If you want people to alter their energy use, start with what they know. That's the motto of green living product maker ecobee, which has recently added an energy management system to its award-winning smart thermostat.
Every company in the home area network space is compelled to develop an energy management portal and iPhone app to offer their customers, and ecobee is no different. Unlike some other players in the space, however, ecobee is not jockeying for future space on Best Buy shelves, but is instead hoping that HVAC contractors and utilities will help bring its product to the people.
"There are a lot of people who don't want to do it themselves," said Stuart Lombard, President and CEO of ecobee, in reference to the process of installing a smart thermostat. It is also apparent from focus groups that most people who already own the devices aren't programming their smart thermostats to make best use of their capabilities.
Enter the ecobee smart thermostat. It has a bright touch screen, like a smart phone, which is no accident: it's built on smart phone architecture. "We're very focused on the consumer experience," said Lombard.
The easy-to-read touch screen has icons that make it look and feel like an iPhone. It shows the current temperature setting in the house and the icons allow me to set vacation settings, change my programming, check weather and see more details about my usage. Lombard foresees more features being added constantly to enhance the customer experience. I'm not sure I would really be using my thermostat for various applications, but I also never thought I would use my telephone to upload pictures to something called Facebook. This thermostat feels like it can meet different people's needs -- whether they just want to set their temperature before they come home, or geek out on added apps and features. That is also the point, said Lombard: "It's future-proof. People don't know what customers are going to want or what they're not going to want."
The price tag for a thermostat is about $200 through a utility application, Lombard, said, but it is listed as $469 on ecobee's website. At the utility price, the payback would be about 12 to 18 months, which is the benchmark for most products, but the product might have to come down for residential users to bite.
Although the thermostat currently regulates HVAC systems for residential and light commercial spaces, it is ZigBee-compliant and has a WiFi chip, so it will eventually be able to link to smart appliances, solar panels and potentially even lighting systems. It is also able to do demand response, where customers can set triggers to turn down systems, or choose to receive alerts when prices or kilowatt-hours hit certain levels.
If the idea of managing all of that on a little touch screen seems ridiculous, enter the web portal. The energy management system, launched in May, offers more granularity and an easy-on-the-eyes color scheme in shades of green and blue. It kind of looks like an Outlook calendar, which is no coincidence, either. The target audience is users who are 35 to 50 years old, live in a dual-income household and are university-educated, said Lombard, although he expects the product to expand and morph to meet other segments of the population in the future.
So the question I always ask -- "Could my father figure this out?" -- is kind of a moot point here. He's older than the target age range for the product, and he's never seen an Outlook calendar in his life, so he wouldn't be impressed by the similarity to the program.
However, the user-friendly color-coded bars, along with the set-up wizard, which lets you input the times at which people in your house wake up, leave, and come home, mean that the thermostat would appeal to a much broader spectrum of people than just the demographic that ecobee is initially shooting for.
The energy savings seem to be in the range of many other energy management systems, about 12 to 15 percent for most residential users, according to Lombard, but that could range up to 30 percent depending on location. More importantly, customers are engaging with their ecobee thermostat at a much higher rate than the industry average.
For example, someone who owns a Starbucks, or maybe 100 of them, can generate reports and share those reports across properties to find best practices. Lombard notes that the majority of commercial properties fall under the light commercial sector with facilities of less than 50,000 square feet, and observes that this is an underserved segment of the market when it comes to energy management. The web portal for commercial clients looks much like the residential version, so even if your specialty is running a coffee shop and not facilities management, the interface is still simple and approachable.
Currently, the product doesn't seem to be as geeked-out as some other products on the market, and it doesn't include any metrics comparing your use to your neighbors, which systems like OPower have, although Lombard said that feature is coming down the road.
The Toronto-based company has partners in the utility space, including Itron, Landis+Gyr, Silver Spring Networks, Trilliant, GridPoint, IBM and Accenture, which could help its product be integrated into smart grid projects across North America. It already has pilots with various utilities, schools and commercial properties, particularly restaurants and fast food chains.