Brent and Danielle Warner are creating a smart living environment at their new house in Wellesley, Mass. And what’s the centerpiece of their smart home? A thermostat. A very smart thermostat. With about six different brains, or sensors, positioned in several rooms in their house.
The thermostat is the ecobee3, which uses its embedded sensors to detect where you are in the home and respond by adjusting the temperature in that zone accordingly. The ecobee3 was the first part of the Warners’ smart home system using Samsung’s SmartThings, and now includes connections to 14 lights. Water detectors and smart lawn sprinklers, to better manage water consumption, are next on the Warners’ smart home wish list.
“We’re using our SmartThings system to turn exterior lights on at sunset and then turn off at 12 a.m.,” says Brent. “When we all leave the house, it knows and turns off all interior lights, and turns down the thermostat.”
You could call Brent a smart thermostat aficionado. He’s been through old-style thermostats that only allow you to set the room temperature and turn on a fan, Honeywell thermostats, and Nest, but he likes ecobee the best. With it he can enact password access, check the humidity and temperature of each area of the house, analyze usage and patterns, and make changes to cycle times to optimize heating and cooling in his home. And he loves the “Follow Me” feature that adjusts the climate according to where people are located in the house.
To maximize the savings, the Warners are enrolled in utility National Grid’s Budget Plan program that evens out their monthly bills for gas-fired heating. Brent says when they first moved from Chicago to Massachusetts his family was paying $95 per month for gas heating. That was before he installed ecobee, which cut the bill to $65. He says in Chicago he and his family of four achieved about 20 percent savings with the same smart thermostat. On top of this savings, National Grid offers a $100 rebate for buying a Wi-Fi-connected thermostat.
Nest reported in 2014 that Rush Hour Rewards delivered an average of 55 percent energy reduction in residential air conditioning loads during peak times, while Seasonal Savings helped customers lower their overall air conditioning runtime by 4.7 percent. The Google-owned company also reports 10 to 12 percent home energy savings averaged by Nest
Electric and gas utilities all over the world are rolling out similar programs to provide homeowners with generous rebates for investing in connected and smart thermostats and other energy-saving systems—from efficient appliances and hot water heaters to super-efficient LED lamps. ComEd in the Chicago area, for example, recently announced rebates for one million smart thermostats. And some go beyond with programs that can save high-tech homeowners even bigger bucks.
Several utilities offer rebates for using Nest thermostats, as well as enrollment in programs like Nest’s Rush Hour Rewards and Seasonal Savings. Rush Hour Rewards is a “demand response” program in which participants allow the utility to turn back their thermostats to energy-saving settings during peak usage periods in exchange for the rebate. San Antonio’s municipal CPS Energy utility even offers free Nest thermostats to homeowners who are willing to install the thermostats themselves (it’s not difficult). The program can also pre-cool or pre-heat a house if a conservation event, as these peak load times are called, is planned. Nest’s Seasonal Savings program goes a step further by offering users enrolled in utility programs to have their thermostats adjusted to save energy during summer or winter times, based on their usage, occupancy, and more, without affecting their comfort.
In Nevada-based NV Energy’s mPowered program, a Computime-connected thermostat acts as a home sensor for cloud-based analytics software from EcoFactor. The system computes how drafty the home is and how well the HVAC system is working, factors in local weather and other variables, and then makes micro-adjustments of a half a degree or so throughout the day to save energy while maintaining comfort levels. The tiny savings add up.
On top of this, NV Energy runs a demand response program on those sweltering 100-degree-plus Las Vegas summer days to curb air conditioning use during peak load periods in about 32,000 homes. Van Johnson, senior project manager of Demand Response for NV Energy, says the utility had 28 such days in 2015, with events of about two-hour durations. Ninety minutes before, its system pre-cools a home by about 2 degrees, then raises the thermostat setting 4 degrees to curb AC use.
Homeowner Jose Lepe of Reno is one of 2,400 NV Energy customers using mPowered in northern Nevada. Lepe heats and cools with electricity and says his family has saved about $20 on a $100 per month bill. “It’s a luxury,” he says. “When we go out we lower the temperature and come back and heat it up, and that way we manage the energy.” He especially likes being able to control his energy use and save money via a control app on his smartphone.
Connected Savings Frontiers
Energy efficiency programs offered by utilities aren’t just centered around the thermostat. Drivers of electric vehicles (EV), particularly in California, should seek utility programs that provide special rates to charge their vehicles at non-peak times. Southern California Edison and Pacific Gas & Electric are two utilities leading the pack.
Utilities like Xcel Energy are also establishing programs for community solar power, where homeowners can own panels on nearby solar farms if their roofs are unsuitable. And some utilities are closely eyeing microgrids, in which several homes can share and use stored power. One such experiment is being conducted among several Solar Decathlon-equipped homes on the campus of Missouri University of Science & Technology, using systems from control company Milbank.
The connected home, though, truly appears to be the next horizon for energy efficiency, and not just utilities are hopping on board. So, too, are electricity retailers, such as those that can do business in Texas and other states.
“I think the retail energy providers are doing the most innovation,” says Tom Kerber, of Dallas-based research firm Parks Associates. “Direct Energy is partnering with SmartThings, Just Energy with ecobee, and Reliant is offering security services.” Parks reports that 30 percent of U.S. broadband households find energy management appealing.
“We’re going to see a tremendous expansion of utility programs,” says Ben Bixby, director of energy products at Nest, who reminds us of the Works With Nest program involving LED lights, Whirlpool appliances, and EV chargers—all of which can be turned off during events like Rush Hour Rewards. Nest, now owned by Google, can also be controlled by smart home Internet of Things-based platforms like Google’s Brillo and the Weave communications protocol.
As for Brent Warner and his family in Massachusetts, they’re already a step ahead of Nest and the rest. He’s connected his phones and their GPS capabilities to his SmartThings system, so when he’s a few minutes from home, Danielle gets an alert and starts dinner. What they’re doing is called geo-fencing, and it can also be used to turn on heating or cooling so your home saves energy and money when no one is there and becomes cozy and comfy in time for your arrival home. EH
Steve Castle is a freelance writer and editor, and a frequent contributor to Electronic House. He writes about green tech and sustainable design.