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Why WiFi? How the Latest Wave of Wireless Thermostats is Changing HVAC

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Just as iPods replaced Walkmans, there may soon come a time when hand-dialed thermostats become low-tech doodads of the past. At least Google has placed that bet—to the tune of $3.2 billion—when it acquired Nest Labs in February 2014. As one of the pioneering WiFi thermostat companies, Nest has enjoyed a big jump on its competitors, along with tremendous publicity (as when Ellen DeGeneres raved about Nest on her TV show) and top-notch ratings (a first-place Gold Award from TopTen

Nest made waves by allowing users to control their home environments form smartphones and tablets, but isn’t the only game in town anymore. A slew of competitors have popped up to challenge the brand’s ascendancy—and in some cases, draw even greater praise. The ecobee3, for example, earned 4.5 out of 5 starts from PC Magazine, and in his March review, Connectedly’s Adam Zeis wrote: “I’ve played with a bunch of other smart thermostats in my connected lifetime, and so far this is the one that stands out.”

“It’s important to note that not all WiFi thermostats are the same,” says Dip Patel, CEO and co-founder of Ecovent, accompany that uses an advanced system of vents and sensors to adjust to HVAC systems. “Nest has fantastic design and engineering, but its scheduling and learning leave a lot to be desired.”

And with the entry of legacy brands such as Honeywell, Emerson and Lennox into the WiFi field, contractors now have more choices to offer clients. But questions remain, especially for those who hope to educate and attract younger consumers.

“The younger generation is savvy and quick to adapt to the technology, so it’s an easy transition for them,” says Rick Levinson, Commercial Division President at Service America, an AC and water heater sales, repair and service plan company. “Arriving to a cool and comfortable home without needing to run the AC while away makes economical and ecological sense.”

Meanwhile, the innovations keep coming. Lennox Industries’ iComfort S30 uses geofencing technology to regulate heating and cooling levels based on how close the homeowner is to their residence. But if consumers win with WiFi, so do HVAC crews.

“The biggest advancement is that contractors can fix problems from anywhere,” says Kyle Golden, Product Brand Manager at Lennox. “Remote troubleshooting makes it possible for contractors to login to a customer’s Wi-Fi thermostat to adjust system parameters and fix problems without ever making a trip to customer’s home.”

One con is that like almost anything high-tech, WiFi thermostats can be hacked. TrapX, a leading cyber security defense company, announced in March that they had successfully compromised a Nest thermostat, which in theory would expose sensitive user information, including private credentials. “Make no mistake, the Nest Learning Thermostat is a well-designed and relatively secure device,” says Moshe Ben Simon, Vice President and Co-Founder of TrapX . “The problem is that the hackers are moving faster, with more intensity and more funding.”

And while no cases of thermostat hacking have made headlines, there’s also the argument that WiFi thermostats only work well when the user takes the time to program it—time they could just as easily spend closely monitoring a conventional device.

Then again, how many of us neglect to do just that? “Contractors should lead with questions that speak to customer cues such as saving energy, better comfort and peace of mind,” Golden says. “A simple question could be: ‘Do you ever forget to turn down the thermostat when you leave?’ If they answer yes—and they will, because we have all done this before—you can quickly talk to the energy savings benefits of a Wi-Fi thermostat.”

Lou Carlozo

Posted In: Management, Money

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