Hot Technology That’s PrettyCool
With plummeting margins on flat-panel TVs and stepped-up competition on the installation side from high-volume retailers, CEDIA dealers are looking to protect their profits with products and services that big-box retailers can’t provide.
HVAC (heating, ventilation and cooling) control is one of those product/service categories that
could take on a larger role in the custom electronics picture going forward.
It may not have the glamour or glitz of a
flat-panel TV, but installers can use HVAC as an attractive option in an overall home control package. The good news is that the benefits of HVAC
are relatively simple to explain. When pitched, homeowners can easily pick up on the benefits of energy savings and combining climate control into integrated scenes with lighting and security.
“The days of high-margin home theater are
coming to an end,” says Jon Fischer, HVAC automation sales manager for vendor Aprilaire. “Installers aren’t going to make 40 to 50 percent margins on video and audio thanks to the Best Buys and the Tweeters of the world. We have to look at where the little guys can make their money. If it’s not going to be the 50-inch plasma TV, it’s got to
be something else.”
Like HVAC, of course.
Aprilaire and the rest of the HVAC industry have trends on their side. Energy costs are soaring. The need for moneyed consumers to monitor temperature levels in second homes is rising. These benefits are easy for homeowners to grasp, says Fischer, and make a good entry point for an HVAC control discussion.
Further, home automation offers synergies with lighting/shade control and security; integrating those functions into lifestyle scenes is appealing. “When HVAC is automated, you don’t have to think about it anymore,” Fischer says. “When you close the garage door, you can have your security system arm, the lights go off and the HVAC set back to an efficient level. Bottom line: homeowners are saving energy when they aren’t there.”
Fischer’s wish list includes technology advances in HVAC equipment to enable networking features like maintenance reminders and remote diagnostics. He envisions a kind of OnStar for the furnace, but says a lack of standards for such technology among HVAC suppliers puts that capability years out.
He also cites strong resistance among builders and HVAC contractors to open their minds to new climate technology. Climate control is an afterthought for most consumers, who are largely happy with the systems they use today. It follows that innovation in HVAC control isn’t likely to start on the thermostat side when there’s little mainstream demand for it, Fischer says. The challenge for enterprising C-businesses is to change the mentalities of HVAC vendors and contractors, because they have more influence over what homeowners buy versus what system integrators are able to sell, says Fischer.
“A lot of integrators tell us they can’t sell our stuff because the HVAC contractor doesn’t know enough about our product,” Fischer says. “We have to do a better job at educating the HVAC contractor so he can grow his own business and be able to assist in integrating the HVAC and remote diagnostics and status of heating and cooling.” He says HVAC contractors’ resistance to new technology is often based on false assumptions that must be set straight. “We hear things like, ‘If we connect a control wire, that will void the warranty’ (which it won’t) or ‘this control system won’t work with’ our thermostat,” Fischer says. “Our thermostat is a standard thermostat—just with another wire that connects to a control system.”
‘Clients Get It’
Opportunities for residential HVAC control have been largely untapped, agrees Andy Grant, principal of AMG Consulting in Cincinnati, who consults homeowners and architects on the benefits of integrating HVAC, lighting and security on the bases of aesthetics, energy savings and convenience. “Homeowners are used to hearing about saving money and maximizing the economics of their homes with HVAC control,” he says. Grant takes it a step further with clients who have second homes and want to keep an eye on one home while they’re at the other. “They can have cameras to see what’s going on, and when the temperature goes below a certain threshold, they get an e-mail notification,” he says. “That way, they can catch things as they’re happening rather than after the damage is done.
“Clients get it when you tell them they can be in an airport Wi-Fi zone, go on the internet and see what’s going on in their house,” says Grant. “That changes the dynamics and opens up the possibilities.” Nevertheless, he’s cautious about technology. “I don’t try to be on the bleeding edge,” he says. “I tend to work with proven technology to do things that haven’t been thought of before. The systems have to be reliable; we’re talking about people’s heat and lights.”
Fortunately, proven technology is out there that fits the bill. For remote management of HVAC, requirements include an automated thermostat, controller, home network and a PC to send e-mail. Installers can tap numerous sources for control depending on a project’s sophistication. Dedicated controllers built into climate systems from Aprilaire, Residential Control Systems or E.L.K. Mechanical can handle duties for small installations. Installations for larger homes with control of multiple subsystems would require a Crestron, Elan or AMX system.
Home theater and whole-house audio are easy bait for homeowners looking at custom electronics, but Grant believes integrators sell themselves short by not giving equal sales time to systems that control everyday functions, like lighting, climate control and security. “People don’t think in terms of how they can automate them,” he says. That presents opportunities for creative installers—if they can make such systems useful and easy to use. “If it’s too complicated, people aren’t going to use it,” Grant says. “You have to design the systems around the way people think.”
Grant sees the HVAC contractor as a roadblock to integration of HVAC into home control. “The thermostats we use combine two pieces—the regular thermostat and the electronics that tie into the computer side of the world,” he says. “In the past, if you wanted to do control, you had a thermostat and it had to go to a separate box. Aprilaire has combined both functions in one box.” Although the Aprilaire thermostat operates just like a regular one, its Cat 5 element can be threatening to HVAC contractors who aren’t familiar with technology. Cat 5 “sends most of the HVAC guys into orbit,” Grant says.
Dog Runs, Touring Musicians
CEDIA integrators routinely make HVAC part of theme-based scenes like Vacation Mode, where lights go off, temperature sets back and the security system arms. But their creative options and energies are seemingly boundless.
Marc Leidig, president of Ambiance Systems in Clifton Park, N.Y., uses HVAC sensors and thermostats to control snow melt for clients’ driveways, walkways and even one backyard dog run. On the latter project, the heating contractor adapted a driveway melt system for the dog run by installing underground tubing for a stream of antifreeze that warms the run during winter. A Crestron system gives the homeowner manual, automated or time-based control of all the driveways and dog areas. “We set the dog’s warming system to be on any time the temperature is below 45 degrees,” Leidig says.
For humidity control, Ambiance uses Crestron thermostat/humidistats to cut down on wall clutter and parts costs. “In the Northeast, where there are extreme cold snaps, even moderate humidity levels in the house can cause condensation that can ruin paint jobs and windows,” Leidig says. “The Crestron system links an outdoor sensor to the thermostat/humidistat in software, [so we can] write a scene that adjusts humidity levels in a house based on outdoor temperature. The program calibrates down the humidity of the house during cold snaps, and when the temperature moderates, it automatically brings up the level of humidity.”
Ambiance also uses climate control for green home design, which factors in readings like outside temperature and the sun’s angle. “We’ve done interesting things with control of skylights and motorized windows,” Leidig says. In one project, a cupola in the middle of a home acts as a light well and a chimney for passive cooling in the summer. The lighting control system motorizes the windows and controls the ceiling fans. The fan turns in the correct direction based on season. In the summer, a sensor in the cupola will determine that when air stagnates, the fans will come on and the windows will open.
Josh Colletta, system designer at DSI Entertainment in Studio City, Calif., used slab tile sensors and Crestron thermostats to regulate the temperature of the floor in a client’s shower, toilet room and powder room. The temperature can be set from any room in the house with a touchpanel controller, he says. The floors are activated along with lights and window shades when the client taps the “Good Morning” button on his touchpanel.
“The client, a musician, needed a system to maintain his house’s daily routines while he was away on tour,” Colletta says. “We programmed a Vacation Mode for when he’s gone, but if he leaves in a hurry and forgets to set the system, he can always log in remotely and take care of business.”
Remote sensors alone could rally homeowners and interior designers behind HVAC control, installers say, because they take thermostats off walls and hide them in closets or mechanical rooms. “Remote sensors are a huge element of what we’re able to bring to the table with climate control,” says Leidig of Ambiance Systems. “Not only can we tie together these multiple zones around the house and give people multiple or central points of control, we can also get rid of a lot of wall clutter.” CR