As I see it, they have two choices: Ignore or Embrace.

Choose to IGNORE Home Automation:

• Your business will likely continue on normally for a while as home automation (at this writing) is not exactly “flying off the shelf.”

• But remember, the 3rd party DIY devices are out there and may cause some of your installations to breakdown: expect service calls.

• Your automation savvy competitors may start reaching out to your customers: expect fewer service calls

• Your sales could suffer if your company is a “latecomer” and has nothing to offer

• You could lose sales staff looking for better opportunities

• You may have trouble recruiting younger installers and technicians who see automation as an attractive job function

Choose to EMBRACE Home Automation:

• Select an automation vendor that suits you and your HVAC product (does your provider offer a contractor portal/consumer portal? 
Does the vendor provide product support and website support?)

• Learn about the automation devices and what can and can’t be done with them

• Train your sales/installation/service staff

• Include a statement like: “your HVAC home automation experts” in your marketing  

• Offer an automated thermostat on every installa
tion; be sure to check for an existing ZigBee or Z Wave hub.

• Be prepared to partner with other trades: electricians, plumbers, and locksmiths if you intend to go full steam ahead in home automation. Consider partnering with cable companies and other 3rd parties I have mentioned:  sometimes the old expression, “if you can’t beat them, join them” will work for you.

AUTOMATION MUST DO’S

Most automated thermostats typically require hard wiring to the furnace transformer. If so, use LVT/18 colour coded wire with the appropriate number of conductors.

Remember: if a wired outdoor temperature sensor is required for a hybrid heat pump system or enthalpy reference, it MUST be run separate from thermostat wiring (use 18/2 LVT).

Be sure to do a wireless site survey: it is important to know where the Wi-Fi router is located because you may need to sell extra “repeater” modules to help extend the signal throughout the building.

Sales people should ask potential automation customers if they already have a Wi-Fi thermostat. Who is going to get the service calls and maintenance reminders? Make sure that company is yours.

You should develop a coded e-mail message system for identifying customer locations when the automated device sends an e-mail message. Instead of getting a message from Charles Jones at 15 Main Street, create a code recognizable only to your service department so that your customer’s identity is protected from hackers.

If you employ an electrician, consider offering a basic automation package consisting of:

1. Thermostat

2. Wi-Fi camera facing the front door

3. Electronic door lock (installed by you or local locksmith/partner)

4. Automated light switch controlling front hall light (electrician only)

5. Automated receptacle controlling living room light (electrician only)

6. Consider making it a “turnkey” package in which you enroll all the devices and help the customer set-up their web portal, which is time consuming.


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