Go to an industry trade show like IBS these days and you will see lots of smart appliances. They offer more control to the homeowner and get lots of attention from the press. You will also see less-glitzy, but arguably more-important, diagnostic and reporting apps that reduce customer complaints as well as service and warranty calls.
Here are just a few examples of how both types of technology are helping make the propane smart home a reality.
Control and energy savings
A growing array of devices offers homeowners more control over their appliances.
Rheem‘s EcoNet monitoring system can be used with the manufacturer’s heating, cooling, and water-heating products. It integrates with a Nest thermostat and offers control functions such as automatically idling the water heater when the homeowners switch the thermostat to vacation mode.
Circ-Logic for Rinnai tankless water heaters lets homeowners activate the recirculation pump when they need hot water, rather than it running on a schedule. It saves energy and eliminates cold water going down the drain while the homeowners wait for it to get hot. The pump can be activated via a smartphone app, a motion sensor (as when someone walks into the master bath), or by voice (“Alexa, I need hot water”).
“Water heaters used to be invisible to homeowners,” says David Federico, Rinnai brand director. “This offers a level of control and energy savings that was never before possible.”
The importance of diagnostics
New technologies also alert HVAC and plumbing contractors of system problems (with the homeowner’s permission). Contractors can then schedule a service call. “Knowing the problem ahead of time also means the tech can bring the right parts,” Federico says. “That saves wasted trips.”
Rob Minnick, owner of Minnick’s Inc., an HVAC contractor in Laurel, Maryland, has been installing Emerson‘s Sensi Predict on his customers’ furnaces and boilers. Emerson charges the homeowner a $49 annual fee to monitor 32 system functions and alert the contractor and homeowner if there’s a problem.
It has proven a real time saver. Rather than sending trucks to every customer’s house twice a year, the company can respond to system alerts. “This has reduced our need for labor,” he says.
Sensi Predict also lets technicians test the system before leaving the house. With nearly half of systems not properly installed, according to the Department of Energy, this assurance is a big deal. “By ensuring system health and operating efficiency, we lower the lifetime cost to the homeowner,” says Craig Johnson, president of residential solutions at Emerson.
Johnson says this diagnostic capability also helps contractors create stickier customer relationships by positioning them as problem-solving partners. Minnick agrees. “If we get an alert that the furnace stopped working, we notify the homeowners and arrange to meet them there,” he says. “They don’t have to come home to a cold house then try to get someone out there.”
Monitoring technologies can also provide assurance that homeowners will always have an adequate supply of propane in the tank. Tank Utility offers wireless tank monitors that it sells to homeowners as well as to propane delivery companies. Its Wi-Fi–enabled transmitter connects to the tank’s existing gauge and sends an alert if the level is low.
This is obviously useful for homeowners not on automatic delivery, but delivery companies that use the app can let any homeowner use it. “Propane users tend to worry about running out of fuel,” says Tank Utility CEO Amos Epstein. “This gives them a sense of security.”
Making combustion safer
Combustion safety is a natural market for smart devices in propane-fueled homes. Smart carbon monoxide and smoke detectors include the Nest Protect and the Leeo Smart Alert. These devices send an alert to a homeowner’s smartphone if they detect a problem.
At least one app aims to reduce the chance of fires. Inirv React consists of a set of replacement knobs for a gas or propane stove or cooktop, along with a ceiling-mounted sensor. The sensor will shut the burners off if they’re left unattended for too long. If the homeowner worries that they left a burner on by mistake, they can use their phone to see whether that’s the case and shut it off remotely if necessary.
Available for pre-order and scheduled to start shipping in late 2019, the system is a fascinating example of the way even physical devices such as burner knobs can be controlled remotely and digitally.
Lead photo: Rinnai’s wireless module allows customers to control their tankless water heater (putting it in vacation mode, for instance, or activating the recirculation system) through an app or with Amazon Alexa.