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EcoFactor pings thermostats to save energy

Silicon Valley start-up launches a hosted business intelligence application for optimizing heating and cooling systems to a given home.

Start-up EcoFactor is looking at home energy management as a big math problem.

The Silicon Valley-based company on Tuesday is formally launching and is announcing that the largest utilty in Texas, Oncor, has signed on with EcoFactor's residential energy-management service for three years.

There are several companies developing Web-based software or displays to show consumers, in more detail than a monthly bill, how much energy they are using.

A conduit for gathering data. Carrier

EcoFactor's software, by contrast, works behind the scenes by gathering data from a two-way thermostat and then analyzing the information to optimize heating and cooling systems, which often account for about half of home electricity use.

Collecting thousands of pieces of information a day helps create a picture of a home's "thermal characteristics" and make heating and cooling systems run 20 percent to 30 percent more efficiently, said Scott Hublou, the company's senior vice president of products and co-founder. Even homeowners who have programmed thermostats can benefit because the analysis is customized for a single home, he said.

"People want to do the right thing but they don't necessarily have all the answers, which depends a lot on the thermal characteristics of the house and the mechances of the HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) systems. Sometimes it's the best guess," Hublou said.

EcoFactor combines thermostat settings and information on weather forecasts to run HVAC systems more efficiently. For example, in a trial it found that in two nearly identical homes it was more efficient to turn on the air conditioner one hour before residents came home, rather than to run it at a slightly higher temperature all day long. People can also override settings, which is another piece of data the software uses.

To use the service, consumers need to have a two-way thermostat that can send data over a home broadband connection to EcoFactor's hosted application, which is written on the open-source LAMP stack.

EcoFactor plans to offer the service through business partners, including utilities. There are also a number of service providers, notably telecom operators and cable companies, that are looking to offer home energy-management services to existing customers.

In the deal with Oncor, the software will be used as part of demand-response program in Texas in which customers get a discount to cut electricity use during peak times, typically the middle of a hot day when the air conditioning load on the system is high.

Rather than adjust thermostats higher during peak times, the EcoFactor software will be able to "pre-cool" homes in anticipation of the demand-response event, which should make it more comfortable for people participating in the progam, Hublou explained. Altogether, the software will be used to cut three megawatts of peak power, the equivalent of about 2,000 average-size air conditioner units.

EcoFactor, which was founded three years ago, is funded by angel investors. The company is now in the process of trying to raise a series A round of venture capital.