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The Smart Home Nudges Manufacturers Toward Sustainability

By 3p Contributor

By Jennifer Tuohy

From lock manufacturers to heating and air conditioning companies, the smart home space is disrupting legacy industries. Big names in consumer products with decades of experience behind them have been caught off-guard by Kickstarter-powered startups and Silicon Valley CEOs.

The Nest Learning Thermostat, which debuted in 2011, was the first product to show what a nimble young company with high-tech brainpower behind it (in this case, two of Apple's bright minds) could do to a space that many thought was set in stone. It took a little under five years, but the legacy companies are catching up — Honeywell launched its Nest alternative, the Lyric, late last year.

Is it too little, too late? Not at all. Don't discount benefit of the decades of experience that legacy companies like Honeywell bring to the table. Bear in mind, Honeywell actually had a round thermostat first, in 1953.

As I discussed in my last article for Triple Pundit, this type of disruption drives development by forcing the big companies back to the drawing board to hopefully come up with even better products — ones that will save consumers even more money, use even less energy and lead us toward greater sustainability. Nowhere is this more relevant right now than in the smart home space.

Take Rheem, the 90-year-old water heater manufacturing company, for example. It debuted a Wi-Fi Water Heater Module last June — the first in the space. The EcoNet Module allows homeowners to take total control of their water heater from anywhere. Via a smartphone app, homeowners can set the temperature of their water heater and access features such as leak detection, service diagnostics and system status. The water heater can also be set to vacation mode, so it's not heating and reheating water when no one is home to use it, saving energy and money. There is a Kickstarter project working on a similar product, but if you are a consumer trying to decide between the two models, which are you going to choose: the one with almost a century of experience behind it or the one with seven years?

This is where the legacy manufacturers can shine in the emerging smart home space. When a company can be brave enough (or scared enough) to go back to the drawing board and rethink its products from the ground up, casting off the baggage that comes with large infrastructure and a few decades of a set way of doing things, there's no reason it can't produce a product to compete with (or in many cases, outshine) these emerging alternatives.

"These fresh young companies often have interesting takes on something that's been around for a while, without the baggage, perhaps, of past projects that haven't gone well," says Matt McGovren, marketing director of Wink, a smart home control system working with manufacturers to bring traditional products into the smart home. "These companies don't have the distribution channels to reach the mass consumer—the everyday person. The legacy companies have the channels to do that and they understand what's at stake for their business."

We are clearly just at the beginning of the smart home revolution. McGovren predicts that in the next 12 months we'll continue to see more and more products becoming connected — primarily things that you may have never thought about the benefits of connecting and that have been in our homes for decades.

"I love the example of the water heater," he offers. "You can get an alert if it's leaking, so that saves you time and money and you can also adjust your water heater's temperature—just like you can adjust your thermostat. People haven't done it before because it's hard to do, but this makes it easier. It's something people don't really think about because it's in a closet, but once you connect it, that opens up four or five use cases you'd never even thought about."

With this control comes the ability to strive toward a higher level of sustainability in the home. After HVAC, heating water accounts for the largest portion of an average home's energy use. Infinitesimal control over your hot water heater could have a significant impact on reducing water and energy use in a home, and as more and more of our home becomes controllable, the possibilities for more and more energy savings escalate.

Wink itself is an interesting model. Essentially a software company with a hardware hub that helps homeowners connect their connected devices, Wink has built its success on being the company that talks to all the other companies -- most notably, the big legacy companies.

Wink has worked hard since its launch last year to integrate with big name brands like GE, Honeywell, Kwikset, Kidde, Schlage and Rheem — companies with nearly 600 years' worth of experience in specific consumer products between them.

"We're partnering with the lead brands," McGovren said. "And it's not just a partnership in name — we actually work with them directly to work out features, as a team. That type of partnership hasn't really been done before."

An inclusive approach to the smart home is arguably the only viable path to success. "We're starting to see companies realize it's better for everybody if we work together," McGovren said. "What happened in the market in 2014 was the widespread realization that everybody needs to work together. It's no longer who is going to 'win' the smart home. That's like asking 'Who is going to win the Internet?' Nobody is going to win. It's a huge space. Instead, we need to think, 'How do people really want to live?'"

This type of collaboration between manufacturers and technology is a bright new world and one that, if it succeeds, could see the smart home step up to the next level, bringing with it increased control and sustainability in American households.

Jennifer Tuohy writes about smart homes, energy efficiency and appliances for Home Depot. You can view the smart home water heaters Jennifer discusses in her article on the Home Depot website.

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