Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Help! My Thermostat Is Smarter Than I Am!

Do you really need a smart thermostat?

The boys finished putting in the air conditioning system, which was not the most expensive system in the world, but it seems to work well.  I noticed it's a pretty popular unit, having seen a number around the island.   Being made in Mexico, these things are incredibly cheap these days - well, until the Donald decides we need to put tariffs on them.  While the efficiency might not be very high, it's more efficient than the unit we had, and moreover it seems to work properly.  The old unit was one of the last R-22 units, and it was leaking refrigerant.

By the way, while people may tell you that you can't buy R-22 anymore, it is freely available on eBay.  I have a ten-pound tank sitting next to me as I type.   And we wonder why the ozone hole is getting larger again.  But I digress.

The unit came with a Honeywell T6 smart thermostat, which I did not request.  The salesman said it came with the unit and was no additional charge.  I asked him if he would reduce the price by leaving the thermostat off, and he said there really wouldn't be any difference.  I kind of wonder if Honeywell doesn't give away these thermostats in exchange for access into my home.  Maybe it has a microphone and is "phoning home" whatever it overhears.  Or perhaps the temperature in our house is vital marketing data to someone.

For the most part, the thermostat seems to work okay.  However it keeps displaying an alert message - a triangle with an exclamation point in it - which would seem to indicate something's wrong with the system.  When you press on the alert button it says we should go online to register for an outdoor temperature sensor.   The thermostat uses the term "alert!" like Fox News does - in other words, it cries wolf a lot.

An outdoor temperature sensor is useful with a heat pump, as it will switch the heat pump over from heat pump mode to resistive heating mode, when the temperature drops below about 40 degrees or so.  Below that temperature, heat pumps are not very efficient and will run all day without pumping any heat from the outside, as there isn't a lot of heat out there to begin with.  So below about that temperature, it is better to switch to backup or "emergency" heat mode.

But we live in the South, and there's not a lot of days when the temperatures are so low, so we don't have an outside temperature sensor installed - most people don't.  For some reason the technician, when he installed the unit, set the outside temperature sensor setting to "internet."  I only found this out after going through the installer's handbook which he fortuitously left behind.  There are about 50 different parameters you can set on this thermostat, for everything from filter change reminder intervals, to ultraviolet lamp bulb changing intervals, to outside air circulation damper control, and so forth and so on.   Most of these were esoteric settings for hardware which isn't commonly used in most homes.

One of the settings is for the outdoor temperature sensor.  Since many homes are not wired for this, Honeywell offers the option of figuring out your outdoor temperature by using the Internet (I guess they scrape this data from the Weather Channel or something).  Since we don't have full-time WiFi anymore (we use our phones now for Internet access) the thermostat bombed out, and created this error message.  The only way to reset it was to go online to the "app" and "dismiss" the message.  But of course, it would reappear at 12:01 AM the next day, lighting up the thermostat, which was annoying as it tended to wake me up in the middle of the night.

The error message is quixotic.  It says "register online" for an outdoor temperature sensor.  I didn't know if it wanted me to register online for a free sensor or whether it wanted me to buy a sensor from Honeywell or whether somehow the system would detect outdoor temperature through the internet.  So it was puzzling and annoying to keep getting this message.  Every time I tried to reset the system, it would shut off the A/C for five minutes at a time.  I just love technology.

The only reason I went along with this thermostat as it probably is the only choice these days and moreover it seems that people like this sort of crap.  Someday we'll sell our house and somebody will want to have a smart thermostat.  I probably should have just stuck with the old thermostat which was basically an on-off type switch.

What was really annoying, was when I searched online for a solution to this problem, all I got was page after page of ads for Honeywell Corporation on Google.  Google really has gone down the tubes lately and promotes pages of paid advertisements before real search data.  So, instead of a solution to the problem all I got were ads for Honeywell thermostats and links to Honeywell pages.  None of these describe how to fix the problem where the error message was "register online for outdoor temperature sensor."

So finally, I broke down and read the freaking manual or RTFM as they say.  And I realized that the thermostat was configured for a virtual internet temperature sensor which it couldn't access. By entering contractor mode (by pressing the menu button for 5 seconds) I was able to scroll through the various settings and reset the outdoor temperature sensor setting from "internet" to "off."  I can understand why they don't want homeowners playing with this, as there are over 50 different settings and you could really screw the thing up by saying they are two levels of compressor stages or what not, when there are in fact only one.

Honeywell has come a long way from the Henry Dreyfuss designed round T87 thermostat of 1953.  When you get right down to it, despite all the potential functions this Honeywell has, I am only using the basic on/off function than that original tstat had.

File:Honeywell round thermostat.jpg
This is really all I needed.

In theory these modern thermostats are amazing things. You can set a radius ("geofence") around your house and if you have the thermostat app running on your phone, when you get within a certain radius of your home the system will detect that and then start turning on the cooling or heating so the house will be the correct temperature when you get there.  Sounds pretty keen, eh?

Say, for example, you set a radius of ten miles. and you're on your way home from work when you hit the 10-mile mark, the thermostat will recognize this and kick on the heating or cooling as necessary so when you step through the door, the house will be the perfect temperature.

Of course your pets might not appreciate this, having to freeze or sweat while you're gone. Also, it seems kind of short-sighted. I never understood the advantage of having temperature programming on thermostats.  We had a programmable thermostat back in Virginia and never used the programming feature.    We tried it a few times, but we were always hitting the "bypass" button as the programming never seemed to mesh with our lifestyle.  Plus, back then, you lost power, you often lost the programming, if the battery backup went dead.   But more than that, it seemed that it wasn't saving energy.   You can let the house get up to 85 Degrees during the day and then you'll spend twice as much energy trying to pull it down to 72 or 75 by the time you get home.
Electronic devices have to be so intuitive that they work like falling off a log.   Failing that, the need for them has to be so compelling that the hassle of setting them up and learning how to use them is worthwhile for the features and functions you get in return.    Internet thermostats fail both tests. 

It almost seems like it would be easier just to set the temperature at 75 and leave it there, and let it cold soak the house.  Of course, since I'm retired and I'm home most of the time, this sort of time- shifting doesn't make any sense for me, as I no longer commute.  And yes, the new Honeywell has a programmable feature (in addition to geofencing) and yes, we don't use that, either.

It also has a vacation setting so you can set it to a certain temperature when you go away on vacation, just by pressing one button.  Of course, if you go on vacation, it takes two seconds to just set the thermostat when you leave to the temperature you desire - the old-fashioned way.  But since this is an internet-enabled device, you can just go onto the app on your phone and set the temperature anywhere you want to.  I suppose that's handy.

Oddly enough, the one feature that people in the South seem to like is missing.  Many folks install a humidistat, which will turn on the A/C even if the temperature is below the cooling set point, if the humidity is high.  This prevents mold and mildew from forming, which can occur even if it is cool out, but it is humid in the house.  If it is cool out, the A/C might not come on, and as a result, the humidity in the house is high and mold forms.  A humidistat prevents this problem.  It is one feature this gee-whiz-bang thermostat is missing.

There have been reports that people have hacked into these thermostats, but I'm not sure why.  I guess you could really wreak havoc with somebody's house by setting the temperature really low or really high and running up their energy bill and melting the candles in  the dining room.  Since we are not using the internet features, this isn't an issue for us.

And I suppose it would be handy when you're on vacation to be able to log into your thermostat and see what the temperature is in the house.   I tried this, and it is cool - being able to monitor temperature and set temperature from your cell phone (no need to leave your easy chair!).   But it was an interesting novelty, that's all.   If the temperature has gone over a certain limit, you would call a neighbor or friend and have them let in the contractor to repair the system.  And I supposed too, the system probably automatically phones home when something does go wrong so that you can know when the air conditioning isn't working, or there is an error message like "register online for an outdoor temperature sensor!"

Or you can do like we do, and have a neighbor with an extra key stop by once in a while to flush the toilets and check the house and make sure everything's okay.  We do the same thing for them so it works out.  Plus, you get to know your neighbors this way.  I suspect, however, in modern America where no one knows their neighbors in these antiseptic townhouse neighborhoods, that such arrangements are much harder to work out.  We have these electronic watchers instead, including doorbell cameras and security systems, so you can get a video of the porch pirate who steals your next piece of electronic trash from Amazon.

But so far, the smart thermostat seems to be pretty useless to me.  It is kind of interesting tech, but annoying when it doesn't work right - like pretty much all technology these days.  And when it does work right, it provides services and functions that you don't really need or want that desperately.  It is the fitbit of thermostats, although I doubt it will end up in a drawer, somewhere

Electronic devices have to be so intuitive that they work like falling off a log.   Failing that, the need for them has to be so compelling that the hassle of setting them up and learning how to use them is worthwhile for the features and functions you get in return.    I think internet thermostats fail both tests.  They are difficult to set up and learn how to use, and the payoff just isn't there.   You can set your house temperature from your cell phone.  Big freakin' whoopee.

Sometimes simpler is better - and cheaper.  I should have saved the old thermostat when they were throwing it away.  I kick myself for not doing that.  And I should have talked the salesman out of the internet thermostat and got him to know a few bucks off the install cost.   Because while the internet thermostat is nice and all, I am not sure it is something I really needed or wanted, or whose vaunted features I will actually use.

And I am sure it was not worth the hassle and difficulty involved in setting it up and debugging it.

UPDATE:  We deactivated the Internet capability of the thermostat and it works well as a typical thermostat.  Once nice feature is "circulate" which turns the fan on for five minutes every hour.  This keeps the air evenly circulated in the house and when we are gone, helps prevent mold and mildew from forming.  With the new hotspot, I suppose I could re-engage the internet aspect of it, but we take the hotspot with us, so it would be of no use.  Besides, how many times have you said, "Gosh, I wish I could set the thermostat at my house while I'm on vacation!"  Answer: NONE.