HPAC Magazine

Hello Boiler, It’s Wi-Fi Calling

A wireless future for the mechanical industry.

August 1, 2015   By Curtis Bennett

Wires have historically connected our lives. Power wires, cable wires and telephone wires are everywhere but a less restrictive communication technology is becoming increasingly prevalent in people’s day-to-day lives. And they are understandably embracing it.
Think back to when you got your first “cordless phone.” I bought mine in grade 12 and I remember every detail about that phone. The reason I bought it was freedom. Not the “Braveheart” kind, but the freedom from that pesky telephone cord. I did it so I could wander from room to room while talking to my girlfriend and avoid having my mom overhear the conversation.
Back then I did not see the big picture and would not have guessed how far the technology would advance in a short period or time. I, along with most people, did not envision the world we now know as “cordless.” At least the term “cordless” has evolved into a far better one known as wireless.

TERMINOLOGY TUTORIAL
What does wireless really mean and what do people think when they hear it? Many people confuse the term wireless with Wi-Fi and they do it with good reason. It is similar to when you ask for a Kleenex. Because they are very good at branding, everyone calls tissue paper Kleenex. When was the last time you heard someone say, “Can you pass me a Puffs?”
A similar scenario has happened with Wi-Fi and wireless.
Wireless is a term for something without wires. Wi-Fi is a protocol designed to work on wireless networks that connect us to the internet. Wi-Fi is not the only wireless protocol out there but like the Kleenex scenario, it is what we think of. Protocol basically means the structure something takes when communicating but not the communication itself.
Wireless protocols are just different ways to structure the information going back and forth. Some might be very small with no error checking and some, such as Wi-Fi, can be very big and have many layers to them. Both have advantages and disadvantages in certain situations.
There are many things out there without wires such as radios or walkie-talkies, or even satellites. But the term wireless as we know it now, really has to do with the wireless communication. Exchanging data without wires. We are in the information age and data exchange is at the very heart of that.
Where is the most data? It is on the internet and to get there almost all computers, cell phones, cars and fridges have Wi-Fi. The term is everywhere, hence the reason people intertwine the terms Wi-Fi with wireless.

OTHER PLAYERS
Wi-Fi is not the only protocol out there but by far the most well known. Bluetooth is also a very popular protocol that you probably know running on the same frequency as Wi-Fi, at least for the most part. There is also mesh and star network protocols. These networks run on small protocols like Zigbee or chopped up “Zigbee like” protocols and are designed to connect many devices together in a relatively small space. Devices like these could connect temperature sensors to thermostats and thermostats to boilers or zone controls. There are also some very large associations out there for wireless protocols in our industry. EnOcean is one company that is trying to make a push to be at the front of our industry. They offer a good protocol, as well as power saving features for remote devices. Many companies have signed on and are making their devices EnOcean compatible by licensing its technology. Honeywell is another big company that uses a proprietary protocol called RedLink for its wireless devices.
Everyone has a phone, not just at home but literally with them at all times. Apple knows it, Samsung knows it and that is why they are making more and more devices to connect our world. We are heading toward a time when everything will be connected to something else with Wi-Fi. The Internet of Things or IoE as it is called, is coming.

WHERE DO WE COME IN   
How and where does all this fit with the HVAC industry? Well, in one word: NEST! While there are other similar products, this thermostat was the one that really opened our eyes and changed our world. Nest Labs, Inc. proved that people would pay a premium for connectivity to the internet.
The increasing number of devices that can be connected to the internet has created more terminology confusion. People do associate “wireless” with Wi-Fi but they are starting to also do something else. Wi-Fi is being associated with Apps. It is becoming more and more common for people in our industry to talk about Wi-Fi when they really mean the device can be controlled by an App.
We have all heard “there’s an app for that.” People want to see everything on their telephone, from their alarm system, to the amount of steps they take in a day, to the current temperature in their house. It is all about information at their fingertips. So, I say give it to them.  
Wi-Fi offers convenience. As much as it pains me to say this, I am among those who would rather get up and get their telephone to change the temperature on their thermostat rather than just walk to the thermostat. We are a society that is married to its devices.
Apps give us ease of use, which is my favourite part. The hardest part of consumer devices is to put all the information on a display and make it easy to use. But with apps we can put more of that information, settings and features in a format that we are very used to using.
If you cannot navigate through it all, being connected and having all the information at your fingertips means nothing. Making an app where people can understand the information they are seeing is key. It is not just techie guys that want this stuff in their house, it is everyone. You have probably stumbled upon end users that get a little too deep into the control and mess up the settings. I have certainly seen my fair share. We have a task to figure out – how much information is enough? Luckily, with connected devices we can actually get more information in their hands and more easily. It is easier to make an interface on a device such as a telephone for end users as it is very familiar to them and they will use it. It is our job to make it simple and comfortable for them. Or else why are we doing it?
Wi-Fi connects devices together and allows us to see what is going on all the time. We live in a world where things are instant and our industry is no different; except that we are just entering this world. Companies are rushing to get connected products to market and many are coming out with great ideas.
What it comes down to at the end of the day is that boilers, pumps, controls, thermostats and other devices in our world are “coming on line.” This will really change everything.
Our customers are expecting this because even their fridges are Wi-Fi connected so why can’t they see their boiler or thermostat? We need to give it to them.
Thermostats have been relatively the first HVAC devices to be Wi-Fi enabled. We are starting to now see boilers and pumps be connected. The next step in the controls world is to try to connect it all together. Having a central device that talks to everything is something that needs to happen. People do not want 14 different apps for each item in their system, they want one or two. So the natural progression is to have Wi-Fi enabled systems coming out.
Wi-Fi allows for the possibility of literally keeping us up to date. When devices, such as thermostats, are connected to the internet they can be updated remotely. This would keep the thermostat or connected device always up to date with the latest software without you even knowing it. Another big positive of having devices connected to Wi-Fi is it allows contractors to peer into these devices from anywhere and solve problems then and there. This will save travel time and add a big value added service for customers.
Wouldn’t i
t be good as a contractor to know ahead of time that your customer’s boiler needs servicing because of something failing inside? Of course it would. What about being able to let customers know they have a problem before they even know they have a problem?
These are just a few of the possibilities when we connect these devices to the internet using Wi-Fi. The evolution is apparent. The question is, do we play catch-up or is the mechanical industry a leader in this whole new world? <>

A graduate of Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT), Curtis Bennett, C.E.T., is operations manager and a product developer at HBX Control Systems in Calgary, AB. He can be reached at curtis@hbxcontrols.com.

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