Home heating and cooling has always been done by brute force. Vents blow regulated air throughout a house, and somewhere, a thermometer tells the entire system when to stop or start. But houses should be able to make smart decisions on when and how to run their heating or cooling systems, according to a company called Suntulit; they just need technology to sense humans and predict when to start changing the temperature.
The main barrier to installing smart temperature control systems, of course, has always been the ease of setting up a dumb ones. It’s very simple to just build ventilation tubes throughout a house and push through cold or hot air depending on the direction of the central thermometer. Adding a little intelligence doesn’t just require careful planning, it also typically takes a lot more money, so the most common system controls are people physically opening and closing vents, and manually raising or lowering the temperature controls.
To do a better job, Suntulit’s setup thus has to involve devices that can open and close vents on their own, sensors to tell when people are around, and a computer brain with predictive abilities. And all of the above has to be done cheaply.
The “cheap” part isn’t necessary for some people, of course. Systems already exist that involve running wires through the ventilation to power devices that close off certain passages, and more wires going to distributed thermometers; they’re just expensive, and very difficult to install in existing homes. Suntulit has made everything wireless.
But the most important component is the sensors. Typical occupancy sensors work based off motion; most people are familiar with having the lights in a corporate building suddenly switch off because they haven’t been moving around enough. Suntulit has instead invented its own infrared light sensor. That gives the system enough “vision” to not only always be able to tell when someone is around, but also distinguish between the shape of a human and, for instance, a dog.
The second set of sensors are temperature and humidity measurement devices. Luckily, the past few years have seen a proliferation of wireless sensors that can work for years on a single battery charge, and Suntulit has its own designs. The sensors all work in tandem to help tell a tiny mechanical device in the vents, also a long-lasting wireless unit, when to flip vents in specific rooms open or closed, which prevents wasting power in unused rooms and directs all the air to the occupied parts of the house.
The last important detail is getting the predictive automation right. A lot of people waste power and money by leaving their heating or cooling on all the time, to avoid coming back to an uncomfortable home. Most people do have predictable schedules, based around a traditional nine-to-five job. But while Suntulit’s CEO, Suminder Singh, was able to show me the sensors and vent controls, the only way he’ll be able to prove the company can get the nuances of prediction right is through people actually using the system.
Singh predicts about a 20 percent cost savings by using Suntulit’s system, and is currently having that measurement independently validated. The cost for a 2,000 square foot home should be under $1,000, so most customers will have a payback period of only a couple years.
That will make the devices an attractive option for existing homes, especially if they’re old houses that aren’t particularly energy efficient to begin with, and homeowners can install the system room by room if they’re cash-strapped. Incidentally, the infrared camera also has possibilities outside the company’s initial business plan, as a superior motion sensor.
Suntulit is currently putting the finishing touches on its designs. The company hopes to take $6 million in venture capital, with a small portion going to development and the majority toward getting its devices into stores.