Smart hub devices are among the most popular items on consumer Christmas lists this year, and HVAC manufacturers have taken notice.
The Amazon Echo is a voice-activated device that can answer spoken questions; play music; make to-do lists; set alarms; stream podcasts; and provide weather, traffic, and other real-time information. However, perhaps most interesting to contractors is its ability to control several smart devices using itself as a home automation hub. The device became widely available in the U.S. on June 23, 2015, and it is estimated Amazon has already sold more than 5 million units.
Not to be outdone, Google recently entered the same space with its voice-activated Google Home speaker, which was introduced to the U.S. market on Nov. 4.
“Integration with smarter and smarter devices has been a constant driver of our evolution,” said George Land, general manager of Nexia, a brand of Ingersoll Rand. “We concentrate on adding features and devices that add real value to consumers’ lives over the long haul. We are really interested in making sure the things we invest in are the things consumers will get value out of for an enduring period of time, and not things that are just gadgets or flashes in the pan. When Amazon launched the Echo, the interaction experience in the home was really transformational. If you have a smart home and you have smart devices, the ability to speak naturally and adjust those things is really a powerful way to interact with those devices. It was a no-brainer for us to integrate with the Echo and use it as another way for consumers to interact with their homes.”
Tai Tran, home automation program manager, Carrier Corp., said that having an Open API for its line of Wi-Fi-based thermostats allows the company to grow its interface capabilities with other smart devices that provide homeowners with a rich set of experiences in their homes.
“Our roadmap for the connected home segment has always focused on the ability to move beyond basic controls of the HVAC system through the thermostat,” said Tran. “We are envisioning an optimized home system that eventually becomes an autonomous experience that bridges all of the connected devices in the home. The Côr Home Automation System is one of our latest platforms that provides homeowners the ability to manage various aspects of their homes to control things like thermostats, lighting, cameras, and door locks. And, from the accompanying app, homeowners can control all of these functions directly from their smartphones or tablet devices with no monthly fees.”
Nate Kraft, director of home comfort, Honeywell Intl. Inc., said the company has made a conscious strategic decision to focus on expanding upon as many partnerships in as many different areas as it can.
“I think Alexa [Amazon Echo’s voice assistant] is a great example of that,” he said. “We wanted to get on board with that platform as quickly as we could. The benefits of voice within the home are great. We actually launched a voice-controlled thermostat not too long ago. We believe in that space and that sort of approach. Alexa is a good example. You have seen over the past few years, every month or so we continue to announce new partnerships with different companies. Honeywell is always trying to find the best options for consumers to link all of these different devices together and make them more useful. For us, voice is a really important user-interface approach. We see that as being something that will continue to grow into something more important in every device we use. Whether it’s with Siri [Apple’s voice assistant], Alexa, or other products, finding the easiest way for people to use these devices is a core strategy for us.”
All of Venstar Inc.’s communicating thermostats are natively certified with Amazon Alexa compatibility.
“This means you will not need to say ‘Alexa, tell Skyport to raise the temperature to 70°F,’” said Steve Dushane, president & CEO, Venstar Inc. “You will just say: ‘Alexa raise the temperature to 70°’. Coming soon, Venstar’s ColorTouch and Voyager communicating thermostats will also be certified to be natively compatible with Google’s Home Assistant.”
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Having a smart hub within the home is an exciting prospect for manufacturers and consumers alike, and voice-enabled features are something that continue to gain relevance and importance.
“What we have seen from customers is a demand for easier and more intuitive ways of managing your life, comfort, and security,” said Land. “When we saw what Amazon had developed in the Echo, we could really see a frictionless way for homeowners to interact with their thermostats and homes. That fits with an identified need of consumers.”
Land added that smart home systems are really resonating with older demographics.
“The empty nesters are a large adopter and are really embracing these products,” he said. “The level of adoption, engagement, and satisfaction in the older category of consumers is quite interesting.”
Kraft said Honeywell goes out and asks questions all the time. “With the T6 and T5 T-series thermostats launch, we connected with thousands of contractors and consumers and asked what it was that they were really looking for,” he said. “Within those conversations, you get new ideas and test new hypotheses. We do research across pretty much the entire age spectrum, from millennials to active nesters, people who have entered retirement or are nowhere close to it. There is interest from all age groups regarding these kinds of connected devices and voice-enabled technologies.”
Dushane highlighted the importance of giving consumers choice and versatility.
“Venstar is the rare manufacturer that has a number of choices for users, including built-in local API, Skyport Cloud Services, and native Alexa and Google compatibility,” he said. “Coming soon, we will also offer Apple HomeKit compatibility. Our products may simultaneously reside in more than one of these ecosystems at the same time. An example is that although my Control4 home automation system can and does manipulate my thermostats through the local API and its app, I prefer to use my Venstar Skyport app. However, I can use either one at any time. Additionally, I can also talk to my thermostat through Alexa or Google Home when I am in the same room with one of these products. It helps that most of our engineering staff uses these products at home for their own home automation control, so they are users as well as product engineers.”
Kraft said Honeywell doesn’t have to do much work to encourage people to bring smart products together.
“We’re seeing a high attachment rate when it comes to linking some form of partner with our products and vice versa,” he said. “Consumers are doing that on their own. From an outbound perspective, we make sure to announce partnerships as they become available, and we certainly highlight the ones that are most valuable to consumers when we go out and do marketing communications.”
With smart products having penetrated an estimated 24.9 percent of U.S. households in 2016 and expected to hit 60.7 percent in 2021, per Statista, it is clear that the existing attachment rate is only going to increase over the next few years.