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Tuesday, October 3, 2023
HomeTechHow a smart thermostat helped me avoid a potential disaster

How a smart thermostat helped me avoid a potential disaster


They say the worst part of vacation is coming home. I only partially agree with that theory. I love sleeping in my own bed. and cuddling my cat, my dogs and my bunny makes up for not being in Belgium having a waffle for breakfast. But this summer, my homecoming was almost a complete disaster. I say almost because, thanks to my smart home, at least I had a warning about what to expect.

It began on the runway at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson Airport. After a nine-hour flight from London, I turned on my phone and received the usual barrage of notifications. among them was an alert from the Ecobee SmartThermostat: “Problem with cooling” it said. Touching the alert told me that “For the last 4 hours the thermostat has been calling for cool, but the room temperature has risen 8.6F”.

The Ecobee app confirmed that both thermostats in my two-zone system were reading between 88 and 91 degrees despite being set to 78. That was only a few degrees cooler than the ambient temperature outside my home in South Carolina, where, according to The Weather Channel app, temperatures had been hitting the 90s all week.

This alert warned me that something was up with my HVAC system.

Using a Google Nest spotlight camera, I checked the outdoor climate unit.

One thing I’ve learned in my more than a decade of living in a smart home is the importance of verification. Just because your smart garage door controller app says the door just opened doesn’t mean it has.

(I found this out the hard way when the open/close sensor fell off my garage door one afternoon when I was at a soccer tournament over the weekend. Thinking it had somehow opened spontaneously, I used the app to close it. The next day, I got a call from a neighbor asking if I knew my door had been open all night. That’s why I recommend putting a camera in your garage if you plan on opening and closing the door remotely!)

The current status of the connected home is all notification and no action

Before I got too panicky about my simmering home (which currently contained at least one living creature: my bunny), I checked the other temperature sensors in my house.

I also checked the one in my bedroom. Mitsubishi mini split heating and cooling unit, connected through a Sensibo Air Smart Controller. All of these sensors confirmed that every room in my house except my bedroom was between 86 and 92 degrees.

The Weather tab in the Apple Home app showed me at a glance that all was not well in my home. These are temperature readings from Apple HomePods, Hue motion sensors, and the Ecobee thermostat.

The bedroom was a comfortable 78, thanks to the still working mini split unit. Luckily, this was where the bunny lived, and I checked that he was okay with a camera he had installed near his rabbit hutch.

I had now confirmed that the problem was my main HVAC unit, which is about nine years old and had been struggling for a week with temperatures that felt in the 100s.

I’m glad to know there was a possible boiling bunny scenario in my house, but I want my house to be smart enough to do something about it.

Using a Google Nest floodlight camera near the outdoor unit, I could hear that the AC condenser was still running, and the Ecobee app also told me that the system was actively trying to cool down. But frustratingly, he couldn’t offer any further information, and there was no remote troubleshooting option or action he could take.

My dilemma now, at 8:30 pm, sitting on an airport tarmac 300 miles from home, was whether to call the HVAC company’s hotline and send a technician to my vacant house at significant cost (I could let them in, thanks to a smart lock) or deal with it when I get home.

I opted to wait because it was a few hours from home. Opening the door to 90+ degrees was not a fun coming home. But at least we were prepared for it.

Luckily the bunny was fine!

I called the HVAC company in the morning and they sent me a technician, 24 hours later. Fortunately, he quickly diagnosed the problem: a fried capacitor. She fixed it in five minutes, to the tune of $300.

While I consider this to be a smart home success story, it does highlight that the current state of the connected home is notification only and no action. We can know everything about our homes, but we can’t do much about it, at least not from afar.

A truly smart home would alert you to a problem, identify it, offer solutions, and with your consent, fix it for you. Just as our cars have become self-diagnostic computers, so too could our homes.

Some proactive solutions are available today, but they generally require expensive technology and proprietary systems. For example, Moen Smart Water System You can shut off your water supply if you detect a leak or let it run through a faucet if temperatures are forecast to drop below freezing. But the system is based on hardware from Moen, and the smart water shutoff valve starts at around $600.

The Ecobee SmartThermostat can monitor the temperature in your home and can send alerts for drops or spikes in temperature, as well as heating or cooling issues.

The HVAC technician told me that he had seen several capacitors fail that same week, as the units struggled to handle the intense and prolonged temperatures. With more homes connected, it’s easy to see how the company could have used that data to fix my problem more quickly, possibly even before it happened, with enough historical data about my system.

But this potentially smarter solution would involve more seamless integration between my thermostat, HVAC system, and service provider. A smart thermostat fully integrated with my unit that could identify that the capacitor had gone bad and then order the part and Sending a technician out to install it, all before landing in Atlanta, is an exciting and entirely plausible concept.

Of course, this would require human intervention, including allowing the HVAC company physical and digital access to my home. This could be similar to how a home security monitoring service works today (something Ecobee does too, by the way).

This graph, which can be accessed through the Ecobee web interface, illustrates how the temperature in my house was out of the ordinary. Access to this kind of data could be used by a home monitoring service to get alerts about a potential problem, as long as you’re willing to share it.

Something similar happened with my Samsung Family Hub smart fridge a few months back. They alerted me that something was wrong with their temperature readings via the SmartThings app, and after contacting them, Samsung diagnosed the problem remotely and sent a technician with the correct part to fix it, potentially cutting two costly visits in one.

This kind of connectivity-driven service makes a persuasive argument for the smart home. But it requires a lot of trust. And while I’d love to have arrived home fresh at midnight after a full 12 hours of travel, with two kids, five suitcases, and a grumpy husband, instead of the damp mess we had to manage, I’m not sure I’d want to give up the privacy and data necessary to make that happen.

The biggest obstacle to realizing the potential of the smart home is this tension between the convenience we crave and the data and access needed to make it happen. I’m glad to know there was a possible boiling bunny scenario in my house, but I want my house to be smart enough to do something about it. However, how we got there remains a puzzle to be solved.

Photos and screenshots by Jennifer Pattison Tuohy / The Verge

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