'Smart' thermostats to get test run in Texas

Start-up EcoFactor offers residents of the Dallas-Fort Worth area the option to regulate household climate using weather predictions, as well as a home's thermal characteristics.

Candace Lombardi
In a software-driven world, it's easy to forget about the nuts and bolts. Whether it's cars, robots, personal gadgetry or industrial machines, Candace Lombardi examines the moving parts that keep our world rotating. A journalist who divides her time between the United States and the United Kingdom, Lombardi has written about technology for the sites of The New York Times, CNET, USA Today, MSN, ZDNet, Silicon.com, and GameSpot. She is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not a current employee of CNET.
Candace Lombardi
3 min read

A thermostat technology that's intended to significantly reduce energy bills is about to become available for use in actual homes.

EcoFactor, the developer of a software platform for a two-way "smart" thermostat, announced Thursday its dynamic system for regulating home heating, ventilating, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems will be offered through a pilot project in the Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas, metro area.

In addition to turning heat or air conditioning on and off at set times or specified temperatures, the system monitors the thermal behavior of the home, as well as daily outdoor temperatures and weather forecasts. It analyzes the data as well--according to EcoFactor, that includes "24,000 points of data each day from individual homes, local weather stations and numerous other geographic inputs." EcoFactor has said its program, which requires an Internet connection, can make an HVAC system 20 percent to 30 percent more efficient then a thermostat set by humans alone.

EcoFactor uses a wireless thermostat and a receiver connected to the Internet to monitor and regulate a home's climate. Carrier

While the system allows users to log in from any Internet-connected mobile phone or computer to check and change usage habits, the thermostat system can also be set to self-regulate as it learns a home's habits without users having to monitor it.

In one test trial, a home's thermostat was programmed to activate air conditioning as needed throughout the day to maintain a specific temperature, and reset the house to a cooler temperature one hour before residents returned. The EcoFactor system determined that for the thermal characteristics of that particular home, it was actually more efficient to keep the air conditioner off completely during the day, and have it turn on one hour before residents returned to reach the desired temperature.

The self-regulating system can even cool a home in anticipation of a predicted heatwave, but people also have the ability to override the system as they wish.

But the energy savings come at a price. For its Dallas-Fort Worth program, EcoFactor will charge $19.95 per thermostat installation and offer the first 6 months of monitoring for free. Users subsequently will be charged $8.99 per month, so it would behoove consumers to check whether the thermostat saves at least that much in energy bills per month as a result of the installation.

EcoFactor, which was started in 2006, garnered recognition last year when it won a $100,000 national award from the CleanTech Open, one of the leading environmental start-up competitions in the U.S. It's believed the technology could have a significant impact since home heating and cooling makes up at least half of the average U.S. home energy bill.

Oncor, a Texas electric utility, is sponsoring the pilot project as part of its "Take a Load Off, Texas" campaign to promote lower energy consumption. It's also backed by Texas is Hot, a nonprofit organization aiming at reducing the state's energy use. The thermostat installations will be overseen by Service Experts.

While the home climate factor is unique, EcoFactor is certainly not the only provider of home energy monitoring. A slew of possible user-friendly options for monitoring homes were showcased at the Consumer Electronics Show in January. Many of them are directed toward monitoring and regulating home electricity use and appliance behavior to take advantage of off-peak electricity rates.