Since the first electric room thermostat was invented in 1883, it has seen few changes. For many years the thermostat was just a dial on the wall. When programmable thermostats started making their way into homes and businesses, they did little to save the users money on energy because they were too difficult to program. Over the past five years, thermostats have made a giant leap into the future. Not only are they easier to program, but they can be programmed from anywhere through Internet access.

Brain Stack, of Stack Heating & Cooling in Avon, OH, explains how wireless technology has made his thermostat installations easier, “Wireless thermostats have become a great asset not only for the homeowner but also for the installer. We have used many wireless thermostats for systems where we are adding air conditioning to homes that have steam or hot water heat because of the ease of not having to run wires. That are also great for systems where we are adding zoning.”

Always Connected — Anytime, Anywhere

Total connectivity is the major trend with thermostats today. “Remote monitoring via an Internet-connected device allows communicating thermostat alterations simply not possible five years ago,” explains Jim Fisher, product manager for Goodman’s Comfortnet Communicating Control. “Communicating controls have allowed homeowners to have advanced access to the functionality and performance of the central heating and cooling systems. The Goodman Comfortnet Communicating Control gives reminders to change filters as well as fault warnings. Maintenance reminders are now standard features, not optional extras.”

Karl Mutchnik, of Ingersoll Rand Residential Solutions, explains, “With controls like the Trane ComfortLink II, consumers can have a truly connected home where they can not only check in on their HVAC system and control the system from most web enabled devices, but also control door locks, window blinds, security systems, stream video, and receive alerts from various sensors. The ComfortLink II provides homeowners with a five-day weather forecast and weather radar map. The remote access of today’s control gives homeowners much more interface than just controlling heating and cooling.

“Remote access for the Nexia Home Intelligence system is now included with the Trane ComfortLink II Control. The control can act as a digital picture frame and allows homeowners to customize the control’s appearance to fit their décor and lifestyle,” Mutchnik adds.

The Prestige thermostat from Honeywell connects wirelessly to a number of peripherals such as a wireless outdoor sensor, a wireless indoor sensor, and a portable comfort control. “Through RedLINK Internet Gateway, Honeywell’s online portal, Total Connect Comfort allows homeowners the control to make changes to their thermostat remotely through their computer, smartphone, or tablet,” explains Pat Tessier, director of product marketing with Honeywell. “It’s a fully integrated whole-house comfort management system, that controls a home’s temperature, humidity, and ventilation system.”

The Nest programmable thermostats work on just about all types of residential heating and cooling equipment. Once installed, the Nest begins to learn about users’ “home and away” habits. After about a week, the Nest will have learned the homeowner’s basic routine. “More than 90% of connected Nest owners use the remote control feature, so in addition to support on computer web browsers, apps for iPhone, iPad and Android smart phones, Nest now supports most popular Android tablets including Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire,” says Kate Brinks, spokesperson for Nest Thermostats. “We’ve added new features to the mobile app. Users can now lock Nest remotely and have access to many more settings.”

The Lennox icomfort Wi-Fi thermostat features a one-touch “away” mode. One touch on the thermostat, a smartphone, or tablet puts the icomfort Wi-Fi touch screen thermostat into energy-saving mode. According to Lennox sources, the icomfort Wi-Fi not only allows homeowners to save money on utility bills through its remote control access and one-touch “away” mode, it’s also able to communicate with the HVAC system to make system adjustments and alert both the homeowner and installing dealer of any maintenance or repair issues, potentially saving the homeowner hundreds of dollars in unnecessary service calls.

“Although home automation has been at the top of builders’ and homeowners’ lists for many years, it is really just starting to pick up momentum in the heating, cooling and indoor air quality space,” says John Hurst, vice president, product management at Lennox International.

New Technologies, More Options

Nexia Home Intelligence is built on a wireless technology known as Z-Wave. “Z-Wave,” Mutchnik explains, “is a technology that has become a standard in home automation. A portfolio of products was built so users can continually add to the Nexia system as new products join the Z-Wave family. Nexia wirelessly communicates with a large variety of Z-Wave devices so users can control and manage the devices via the Internet.”

Honeywell’s Total Connect Comfort offers its own portal to keep the homeowner and business owners connected. “Total Connect Comfort communicates with a number of systems as information is passed between a computer, smartphone, tablet, and the thermostat. Users can remotely control temperature settings, fan settings, humidification/dehumidification, seven-day scheduling, view weather conditions, five-day forecasts and more,” Tessier says of the technologies that Honeywell is using.

Earlier this year, the Nest introduced something called Airwave technology. “Airwave automatically turns the air conditioner off a few minutes early, then uses the fan to spread the cold air through the home,” Brinks explains. Also recently introduced by Nest is System Match. “With System Match, Nest activates custom features depending on what system the customer is using.”

If a customer is using a forced-air system, the Nest ‘Early On’ feature will start heating or cooling early so the dwelling will be at the desired temperature when the customer’s alarm clock rings in the morning. If the system is a radiant system, the ‘True Radiant’ feature makes sure they system gives a predictable schedule and even heat. For a heat pump system, the Heat Pump Balance feature will let customers decide whether they want comfort or savings, and will automatically adjust when the auxiliary heat comes on.

On the commercial side, Siemens Building Technologies is also using wireless technology, not just for heating and cooling, but for building automation as well. Bob Byrom, product manager, Siemens Building Technologies division explains, “The Siemens’ EcoView product line enables smaller facilities such as restaurants, to harness the energy savings of a full-blown energy management system at a fraction of the cost. Through our Site Controls product line, we offer an enterprise-wide solution for large retailers with multiple locations. Both the EcoView and Site Controls systems are designed to optimize HVAC and lighting systems while using a cloud-based approach to enable remote monitoring and fault detection.”

“We believe that cloud computing will play a key role in the future of energy management systems of all shapes and sizes. Wireless technology, in conjunction with offsite data warehouses and analysis, will empower scalable energy management systems that are adaptable to everything from large enterprises, down to very light commercial and maybe even traditional residential applications,” Byrom adds.

What’s Next?

The trend in thermostat technology continues to move towards wireless options. The more control customers have in their hands, the more options for remote monitoring will become available.

Goodman’s Jim Fisher shares his predictions on what the industry can expect in the next few years: “More homeowners will connect to their central heating and cooling systems remotely. Some predictions suggest that more than 50% of all traffic on the Internet will be from mobile devices in just a couple of years. As mobile technology advances, heating and cooling system controls will offer more features and options on a concurrent basis. The ability to have complete control over your indoor environment — even when you aren’t there — is going to be very popular,” he says.

Another option may be that the smart meters will start connecting to the smart grid. “Our systems have the ability to incorporate ‘smart metering’ capability and use that data for a variety of uses, including aggregated load management and demand response.” Byrom adds. He concludes, “As more residential smart meters are rolled out across North America, there will obviously be more opportunities for direct communication between residential thermostats and the utility, but it will remain a challenge to find a workable proposition for the homeowner.”

Visit ContractingBusiness.com for a list of residential thermostat options. ( http://bit.ly/RijAS)