New Possibilities with Smart HVAC Systems: Helping Businesses and the Environment Alike

September 21, 2016

The emergence of the Internet of Things (IoT) is revolutionizing the way consumers interact with their products, enabling connected devices to accumulate and act on data to make proactive decisions that maximize efficiency. One sector poised to be affected the most by this technology is the heating, ventilating, and air conditioning (HVAC) industry. HVAC systems account for about half of the energy consumption of residential and commercial buildings in the U.S. and 20 percent of the country’s total energy use. As governments and businesses across the globe increasingly seek to address the dire threat of climate change, the development and adoption of smart HVAC systems has the potential to dramatically cut emissions while significantly reducing costs at the same time.

Greater control of energy use can eliminate wasteful usage of HVAC systems

Most existing HVAC systems are highly inefficient. According to Irisys, approximately a third of commercial HVAC units are oversized for the areas they serve, and over 95 percent of all HVAC systems use single-speed fan motors. This leads to glaring problems, as HVAC systems lack the flexibility to accommodate the dynamic needs of a given environment, such as reducing fan speed when a building’s occupancy is low.

In contrast, IoT-enabled HVAC systems are able to compile vast amounts of data that can be leveraged to create highly customized and efficient usage methods. Smart HVAC systems are an integral component of smart homes and buildings, where appliances and systems share information and learn from each other to provide more comfortable and sustainable lifestyles. These products range from security systems to lighting arrangements to refrigerators, all of which become tailored to individual user habits and preferences and can be controlled from a smartphone.

Whereas an ordinary programmable thermostat might be set to turn up heating or cooling after standard work hours, users with a smart HVAC system can remotely adjust regularly scheduled temperature changes for any individual room in a house. If, for example, the user decides to have dinner with coworkers after work and delay his or her return home, the user would be able to change pre-programmed heating and cooling from a phone instead of a manual input. Temperature schedules can also be synced to calendar appointments on a user’s phone or automatically activated by geofencing when the user enters a certain distance from home. With smart HVAC systems, users are able to control their energy use more precisely and easily with an app.

Additionally, as smart grids – electric grids and their associated networks that deliver electricity – become more prevalent, they will be able to work alongside smart HVAC systems to give users even greater control of their energy usage and awareness of their consumption habits. Smart grids are better able to integrate alternative sources of energy, including employing customer-owned power sources when needed. In the future, the IoT will allow energy providers to employ time-of-use pricing – a concept similar to Uber’s surge pricing based on supply and demand. Users would be able to monitor their electricity consumption in real time rather than be surprised by a monthly statement, creating greater transparency of how energy is used and priced and leading to reduced waste as a result.

Data and machine learning detects patterns and provides optimal settings for further efficiency gains

While smart HVAC systems will provide users with improved control, their biggest utility is in automation. By equipping buildings with sensors, smart thermostats, and smart vents, smart HVAC systems can monitor usage patterns and determine optimal heating and cooling. A smart HVAC system might decide that a crowded office space requires relatively constant heating during normal work hours, while a seldom frequented storage area might not warrant much energy. Similarly, if a user is throwing a party at home, sensors would identify a far larger than normal number of occupants and adjust the heat accordingly. The data that smart HVAC accumulates allow for algorithm-based machine learning:  systems learn precise usage patterns and react automatically, becoming increasingly efficient as more data is gathered.

Smart thermostats can also track temperature variations between rooms to proactively adapt to a changing environment. The airflow that a room receives, its humidity levels and other variables are analyzed alongside weather forecasts for smart HVAC systems to automatically adapt to ideal lifestyle use. For instance, a system could reduce air conditioning flow during a cooler than expected summer night while the homeowner is already asleep, or increase heat in anticipation of a blizzard.

HVAC manufacturers may experience disruption, but can seize opportunities of IoT-enabled systems

Changes in technology will invariably transform the way businesses operate. Sensors can alert building managers or homeowners when a unit is blocked or in need of repair, thereby proactively addressing irregular energy consumption and extending the system’s longevity. As many HVAC providers rely on replacement parts and repair services for a significant part of their profits, the greater longevity of their systems means they need to find new revenue streams to remain profitable. The electrical equipment company Emerson envisions a subscription-based model, where users pay a monthly fee for ongoing maintenance and services, while also selling the data that their devices collect.

Adapting to the realities of climate change has been slow, though it is not difficult to envision smart HVAC systems eventually becoming mandatory for new buildings as the creation of sustainable communities becomes a necessity rather than a choice. Though changes in the way smart HVAC systems operate may be subtle at first glance, widespread adoption of such devices could be essential to curb energy consumption and mitigate the effects of climate change.

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