A truly smart home should not only make your life easier, it should also save you money. And while there's no shortage of smart thermostats, lighting controls, door locks, and even smart irrigation systems, few solutions focus on the activity that consumes the second-highest amount of energy in the home: heating water.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration reports that heating water accounts for 17.7 percent of a typical home's energy consumption (space heating consumes 41.5 percent). That's because a traditional electric, gas, or propane water heater keeps 30, 40, or more gallons of water hot in a tank all the time. Every time the water heater's thermostat detects a drop in the water temperature below a preset threshold, it fires up its heating element and reheats the water, even though on most days you need hot water only in the mornings and evenings.
One of the best ways to reduce the energy your home uses to heat water is to install an on-demand heater that fires up only when you need hot water. I have one in my house and it's fabulous. But these so-called tankless water heaters can be very expensive, especially if you need to hire a pro to install one in place of a conventional water heater (there's both plumbing and electrical work to be done).
Sunnovations, a company with a background designing and manufacturing solar water-heater monitors, has a better idea: The Aquanta Smart Water Heater Controller. "Cool technology for hot water," as the company describes it. "We aim to bring this dumb appliance into the connected-home ecosystem," Sunnovations CEO Matt Carlson told me in an interview several weeks ago. The company has launched a Kickstarter campaign to bring its new product to market.
The Aquanta is a box that sits on top of your water heater and is connected to a probe (an enthalpy sensor, to be technical) that dangles inside the tank. The sensor feeds through a fitting that attaches to your water heater's T&P (temperature and pressure) relief valve and measures both the energy going into your tank and the energy consumed as you use hot water. The box connects through your Wi-Fi router to the cloud, which you link to with an app on your smartphone (it could also be integrated into your existing smart-home network).
"Having a very finely grained view of your household's hot-water usage patterns enables you to cycle the heating element," Carlson said. The Aquanta can learn your hot-water usage patterns, much like the Nest Learning Thermostat monitors your heating and air-conditioning use, and can suggest a water-heating schedule. You can also establish your own schedule for turning the water heater on when it's needed and off when you don't expect to be home. Finally, you can turn the heater on and off manually, using the smartphone app. The box can send you text messages when it determines you haven't used hot water for a while.
In addition to its energy-savings features, the Aquanta can also alert you to water leaks. A leaking water heater can do tremendous damage because your water heater is usually out of sight, and a leak can go undetected for days or weeks. Sunnovations' product roadmap includes the development of a networked valve that can shut off the water supply to the heater in the event of a leak.
The Aquanta can also remind you to periodically flush your tank (you can extend the life of your water heater by eliminating built-up sediment this way), and test your T&P valve (a non-functioning valve can't relieve dangerous pressure buildup).
Carlson says the Aquanta is designed to be self-installed by anyone with enough experience and confidence to install a new water faucet. The device is compatible with electric water heaters and gas models that have electronic gas-control valves. It will also report energy consumption and other information when used with older gas water heaters with mechanical controls, but it won't be able to control the heating element on those models.
The Aquanta smart water-heater controller sounds like a fabulous idea, but the proof will be in the pudding. Carlson says Sunnovations expects to deliver the device in July 2015 at a retail price of $149, but early backers will get substantial discounts (as much as 50 percent). Customers willing to pay to be beta testers can expect to receive hardware as early as next February, and will be able to provide input on the installation process and suggest new features. They'll also get a production unit in July, but this requires a pledge of $750 or more.