Wednesday, January 09, 2013

HeatTrack Project

For a while now (long before the invention of the Nest Thermostat (which is an awesome accomplishment in its own right), I've had the idea of building a smart heat management system for my house. Here are some of the issues that prompted me to consider doing this.


The traditional operation of home heating system offers only very basic control. On a programmable thermostat, a schedule is very difficult to perfect, and is quickly rendered obsolete with people's changing lives.  The result is that most families operate with a less-than-optimal heating program, waste energy, and live with less comfort.


Another problem is that of data.  Besides the info you have on your monthly bill, the ins-and-outs of the of heating your house typically go unmonitored. When people examine their monthly bill, they often simply note whether this month was higher or lower than a comparable month last year, and try to make assertions about why it is such, based on available heuristics such as "I remember it was a cold January", or "I think that was the month Johnnie left the front door open overnight again".  The reality is that there is often very little scientific information available when people to make decisions about improve their home's efficiency.  This is an area some other smart thermostat products have tried to solve, but most of them are designed for commercial applications, and there isn't really anything aimed at the "geeky homeowner" demographic (like myself).


In the old days, houses only had one or two zones.  However, newer houses have at least three, four, or even more zones. Purchasing an expensive thermostat for each zone quickly becomes an insurmountable problem for the average homeowner's budget - not to mention quickly destroys the point of saving money.  If I had the money, I'd probably just run out and buy four Nest thermostats and be done with it (barring the point below about extensibility).  However, I don't have $1200 to invest in this, and I believe it can be done much cheaper.  I want to design a system that can be implemented in 4 zones for under $500.  This would be done with a central piece that costs around $300, and sensor/user interface pieces that are installed at each thermostat location for about $50-$75 each.


I believe a product isn't worth buying unless it either a.) does what I want, or b.) can be tailored to do what I want.  I will build this so that it suits me, and I expect that those who buy it will want to modify it.  I am a fan of open source software and solutions, and I believe a solution like this needs to be modular, adaptable, and interface-able, to be able to work in unforeseen circumstances.

And so, the problem statement lays out before me:

Design/build a prototype affordable, smart management component for existing heating systems, that provides superior efficiency, comfort, and feedback.

As the first phase of this project, I want to design a central monitoring system that connects to the existing thermostats and centrally monitors all the zone activity.  That way I can learn about how the heating system is currently running.  Later in phase two, I will design a sensor board and user interface that will replace each of the thermostats.

So for now, dubbing this the HeatTrack project.
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