8 Challenges for Developing Connected HVAC Systems
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Developing a connected HVAC product means more than just adding a technical interface to a conventional one. Connectivity is a game changer with implications for many aspects of product design. Particular challenges are:
Interoperability, i.e. the distribution of functionality across several devices that are to be compatible.
Within the product range of a manufacturer this is usually well manageable. However, it becomes incomparably more complicated when devices from different manufacturers have to be coordinated along technical standards such as Modbus, KNX or BACnet.
This challenge could be a major factor in why building management systems are often treated as a necessary evil in large-scale projects, why building information modelling is extremely slow to penetrate the market, or why the spread of smart home systems has lagged behind expectations for years.
As in many other industries, interoperability is one of the most complicated challenges in heating technology, which is already evident with incompatible fittings or sensor types such as NTC, KTY and Pt1000. Even though restrictions on interoperability are likely to remain a permanent reality, there are certainly examples of successful initiatives, such as the harmonisation achieved in the control signals for pumps.
Interusability is closely related to interoperability, but refers to a uniform user experience rather than technical compatibility. A system whose components work together technically, but require the user to understand different ways of interaction for each sub-product, will face the same barriers to acceptance.
Anyone who has ever used a ride-sharing service such as Uber or Lyft will experience a prime example of a seamless end-to-end user experience: from ordering a ride, to communicating the destination, to processing the payment, everything feels like a unified whole.
In connected HVAC systems, for example, different menu structures, design elements or terminology between an app and its physical counterpart (e.g. boiler controller) can harm interusability. Or two apps can display contradictory system statuses because they query the status at different times.
Tips on how to deal with interoperability and interusability can also be found in the chapter From product design to system design.
Asynchrony due to latency. Data transmissions require a certain processing time – the latency time. It can vary due to a variety of local conditions and is therefore only partially under the control of the manufacturers. In addition, IoT devices are not necessarily connected permanently in order to save energy or scarce computing power (see also cable versus wireless) or due to unplanned micro-interruptions – the intermittency.
Latency and intermittency can cause asynchrony between command and implementation, resulting in a fragmented user experience. In the heating sector, there are generally lower expectations of system reactions in real time than in many other IoT applications (e.g. imagine a “smart” light switch taking 30 seconds to actually do its job).
Nevertheless, care should be taken to ensure that the asynchronicity does not leave the user with a bad impression of product quality – whether justified or not. The installer should leave his site with the confidence that the installation is running smoothly.
In some situations, the use of a device may already feel sufficiently synchronous if the user receives immediate feedback (e.g. a flashing LED) for an action taken (e.g. a button pressed), even if the transmission is still running in the background. More on the influence of latency on the user experience can also be found under “From product design to system design”.
A message on the network may be lost. The largest network in the world, the Internet, is designed for reliability and feedback. Connected devices in a heating system may use networks such as radio or bus systems that do not have the same built-in safeguards.
A product concept for connected HVAC systems must therefore make its own considerations about how to prevent and deal with lost messages. For example, if expected data packets fail to arrive, conservative default values should be assumed, so that first of all people and technology are protected from damage and secondly the user is protected from loss of comfort.
Decoupling of Place and Time
A user can configure from another room, another floor, or while on the move what is to happen in another place at a later time. This creates a decoupling between the user action and its effects. Does the heating really run in eco mode after I leave the house? Does the fan coil really give off cool air when I switch valves remotely?
This decoupling places greater demands on the user’s understanding of the system and gives him not only more freedom but also responsibility for correctly assessing the consequences of his configuration. Product developers should therefore place all the more emphasis on feedback from the system that confirms to the user the consequences of his actions.
Connected HVAC systems and components enable new dimensions in data collection and its use to design products and services with higher customer value.
Parking space sensors, for example, indicate available spaces by red and green LEDs, but can be linked together to form a dynamic parking guidance system, tell the checkout system if a vehicle has occupied two spaces, or feed an algorithm that models the occupancy rate based on empirical data and suggests the optimum tariff structure to the car park operator. Depending on the operator’s wishes, countless insights can be gained or the system’s behaviour can be automated to benefit the operator or his customers.
The challenges for product management are to identify the most lucrative use cases for their product type, to prepare the products for data collection and communication, and to provide the technical infrastructure outside their own core product, which handles the transmission, storage and processing of the data.
Since both the possibilities of data use and the hurdles to successful implementation are high, these are dealt with separately in the chapter Considerations before developing a data-driven HVAC product specifically for heating technology.
A connected product is not a classic one-off purchase, but goes hand in hand with the expectation of ongoing service. This can be a remote maintenance contract, or at least the long-term technical availability of the connected system. This includes, for example, ensuring that hosting server of an app remains accessible, or software updates for future web browsers and operating systems.
Since ongoing service also means ongoing costs, the product concept must have a clear idea of how the value created for the manufacturer by connecting his products exceeds these costs.
For more on the service component of connected heating products see New value propositions for HVAC technology in IoT.
Connected products always imply IT risks. They can take many forms, from (rather rare) targeted hacker attacks to automated botnets to data breaches due to negligence. They can be aimed at manipulating the connected product directly, using it as a gateway to infiltrate the entire network, or misusing data records.
Data protection and IT security usually attract very little enthusiasm from manufacturers, as these topics incur costs, require special expertise and are rather intangible. Nevertheless, they must be accepted as an integral part of the development of connected products in order not to jeopardise customer confidence, cause bad press or damage to the company’s image.
Connectivity as a Product Differentiator
The challenges create opportunities for those manufacturers who can master them best. Once they have overcome the complexity of networked systems and system components, they will have a differentiating feature that is difficult to copy and a way out of being compared with competitors and increasing price pressure – similar to the way in which the market shares of Chinese manufacturers in the European heating market for simpler components have risen for years at the expense of European competitors, but the more complex system technology has so far largely remained in European hands.