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Homeowners are becoming so comfortable with connected devices that their prevalence has helped coin a new expression: the Internet of Things.

Also referred to as “IoT,” the Internet of Things is as simple as it sounds. Ordinary “things” in our everyday lives — such as garage door openers, alarm clocks, and lighting — are designed with connectivity, so they can communicate with the internet and with one another. From kitchen appliances to your favorite wristwatch, IoT is a fast-growing market, forecast to grow to 24 billion devices by 2030, according to Business Insider Intelligence. This number is not including computers, tablets, smartphones, or televisions.

Even home appliances not traditionally considered “electronics” are joining the IoT universe, so propane-powered space-heating and water-heating units can now be an integral part of a connected home. Wireless capabilities on furnaces, water heaters, boilers, and thermostats offer time- and energy-saving features that benefit homeowners as well as installation and maintenance technicians.

Building pros that can highlight the real-world applications of these technologies can be a hero to today’s increasingly tech-savvy consumer.

Recirculate remotely

One practical example? Instant hot water at your tap with the tap of a smartphone.

Many new-model tankless water heaters feature integral recirculation pumps that reduce water waste by priming the hot water system so it’s ready when needed. Navien’s NaviLink module for water heaters and boilers puts control over that system at the user’s fingertips.

“Consumers that are installing these high-efficiency units expect a level of technology that will let them access the system remotely, adjust temperatures, and see diagnostic data,” says Eric Ashely, product development supervisor for Navien. “But the real meat and potatoes comes from the homeowner being able to activate their recirculation pump from anywhere so they can maximize the unit’s efficiency.”

“Consumers that are installing these high-efficiency units expect a level of technology that will let them access the system remotely, adjust temperatures, and see diagnostic data.” – Eric Ashely, Navien

Activating the recirculation pump at certain times of day, such as on the way home from work, helps ensure hot water is ready when the user arrives home but doesn’t waste energy or cause undue wear by having the pump run nonstop. For homeowners investing in high-efficiency propane water heating, getting added convenience for the money is a welcome bonus.

Rinnai’s RUR98i water heater also features a recirculation pump with remote activation, thanks to wireless connectivity. By accessing the water heater through the Rinnai app, users can activate the recirculation pump, check on maintenance updates, and connect with a dealer. The unit was recently showcased as an energy-efficient product in PulteGroup’s zero net energy (ZNE) prototype home in Northern California. The builder gave the water heater additional IoT functionality by installing wireless push buttons near points of hot water use, such as the kitchen faucet and bathroom sink, serving as a convenient secondary option for activating the recirculation pump.

Whether it’s from a smartphone or a wall-mounted push button, this type of connectivity is becoming mainstream. “We’re in the technology generation and everything is moving at lightning pace,” says Carl Geib, owner of Unlimited Plumbing & Mechanical Services in Derby, Connecticut. “The average homeowner wants to come home to have heat and hot water, but then there are homeowners that require and demand more from the equipment they put in their homes. Those people are not surprised that such technology exists — they assume it does.”

Monitoring and connecting

Rheem’s EcoNet controls allow homeowners to set schedules for their space heating and water heating systems based on lifestyle and usage needs.

Rheem has also entered the IoT world with a recent expansion of capabilities for its EcoNet platform. “Customers are increasingly getting comfortable with smart controls that interface with their phones and televisions,” says Ken Rye, EcoNet marketing manager. “The fact that these units give you remote access when you need it, or that they ping you in the event that conditions are changing in your home, provides real-world applications that save customers money immediately and over the life of the [equipment].”

EcoNet now interfaces with the popular Works with Nest platform. With Nest compatibility, the wireless-enabled equipment can now talk to the Nest thermostat and turn off or on automatically, or adjust set-points based on the homeowner’s proximity to the system. For instance, if Nest identifies that the smartphones it usually talks to are out of range, the thermostat knows you’re away and tells the water heater to switch to its energy-saving mode.

Connect with a tech

IoT-enabled equipment can be set up so that a technician is notified of errors or leak alerts.

One function the Internet of Things has yet to offer is equipment that repairs itself. But contractors can use smart devices to make the repair process speedy and seamless for their customers.

Rye says some of Rheem’s best customer feedback has come from features like leak detection mode. When technicians install EcoNet-enabled equipment, they can add their company’s contact information and receive alerts about their customers’ equipment, if those homeowners have shared their account access with the installer. With that setup, installation and maintenance technicians can proactively contact their customers if a fault notification or leak alert comes through, or create the opportunity for remote check-ins on IoT-enabled equipment.

Geib says system-generated alerts and error codes are helpful for both homeowners and technicians. “I don’t have to be on-site for basic diagnostics and troubleshooting,” he says. “I can read what the homeowner sees in real time and guide them through basic protocol to get them through the night, then pay a visit the following day.”

Connected space- and water-heating equipment doesn’t take technicians out of the equation, Geib says, but does provide a stop-gap measure until professionals can visit the equipment on-site. It also gives the technician a heads-up about what to expect when they arrive at their customer’s home, so they can have the right repair and maintenance measures ready to go.

As more space- and water-heating equipment comes to market, technicians need to stay up to date on the technology, so they can talk about it intelligently with their customers, Geib says. “Technology and control are at the forefront of manufacturers’ and end users’ minds. With the ability to forensically dissect one’s expenses, in today’s world, it’s paramount to be educated on what the industry and the world require.”

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Lauren Hunter