Connected Devices for Home Performance

July 24, 2016
Fall 2016
A version of this article appears in the Fall 2016 issue of Home Energy Magazine.
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There’s a movement afoot in the home performance industry, and it’s being driven by a combination of technology, business, and culture. Finally, after years of working on all the separate pieces of the industry—research and development, training, installation, quality control—we can integrate these separate endeavors. For a lot of us in the home performance industry, it’s about time. We now have a suite of tools that offer the possibility of pushing the implementation of high-performance construction into the mainstream.

Devices, Data, and Access

The tools I refer to are connected devices, streaming data, and shareable cloud-based storage. None of these is exactly new at this stage, and we’ve had versions of each in use for several years. But we’re now seeing a rapid shift in how these tools are used, because they’ve all become more robust, more widely available, and more connected.

This increased connectivity improves coordination among the various branches of the industry when the work done by manufacturers in the lab, trainers in the classroom, technicians in the field, and quality control staff in the office can be compared and aligned in one integral process. These parties often struggle to work together, because they have different incentives and because they read market signals differently. The possibility of creating real synergy among all these disparate parties will create a huge shift in how the home performance industry operates. With this increased connectivity, more data are becoming more available and more transparent, and this is good for everyone involved.

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Figure 1. Connected devices can take several forms: consumer dashboards (thermostat, water meter, lighting controls, IAQ monitor), manufacturer’s built-in data sensors (HVAC systems), or professional test instruments (blower door). Connections to consumers’ and manufacturers’ devices are often made through existing wireless networks that provide home Internet service. Professional test instruments are increasingly connected though cell-phone routers that allow for quick set-up and give technicians a greater degree of portability.

We’re not there yet, though, and the ideal of one big harmonious industry that’s informed by facts, not fiction, may still be far in the future. But it’s clear that this current round of rapid evolution, driven by data on the actual performance of our homes, will support the implementation of measures that have been proven to improve our homes. Despite the built-in self-interest of all players (trainers, testers, contractors, manufacturers, program managers, code officials), it’s getting more and more difficult to kid ourselves about what works and what does not work when it comes to high-performance construction.

Connected Comfort Systems

Take the simple forced-air heating-and-cooling system that’s installed in millions of North American homes. It should be simple enough to install these systems so that they operate properly, but research has shown time and time again that several issues— especially the twin pressure points of poor airflow and incorrect charge—keep these systems from operating at anything close to peak efficiency.

But when you add on-board sensors and diagnostics that connect the data stream to a local network and give everyone involved access to the data, suddenly issues like airflow and charge become simply checklisted items that determine who gets paid and when. This simple feedback loop rewards good installers, reduces finger-pointing among all parties, and goes a long way toward embedding energy efficiency, comfort, and safety into mainstream construction.

Connected thermostats, such as Ecobee, LuxGEO, and Nest, clearly have a place in these connected comfort systems, especially when they connect with equipment from other manufacturers. Honeywell, for example, recently launched an application programming interface (API) for its home thermostats that allows third parties to write custom applications that integrate their equipment with Honeywell equipment. These connected thermostats are also playing a bigger role in demand-response systems, such as the one offered by utility partner Opower, that allow utilities to shape their loads and reduce peak loads by managing equipment remotely. I suspect that manufacturers who don’t take this open approach to developing connected comfort systems will face shrinking markets.

The Value of Connected Devices

Safety, efficiency, and comfort. All equipment operates best when installed, commissioned, and maintained according to the manufacturer’s specifications. Connected devices can be configured to provide intuitive real-time information that makes optimal performance configurations easier than ever.

Quality control. You can’t manage that which you don’t measure. Connected devices provide insight into the operation of systems that have often been ignored for lack of reliable ongoing data.

Supervision and training. Field staff can’t do their job without metrics for performance. The best technical training is delivered in response to an immediate need. Connected devices show technicians what needs to be done.

Connected Diagnostic Systems

Some connected devices produce instantaneous readings that are utilized during the process of construction, commissioning, or retrofit jobs. One example is the system known as rCloud, recently launched by Retrotec, a manufacturer of pressure diagnostic equipment. This system captures data from blower door and duct tests, connects to existing networks, and streams the geotagged and time-stamped data to secure servers. From there, users can share selected access to the data with other parties. It’s an obvious connection between field personnel and staff who manage their work.

By sharing data with quality assurance (QA) people, a new level of job-site supervision is possible as it provides less opportunity to falsify data or ignore improperly trained personnel. Having access to test data closes the loop on training, too. When suspect data are reviewed in real time by remote colleagues, it creates a good opportunity for on-the-job training. When the QA people see a problem, they can offer advice, and the technician can update his or her procedure. In spring 2016, RESNET recognized this process of remote QA, and now some site visits by its Quality Assurance Designees (QADs) can be performed virtually.

I predict that in the near future we’ll see a lot of technical training delivered via these just-in-time systems that peer into the technician’s work (“Hey, Jim, it looks like you may want to check the charge on the refrigerant. Here’s a video that shows the procedure”). It may sound intrusive to some, but in fact the field technician on a construction site is one of the few people in the modern workplace who usually work alone and without supervision. These connected devices will improve the quality of everyone’s work by aligning training with the staff members’ proven existing needs. See “The Value of Connected Devices” for more benefits.

Connected IAQ Monitors

Connected devices are not just about comfort systems or diagnostic systems, either. There’s a whole new batch of reasonably priced consumer-level devices on the market (including Awair, Foobot, NetAtMo, Speck, and others) that measure and report various attributes of indoor air quality (IAQ). Some provide only instantaneous information, which builds awareness but doesn’t allow the user to compare IAQ over time. The best home monitors include data logging that shows trends, and connectivity that allows remote monitoring and management. A few, like the Foobot, are available with an interface that controls ventilation equipment—a good approach for pollutants, such as moisture or particulates, that can be effectively managed with dilution or filtration.

There is plenty of debate within industry about the correct metrics and responses for managing IAQ, but it’s clear that the Internet of Things is about to shift how homeowners interact with their buildings AND with their service people. Most homeowners know little about the nuances of their home’s operation, and having easy access to real-time data about their home may jump-start their interest in managing their home’s performance in general. One need look no further than the success of smartphone apps like CreditKarma and Mint, which give users access, respectively, to credit score and personal finance data, to see how convenience, transparency, and connectedness can transform consumers’ relationship with information. The devices we have available right now may not be perfect, but the fact that homeowners can now see what’s happening in their homes is a good start.

The Impact of Connected Devices

When it comes to the dispersal of information, things tend to happen quickly. Consider how your learning channels have shifted over your lifetime—remember encyclopedias, road maps, and phone books? In all industries, the smart money is flowing toward remote communication, honest evaluation, and targeted management. In the construction and home performance industries, this is changing how we evaluate, tune, and maintain equipment in the home. By integrating data seamlessly into day-to-day tasks, these devices not only will make life easier for home performance practitioners and program managers, but also could help bridge some of the long-standing cultural and practical differences between the home performance industry and mainstream construction.

While homeowners across the demographic spectrum stand to benefit from these shifts, it’s no secret that young adults are completely at ease with the role of technology in connecting modern life. The share of Americans aged 25 to 34 who live at home has reached record levels, but as this cohort forms households of their own in coming years, we can expect to see this unprecedented technological fluency and appetite for data-driven transparency reshape home construction, buying, and maintenance.

Connected devices, and the sharing of accurate information that they allow, are driving this next evolution in housing. There will surely be winners and losers in this shifting marketplace, but I think that the performance of our buildings can only improve—and this will be good for everyone.

Chris Dorsi has been working in the trenches since the early days of the home performance industry. Following successful ventures in contracting, real estate, technical training, and publishing, he launched the strategic-planning platform Habitat X in 2011. He lives in Helena, Montana.

Habitat X Fellow
Griffin Hagle contributed to this article.

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