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A Tale of Three Smart Thermostats

By James Buchanan

Ecobee

According to Stuart Lombard, CEO for Ecobee, the company is offering a smart thermostat that acts as an advanced temperature control system for the home by allowing the homeowner to set up specific schedules for heating and cooling rather than simply a twice-per-day on/off setting, as is common in many lower-end thermostats.

This means that homeowners can schedule times when they are not at home or when heating/cooling is less of a concern -- such as at night, while at work, or traveling -- and set the temperatures for each of those times. For example, if you are on vacation, the system can maintain a very low temperature; while you are at work or asleep, it will maintain a moderate temperature; and when you are home, it will establish a warmer temperature. All of the adjustments will be done automatically based on settings input by the homeowner.

The consol on the device is a touch-screen interface, which connects to the Internet via WiFi so that homeowners can access a personalized Web portal (e.g. a unique webpage set up for the homeowner) on a computer either at home or while away. Ecobee has also launched a free iPhone application so that homeowners can monitor and manage their heating and cooling system from the phone. Similar software tools will be available for other smart phones and handheld devices, says Lombard.

The user interface (e.g. the screen) for both the thermostat and the personalized Web portal are quite similar, though the personalized Web portal provides greater detail and is more user friendly due to its size and ease of navigation. The Web portal is designed to act as a dashboard from which homeowners can see the heating/cooling schedule in use, system details, weather information, and reminders. In addition, the homeowner can reprogram any of the settings and access other general information such as Help tools. The screen on the thermostat provides essentially the same tools, though on a smaller scale.

Additionally, these tools are designed to help customers become smarter about their heating and cooling needs by helping them better understand how their home performs in varying weather conditions, as well as comparatively against benchmarking data from other homes in the same area. The point is to enable customers to create an energy model of how efficient their home is and thereby understand how to improve its efficiency. "We provide 70 percent of the value of a home energy audit without the expense of having one done," says Lombard.

In all, the company says its product is easy to use and estimates that customers will save between 15 and 25 percent on their heating and cooling costs. "For many homes, this will equal about $300 to $500 per year, so the device pays for itself in 12 to 24 months," says Lombard.

He adds, "There are a number of reasons why we embarked on this path, but primarily we looked at existing products in the market and saw that there are significant shortcomings. They are hard to use so people don't program them and get no energy savings benefits from them. We decided ours should be easier to use."

Future Vision

Lombard says that with millions of smart meters being rolled out as enabling devices for the Smart Grid, he sees his company's product as being a node within the Smart Grid. As the company expands on its product, it will use the smart thermostat as a starting point to bring all of the home's energy use under management. "Homeowners will not only have a much richer set of data and tools to manage energy usage, but will be able to manage 100 percent of energy usage rather than the 30 to 50 percent that heating represents."

Data from the smart thermostat will include seeing real-time energy use, energy consumption during various utility rate periods, and the ability to identify energy consumption that is not currently visible to the home owner, to name a few. Customers will also be able to drill down through the data, such as when a warning or alert is received, to determine what the issue is and what is required to fix it.

Lombard also envisions Ecobee establishing an application store where customers can download various software tools in the same manner that iPhone and other smart phone users can download numerous applications. "Our goal is to publish open APIs [Application Programming Interfaces] so that we and others can build applications that tie into our product and all of this will be run from a single personalized Web portal," he says. "We see HVAC as being part of a larger whole that includes your water heater, refrigerator, dishwasher, plug-in electric vehicles, smart meters, and so on, and these can all be tied together and managed remotely."

Intwine Connect

Like Ecobee, Intwine Connect is working to establish a whole-house energy management solution. However, Intwine appears to be a bit closer to that goal and has announced the release of the first components of its My Intwine Personal Energy network--the Intwine Connect Thermostat and the Intwine Connect Whole-House Power Monitor.

The power monitor is a handheld device connected wirelessly to a sensor attached to your electric meter. Once rate information from your utility is programmed in, the monitor will provide real-time information on how much electricity the home is using, the money being spent as you consume electricity, the highest amount you have spent in a 24 hour period, and the temperature at the meter.

The thermostat operates in a manner similar to Ecobee's: a Web-enabled device feeds data to a personalized dashboard (e.g. personal web page) that the homeowner can access via the Internet on a computer or smart phone.

It is important to note that a critical component of Intwine's business strategy is to create a rich partner network where the partners manufacture the thermostat or the monitor and Intwine provides the technology to make them interactive and Web-enabled. Each partner adheres to their respective core competency to bring to market products with greater value to consumers than they could otherwise achieve individually.

In terms of the value their system offers, the company estimates its solution will save customers approximately 18 percent on utility bills.

Future Vision

According to Dave Martin, president and CEO of Intwine Connect, the company intends to bring additional management products to market throughout 2010. In all, the company is seeking to create a consumer controlled, Internet-connected ecosystem of home energy management devices. "There have been a considerable number of products and momentum on the utility side of power management," he says referring to management products targeted to utilities and businesses, "but our energy management strategy is focused on consumers and bringing to market a personal energy management network of products that can connect into a backend server to offer consumers a one-stop portal for energy management."

Right now, adds Martin, customers can see closed-loop and verified energy usage patterns and how actions, such as better management of the heating and cooling system, impact aggregate home energy use. Moving forward, when more home appliances are brought under management, the Intwine system will allow customers to see individual appliance information as well as provide management tools for each energy consuming device. For example, the system will be able to calculate the specific power usage of the furnace, mix that data with utility rate information and weather information to optimize performance for cost and heating efficiency.

Martin also says that the company will offer tiers of features by product so that customers can customize the look and feel of their personal dashboard by adding tools as they are needed.

The company is also studying the savings customers could expect as well as studying behavioral changes the thermostat and other devices might induce in customers once they have the improved capabilities of Intwine products.

EcoFactor

While Ecobee and Intwine offer products that give individual homeowners the tools to manage home energy usage, EcoFactor takes a different approach.

On a high level, the company believes that while remote access and management of the system may seem like a glitzy new thing, these energy management solutions rely too heavily on the behavior of individual homeowners. "Remote access does not change the behavior of the homeowners," argues Scott Hublou, EcoFactor co-founder and SVP of products. "What we are doing is eliminating the behavior component by creating an automated and adaptive system for greater energy efficiency. Homeowners are not facility managers; they want to set it and forget it."

The EcoFactor system uses a two-way communicating (via WiFi) smart thermostat - any brand operating over the Internet will work. The thermostat automatically collects and communicates data from 12,000 data points in the home throughout the day and communicates it to a central database of heating and cooling information. Their system also collects local weather and geographic-related data from another 12,000 data points outside the home each day.

This information is fed into a proprietary algorithm to calculate the home’s individual thermal characteristics, which allows EcoFactor to understand how much energy is required to heat or cool the house. The system then creates a continuously evolving heating and cooling strategy for the home. "We can use this information to figure out how much energy is required to overcome a one-degree temperature drop inside the house and how quickly the HVAC system can overcome that temperature," says Hublou. "We can also look at what the weather will be for the next 24 hours and understand how the home will perform in a standard operating mode."

EcoFactor also significantly departs from the companies above by automatically analyzing and continuously updating the heating and cooling strategy for the entire customer base of a utility, energy retailer, and/or home service provider, rather than for the individual home. As such, the utility, energy retailer or home service provider is EcoFactor's customer, while homeowners are the end-user of their solution.

Individual homeowners can set their thermostat to maintain a comfortable temperature inside the house and EcoFactor's solution will automatically manage the heating or cooling system's performance throughout the day as a value added service offered by the utility, energy retailer, or home service provider. According to the company, individual homeowners could see savings of between 20 and 30 percent on heating and cooling energy usage.

The advantage to the energy companies is that the solution provides a cost effective and automated energy efficiency management system with demand response and load forecasting, and a value-added service to increase customer retention and differentiation in the market place.

Additionally, the solution is capable of performing business intelligence-like analytics. This means it is possible to create hypothetical situations based on actual data to see how the house and network would perform. For example, they can look at how comfort inside the home would be affected by shifting power load to low-rate times.

"At our core, we are a business intelligence system," says Hublou. "We believe that energy efficiency from behavior modification is not a winning strategy because it is too difficult and just providing data and reports [e.g. an energy management dashboard] is not enough. Business intelligence can do the heavy lifting for the people and the consumer can play as much of a role as they want, or not at all, because the system is automated and adaptive and can provide a level of service to promote the goal of energy efficiency."

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