Home automation's next big opportunity: Controlling the water heater

Home automation's next big opportunity: Controlling the water heater

Three years ago most people barely even thought about their air conditioning, until it didn't work. Then along came NEST, the smart thermostat that opened up a whole new world of home control, and most importantly, money savings. Suddenly, the state of your indoor climate was dinner-table conversation. Get ready to start talking about your water heater.

Rheem, one of the leading manufacturers of water heaters in the U.S., has just launched a Wi-Fi module for electric water heaters that lets you monitor the performance of the device, control its energy usage and be warned about leaks or other potentially costly malfunctions. Part of its new EcoNet Home Comfort technology that will control all Rheem HVAC and water heating devices, the Wi-Fi Module for Water Heaters is a good example of the unification of green technology and home automation industries.

The growth of these two fields is the result of fortuitous timing. Both industries were in the doldrums pre-recession. Home automation was too complicated and weighed down, literally, by endless wires. Green technology was being pummeled by the early '00s economic boom -- Hummers were way cooler than solar panels. But as the economy faltered, the money savings offered by green technology began to appeal to consumers, not just eco-warriors, and home automation was simplified and made more cost effective by the rise and adoption of Wi-Fi.

When you think about it, a $250 thermostat costs as much as a computer, which relegates it to a niche product, but a $99 control for that energy-hogging water heater in your basement -- the second largest consumer of energy in your home after HVAC -- should be an easy sell. The catch is that the Rheem's Wi-Fi Water Module only works with Rheem water heaters, and only select models.

But, the control possible using Rheem's free EcoNet app is the best example to date of the intersection of energy savings with home automation. Responsible for up to 13% of a home's energy use, a water heater just sits there 24/7, heating and reheating water to a set temperature. With the Wi-Fi water module attached, it can now be programmed from your smartphone.

Using the Rheem app to set schedules based on your lifestyle and usage needs -- and being able to quickly change things on the fly -- the module makes it possible to save energy without inconveniencing you. So if you have it programmed to cool down during the day while you're at work, but then unexpected get the day off, you can override your normal schedule in a snap. Heading out of town? Remotely set the water heater to vacation mode, preventing it from heating and reheating water that's not going to be used.

The device can also save money and water by helping to avoid, or at least mitigate, disasters. Features such as leak detection, service diagnostics and system status will alert you to problems before the water fills your basement. Plus, it will arm you with an error code you can provide technicians before they arrive. Additionally, Rheem says insurance companies have been interested in the leak detection element of the module, offering the potential for savings on home insurance.

Water heaters have been largely overlooked in home automation, perhaps because those seeking energy savings look to tankless water heaters. However, tankless units don't work that well for large households. A single unit might struggle to provide enough hot water to power two showers and a dishwasher simultaneously. According to Rheem, 98% of U.S. homes still operate off traditional tank water heaters, hence the push to operate these models more efficiently.

Rheem plans to roll out additional EcoNet-enabled products later this year, including a new HVAC platform complete with an EcoNet Controller that integrates air and water monitoring and control. The EcoNet system doesn't require its own hub, and, thanks to an open API, is compatible with smart home controllers such as Wink.

As consumers become increasingly tech savvy and energy conscious, the future of the home is clearly a connected and networked one. And while we never knew how important it was to control the precise temperature of our shower water, the desire for this type of granular control is only going to grow.

Tuohy writes on network technologies in the home and for businesses for Home Depot. A selection of home water heaters, including the networked models Jennifer discusses in her article, can be found on the Home Depot website.

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