Home Tech How a smart thermostat helped me avert a potential disaster

How a smart thermostat helped me avert a potential disaster

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How a smart thermostat helped me avert a potential disaster

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

It started on the tarmac at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson airport. After a nine-hour flight from London, I switched on my phone and was greeted with the usual barrage of notifications. Among them was an alert from the Ecobee SmartThermostat: “Problem with cooling,” it said. Tapping the alert told me that, “For the past 4 hours the thermostat has been calling for cool, but the room temperature has increased by 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, temps had been hitting the high-90s all week.

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

Using a Google Nest floodlight camera, I checked the outdoor HVAC unit.

One thing I’ve learned in my decade-plus 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 did. 

(I discovered this the hard way when the open/close sensor fell off my garage door one afternoon when I was at a soccer tournament for the weekend. Thinking it had somehow spontaneously opened, 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. This is why I recommend putting a camera in your garage if you plan to open and close the door remotely!)

The connected home’s current state is all notification and no action

Before panicking too much about my slowly boiling home (which currently contained at least one living creature — my bunny rabbit), I checked the other temperature sensors in my house. 

I also checked my bedroom’s Mitsubishi mini split heating and cooling unit, connected via a Sensibo Air smart controller. These sensors all confirmed that every room in my house, except my bedroom, was hovering between 86 and 92 degrees. 

The Climate tab in the Apple Home app showed me at a glance that everything was not alright in my home. These are temperature readings from the 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 was living, and I checked she was okay with a camera I had set up near her hutch.

Now I had confirmed the problem was my main HVAC unit, which is about nine years old and had been struggling through a week of feels-like temperatures in the low 100s.

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

Using a Google Nest floodlight camera near the outside 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. But, frustratingly, it couldn’t offer any more info, and there was no remote troubleshooting option or action I could take. 

My dilemma now, at 8:30PM, sitting on an airport runway 300 miles from home, was do I call the HVAC company’s emergency line and send a tech out to my unoccupied home at significant expense (I could let them in, thanks to a smart lock), or deal with it when I get home?

I opted to wait because I was only a few hours from home. Opening the door to 90-plus-degree heat was not a fun homecoming. But at least we were prepared for it.

Thankfully the bunny was okay!

I called the HVAC company in the morning, and they sent out a tech — 24 sweaty hours later. Thankfully, he quickly diagnosed the problem: a fried capacitor. He fixed it in five minutes, to the tune of $300.

While I consider this a smart home success story, it highlights that the connected home’s current state is all notification and no action. We can know everything about our homes but can’t do much about it — at least not from afar. 

A really smart home would alert you to a problem, identify it, offer solutions, and — with your consent — fix it for you. Much like our cars have become self-diagnosing computers, so could our homes. 

Some proactive solutions are available today but generally require expensive tech and proprietary systems. For example, Moen’s smart water system can shut off your water if it detects a leak or run it at a trickle through a faucet if temperatures are predicted to go below freezing. But the system relies on all-Moen hardware, and the smart water shutoff valve starts at around $600.

The Ecobee SmartThermostat can monitor your home’s temperature and can send alerts for drops or spikes in temperature as well as problems with heating or cooling.

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

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

Of course, this would need human intervention, including physically and digitally allowing the HVAC company access to my home. This could be similar to how a home security monitoring service works today (something Ecobee also does, incidentally).

This chart, accessible through Ecobee’s web interface, illustrates how the temperature in my home was out of the norm. Access to this type of data could be used by a home monitoring service to be alerted to a possible problem, as long as you’re willing to share.

A similar thing happened with my Samsung Family Hub smart fridge a few months ago. It alerted me something was wrong with its temperature readings through the SmartThings app, and, after I contacted them, Samsung remotely diagnosed the problem and sent a technician with the correct part to repair it, reducing potentially two expensive visits into one. 

This type of connectivity-powered service is a persuasive argument for the smart home. But it requires a lot of trust. And while I would love to have turned up to a cool house at midnight after a full 12 hours of traveling — with two kids, five suitcases, and a grumpy husband — rather than the humid mess we had to manage, I’m not sure I want to give up the privacy and data necessary to make that happen.

The biggest barrier to realizing the smart home’s potential is this tension between the convenience we crave and the data and access necessary to make it happen. I’m glad I knew there was a possible boiling bunny scenario in my home, but I want my house to be smart enough to do something about it. How we get there, however, is still a puzzle that needs to be solved.

Photos and screenshots by Jennifer Pattison Tuohy / The Verge

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