New Trends: In-Home HVAC Issue Tracking Technology

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Connections are a part of contemporary life. Devices are being continually connected to other devices or to the Internet. Home coffee makers are connected to alarm clocks so that the morning brew is ready the instant the homeowner hops out of bed. Office equipment not only notifies managers when supplies are running low, but also automatically orders replacement supplies. Essentially, there is no device that cannot be connected to one or more other devices.

All these connections are known as the Internet of Things (IoT). The IoT connections number in the billions, and include people as well as devices and appliances. Mechanical things require WiFi capability and implanted sensors. Humans only need Internet access, and most have that 24/7 via their smartphones.

Sensors within devices and equipment control the connectivity. That means that components can be individually connected in addition to (or in place of) the device itself. For example, a motor can have sensors reporting how it’s functioning even though the equipment it operates isn’t connected.

Discover how HVAC technology is evolving to be smarter, more efficient, and self-monitoring.

Thermostats Got Smart

Heating, venting, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems and equipment are part of the IoT. The first thermostats were completely manual and merely turned systems on or off. Those were followed by programmable thermostats that allowed users to set a schedule and temperature range that allowed HVAC systems to operate automatically.

Smart thermostats, also called WiFi thermostats, were the next step, and have been around for several years. The earliest ones allowed owners to adjust climate control settings using their cell phone or another Internet device. Later thermostats “learned” preferred temperatures and automatically made the necessary adjustments to achieve those temperatures. Rooms can be individually controlled. Hot or cold spots are eliminated.

The big advantage of smart thermostats is reducing energy costs. HVAC equipment operates only when needed and only for as long as necessary. Adjustments are made remotely when conditions justify changes.

Sensors Are The Future

While smart thermostats are able to do an excellent job of turning HVAC equipment on or off, more was needed to keep systems operating efficiently. The newest thermostats are now just one part of smart HVAC systems. All the components of smart HVAC equipment have sensors designed to alert homeowners or building maintenance personnel to anything unusual or abnormal in the way the equipment or system is functioning.

The sensors also send alerts when routine maintenance, such as replacing dirty filters, is due. Building maintenance teams usually have schedules for getting routine chores done. Homeowners often overlook regular maintenance, and the alerts can save them emergency downtime or costly repairs. Users are alerted when it’s time to have their equipment serviced, as well as potential breakdowns.

Receiving an alert about a potential problem can mean that an early small repair can prevent an expensive big repair later. Alerts also mean that downtimes for making repairs can be planned, which reduces emergencies due to equipment malfunctions. Alerts also serve to keep owners aware of service needs. That can generate work for HVAC technicians, especially those specializing in residential services. It presents an opportunity to upgrade on-call services to periodic maintenance plans.

As an additional benefit, technicians are able to plan their scheduling more efficiently.

HVAC IoT Can Save Money By Calling For Help

When authorized to do so, the smart system contacts specified HVAC technicians for servicing or repairs. The systems provide the details of malfunctions or abnormal operations, which allows technicians to potentially diagnose the problem in advance. They arrive on scene with any necessary parts, saving expensive trips back to the shop or inconvenient delays to order parts. Because technicians receive complete historical and operating data, some repairs can be made remotely, saving owners the expense of a service call.

Smart HVAC systems are beneficial for shops as well. Sending out a technician with accurate diagnostic information and the correct parts usually eliminates callbacks. Combining that with preventative maintenance plans allows technicians to be scheduled more efficiently, which cuts costs and potentially increases income for the shop owner. It’s a win/win situation for technicians and homeowners.

Smart thermostats also present a cost-savings for new installations. At least one smart thermostat will provide “in-depth systems diagnostics and automatic system configuration” as part of the installation and setup process.

What Else Can A Smart Thermostat Do?

All smart thermostats are WiFi compatible. Many are also compatible with Alexa, Google Assistant, and Siri. The “smart setback” feature in some thermostats “understands” the needs of room occupants and adjusts programmed settings to improve energy savings without sacrificing comfort. Most of the smart thermostats provide energy reports. Some reports appear on the thermostat itself and are usually real-time. Others are generated monthly. Some allow homeowners to program in energy unit costs so that they receive real-time reports of exactly how much climate control costs during a specified time.

Smart thermostats can also monitor air quality and have the ability to control other devices, such as humidifiers and other add-ons. Because climate control requirements differ from room to room, many smart thermostats have “zone” capability. Each room is a zone with its own unique settings. Geofencing is a feature that knows when homeowners leave or return, based on a predetermined “electronic boundary” they’ve set. When they are outside the boundary, the thermostat sets the system in “away mode” to save energy. When they are back within the boundary, the system returns to the “at-home” mode.

The smart thermostats that have a touchscreen rather than buttons or dials can display additional information such as weather reports. Others inform users of the actual outside temperatures. Some thermostats can control other functions, such as lighting. All smart thermostats should allow for software updates.

Who Makes Smart Thermostats?

Nearly every manufacturer of HVAC equipment has a version of smart thermostats and smart systems. A sampling includes:

  • Carrier Infinity System Control – Homeowners can manually program the Infinity smart thermostat, or they can use the “autopilot” function to make adjustments that maximize comfort and efficiency automatically. All functions can be monitored or changed remotely, and energy use is tracked in real-time. When authorized by the user, the system communicates with a Carrier technician to monitor performance and install updates. The Infinity System is compatible with Alexa.
  • Emerson Sensi Predict – Sensors installed on the HVAC system monitor performance and report monthly to the user and (optional) Smart Monitoring Service. Reports include information such as energy usage and maintenance alerts. An urgent alert is sent with diagnostic information when a problem is detected. The urgent alert includes information for contacting a repair technician. The sensors work with existing equipment and thermostats, as well as the Sensi Smart Thermostat
  • Google Nest – The Nest Home Report is emailed monthly to users. It summarizes the energy use of all Nest products in a residence, as well as notifying homeowners of safety issues. Nest’s new smart thermostat notices if anything unusual is going on with the system, and sends an alert via the Home Report. It includes links to the technician who installed the thermostat or to another technician through the Handy service.
  • Rheem EcoNet Smart Thermostat – The thermostat monitors energy usage thanks to a variety of settings. The touchscreen display includes comprehensive data. Audible alerts remind users when service is due. It does not detect potential equipment problems or have diagnostic capability. The thermometer can be controlled remotely or via Alexa. It is compatible with a variety of HVAC systems.
  • Trane XL824 Smart Thermostat – Trane made Nexia Bridge an integral part of the XL thermostat to enable seamless remote control and system monitoring. Trane installers receive real-time information on system performance. Nexia diagnostics sends an alert when an issue is detected. The thermostat works with most HVAC systems.

HVAC technicians need to be aware of which brands of equipment and systems require coordinating smart thermostats. Although generic smart thermostats are readily available, they aren’t always compatible with older HVAC equipment. Technological innovations in newer equipment typically allow the installation of the owner’s choice of thermostats rather than a specific matched model.

Why Doesn’t Everyone Want A Smart Thermostat?

Incompatibility between devices has slowed the public’s acceptance of some of the technological advances in smart thermostats. Smart devices can also be expensive. Technology baffles or intimidates some individuals.

Perhaps the most significant concern is security. Smart thermostats, by definition, are connected. There’s worry that personal information can be stolen from any device or appliance that’s part of the IoT, and that worry includes smart thermostats. For example, hackers can determine from thermostat settings when individuals are home or asleep. That tells them the best time for a home invasion.

Automotive Climate Control Is Also Fully Automated

Although automotive climate control systems aren’t managed in quite the same way as building systems are, they are still smart systems. Passengers in newer cars have the ability to monitor and control temperature and airflow automatically. Sensors placed throughout the vehicle’s interior feed data to the computer system, which then makes any needed adjustments to maintain the air quality specified by each passenger. Any malfunctions in the climate control components are not monitored by the system itself. Instead, the components are monitored by the vehicle’s on-board diagnostics system.

The Future of Smart HVAC Controls

The smart thermostats that monitor energy consumption can report excessive usage without a corresponding diagnosis of equipment malfunction. However, HVAC systems can operate at less-than-efficient levels for a variety of reasons. For example, there may be an air leak in a duct. As more and more smart technology is incorporated in buildings, sensors in HVAC systems will be an integral and essential part of detecting any issue that affects energy usage. That can include problems such as air leaks in ducts, areas that aren’t correctly sealed, and inadequate insulation, among other issues that are not due to the actual HVAC equipment.

Whether installing, servicing, or repairing automotive, commercial, industrial, or residential HVAC thermostats and systems, technicians must understand sophisticated electronics if they are to be successful in today’s market. Their toolboxes must also include specialized diagnostic tools for troubleshooting “smart” parts and equipment. The Internet of Things is here to stay, and the kinds of compatible HVAC devices are only going to increase.

Sandra Smith

Sandra Smith was introduced to the HVAC industry when she worked as a bookkeeper and secretary for a small air-conditioning contractor. She eventually became a CPA and started her own practice specializing in small business taxes and accounting. After retiring from business, she began writing articles for newspapers, magazines, and websites. She also authored four books. Sandra makes her home in the mountains with a rescue dog that naps on her lap as she writes.

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