Wiser Air – Delivering personalized communication to customers

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// Many of us have programmable thermostats at home and we probably think we’re doing a wonderful job at saving energy by keeping temperatures comfortable when people are home but choosing more cost-effective temps when the house is empty.

But there’s a wee problem with those thermostats that may be thwarting those plans: people tend to override the settings. The problem is so egregious that in 2009 the federal government nixed programmable thermostats from its Energy Star program because manufacturer claims about energy savings weren’t being realized, says Ryan Egly, product manager for the Schneider Electric Connected Home Group.

I talked with Egly at the recent Tech Advantage Conference and Expo in Orlando, where he was demonstrating the latest technology from Schneider Electric’s North American Wiser group that aims to remedy that problem. The company’s latest Wiser Air thermostat combines everything the company learned from its initial foray into the market in 2013 with extensive research on what utilities and consumers each want and need in terms of energy management tools.

One crucial feature of the thermostat is Comfort Boost, which aims to remedy that age-old override problem. The feature enables users to override preset temps but only for 15 minutes, or in 15-minute increments if the initial boost isn’t enough. The feature would be useful in the morning, for example, to warm up the house.

“It allows you to get people happy until they get out of the house without touching your carefully optimized schedule,” Egly says.

Wiser Air also enables all the usual sorts of features you’d expect in an Internet-connected device, with the ability to set temperatures and schedules from wherever you may be. But it also allows communications with the electric utility, such as for messages related to demand/response programs and the like.

The thermostat supports both WiFi or the ZigBee communications, and can communicate with the electric meter attached to the home. That means it can deliver detailed energy data to the utility. A “pulse” feature – a glowing, halo-like light around the device – alerts customers when a utility demand response event is happening.

But the real power of the Wiser Air system comes with the accompanying app, through which users can get detailed usage data and utilities can deliver actionable information on their iPad or phone. It’s also integrated with Schneider Electric’s weather service, which Egly says has been the number one utility weather service for the past 8 years in a row.

Utilities can use the app to explain the parameters of any incentive programs in terms customers can easily understand. “That’s been the biggest barrier that we’ve been experiencing that we’re solving with this solution,” Egly says.

Utilities can use all the data they receive from the Wiser device to paint an accurate picture of each customer’s energy use –and act on it. If a utility notices a particular customer routinely has high energy use during peak demand periods, it can send a notice alerting the customer to the fact, along with tips for curbing use. It can also be used to control demand/response programs.

In the demo, Egly showed an example of a program that comes with a bank of opt-outs, enabling customers to choose not to participate in a given peak period event if it’s not convenient for them to curb energy use. After using up the bank of, say, 5 opt-outs, the customer would still be allowed to opt out again, but would be alerted that they’ll be paying more for energy use.

It’s that kind of back and forth that separates the Wiser Air solution from competitors such as Nest, Egly says. “Our solution is to provide utilities with an application for their customers, to be that relationship enabler,” he says. In fact, utilities can put their own branding on the app, further enabling them to “own” the relationship with the customer.

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  • Ah, yes. The “egregious overrides”.

    Whether it’s in an office environment or at home, people want to be comfortable. We’d also like that to occur with energy economy.

    In winter, you mainly have to seal and insulate the building and take in whatever sunlight comes your way. From there, the heat source keeps the thermostat satisfied.

    To me, the game is more interesting in summer. There, the a/c runs to maintain comfort. A programmable thermostat helps adjust the set point to match occupancy and activities. But there are still problems: certain parts of the building can be too cold while others are too hot; as well, there’s no big energy savings so far.

    To save $ and leverage the capability of control systems and thermostats, it greatly helps to get control over solar gain. This can occur in a number of ways. One can “paint the roof white”.

    For windows, one can consider low shgc glass and live with less winter heat gain. Also, there are “window attachments” that can help reduce solar gain. The list includes: awnings, Solar Screens, shutters, Solar Grates, window film, In’Flector, trees, building overhangs, et al. Each option has its advantages. Curtains don’t do the job. Usually, you have to go external to the window. The heat load can be reduced by 2/3 or more coming through the window. When this happens, the a/c load drops and the energy savings are immediate. As well, the building hot spots are moderated. If Solar Grates are used, the room remains bright and the need for artificial lighting is reduced (so turn some off) and when the lights aren’t needed they aren’t heating the room. All of this makes it easier for the system control to be optimized. Plus, what a/c use is needed for cooling and humidity control can often be shifted to night when electric rates are lower. The point is, a sophisticated control system based on data analysis can do fancy things. Do this in a circumstance where the CAUSE OF THE HEAT GAIN is reduced into a new operating realm and the controls can really show their stuff.

    To make the job easier, AERC of WCMA has been commissioned to technically evaluate various window attachments for performance and economics and to design an Energy Star type rating system for these designs. The work will be done at LBNL and will take about 4 years.

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