How Small Businesses Can Save Money on AC Using Smart Thermostats

Small business owners may often find themselves left out in the cold when it comes to cost effective approaches to saving money on air conditioning (AC) expenses. With a significantly lower price point than a building automation system, smart thermostats may provide a cost-effective controls solution to lower energy bills. For maximum cost savings and reliable operation, it is important to consider several key factors.

Commercial Building AC Control Options

Rooftop package units and residential-type central air conditioners condition over 68% of the commercial building stock in the US (2012 CBECS) which many small business owners occupy. Many of these air conditioning systems are controlled by relatively low-tech thermostats, ranging from legacy mercury-bulb thermostats, with a single static cooling setpoint, to stand-alone programmable thermostats, often left in their default factory programmed setback schedules. These thermostats leave little opportunity remotely managing air conditioning loads or responding efficiently to needs for ventilation.

In years past, the only option for controlling these independent air conditioning units would be an building automation system (BAS). A BAS is a costly proposition, often involving installing hundreds to thousands of feet of communications cable and custom programming for an entry-level system. With costs often reaching into the tens of thousands of dollars for such a system, these systems are difficult to justify based on energy cost savings alone.

3 Tips to Save Money on AC Using Smart Thermostats

As I eluded to in my previous post on tips to minimize electricity bills on time-of-use rates, new Internet-of-Things (IOT) smart thermostats have brought the technology necessary to dynamically and remotely control HVAC setpoints into a readily available and cost-effective package for homeowners. With a price point in the hundreds of dollars, including installation, smart thermostats may provide a cost-effective controls solution for small businesses, with some caveats.

1.    Purchase Small Business Friendly Smart Thermostats

First off, IOT Thermostats cannot replicate all the capabilities of an entry level Building Automation system.

Most IOT thermostats are designed with the residential user in mind, and have online controls interfaces optimized for just the few thermostats that are typically found in a home. Adding more than a few thermostats to such a system may lead to an unwieldly mess making it difficult to control remotely. You may also exceed limits on the number of thermostats you can control from a single account.

Fortunately, many IOT thermostat vendors have product offerings, e.g. the ecobee Si, Pelican Wireless, and the Honeywell WiFi 9000, that bridge the gap between a residential smart thermostat and an enterprise-class building controls offering. These thermostats offer online portals with small business users in mind, allowing multiple thermostats to be controlled efficiently, and for some utilities, the ability to respond to demand response events. Some even have a subscription service option for purchase for a few dollars per t-stat per month, rather than a traditional buy/install option.

Ecobee has models designed specifically for the small biz sector

2.    Investigate WiFi Quality at Each Location

Second, your Smart Thermostat is only as strong as your WiFi network.

As many people are finding out working from home, residential WiFi networks can be the Wild West of networking, with each home’s WiFi router battling for supremacy, and often, leading to periodic loss of connectivity for many of the attached devices. While loss connectivity may be a minor convenience when streaming your Netflix movie, it can become a costly inconvenience if it causes your business’s air conditioner to turn on during peak hours, or worse, during a demand response event, as may be the case if a user override is combined with a loss of WiFi connectivity.

Pelican Wireless also has a model that includes a CO2 sensor for demand-controlled ventilation

WiFi interference can cause problems for multi-tenant office buildings, in which multiple tenants each have their own WiFi network shouting over each other. Before investing in a WiFi thermostat for your business, you should investigate the quality of your WiFi network at each thermostat location.

3.    Don’t Skip Preventative Maintenance

Finally, your Smart thermostats does not replace the need for preventative maintenance.

Smart control relies on properly maintained equipment. Smart control of your thermostats can provide a effective way to manage your energy usage under time of use rates. However, poor maintenance can eat away at these savings if you neglect preventative maintenance on your air conditioning system. Therefore, before considering installation of any advanced air conditioning control system, you should evaluate your current HVAC preventative maintenance procedures. Typical basic preventative maintenance in small commercial buildings usually includes filter changes, refrigerant charge testing, airflow checks, inspection for worn belts and other steps. ASHRAE Standard 180 is a good reference for a comprehensive list of maintenance for many types of equipment.

Regular seasonal preventative maintenance on your air conditioning system can identify maintenance issues such as dirty filters, broken economizers, or undercharged refrigeration systems, all of which can reduce the overall efficiency of your AC system. Your HVAC service provider may have smart thermostats recommendations based on their experience. So, you may choose to engage them before making your purchase.

Begin to Save Money on AC

Installing smart thermostats can provide a cost-effective solution to lower energy bills for small businesses. When following these tips, you maximize your chances of success. If you have any questions about using smart thermostats to save money on AC, contact us anytime.

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