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Big Ass Solutions and other building tech adventures of 2016

With the emergence of Comfy, Nest, Ecobee and Big Ass ceiling fans, the hype for building automation apps and services isn't just hot air.

Comfort and energy in buildings have this cozy relationship. When building designs and systems keep people comfortable, they often also save energy and vice versa.

In 2016, we saw smart technologies for homes and offices layer in more ways to enhance this relationship, integrating temperature, humidity, health and comfort data with thermostats, fans, appliances, solar panels and the electric grid. Companies are forming strategic partnerships to merge the functionality of multiple products now that they are actually really learning to make the very best use of all the data we are able to collect. But as the folks at Comfy say, "Data is easy but insights are hard."

Comfy, maker of the personal comfort app for occupants of commercial offices, is finding new ways to offer its data to customers. "In early 2017, we will be unlocking more Comfy features and capabilities so that workplace managers can gain insight into their own offices, make more informed decisions towards optimizing the workplace experience, and better connect people and their buildings," said Meggy Hearn, Comfy marketing specialist. It’s under wraps for now, but Comfy said new features will leverage its current location-based capabilities.

Data is easy but insights are hard.

Comfy is very focused on comfort — the app allows a variance in temperatures based on feedback from people. But it offers a financial perk as well. Rather than just blowing tons of hot or cold air everywhere all the time like many commercial heating and cooling strategies, Comfy typically saves clients about 20 percent on energy, according to Hearn. "As you optimize for the human experience, it naturally cuts down energy use."

Nest, the smart thermostat for homes and small businesses, which turned 5 in October, also provides comfort. However, the company is very energy focused: Nest said it has saved about 8 billion kilowatt-hours of energy so far since it was born. In the last quarter of 2016, Nest rolled out new energy-saving features.

In October, Nest launched Eco Temperatures, which allows Nest to set a thermostat to "away," the energy saving mode, even when you are there. Nest also partnered with SolarCity and several utilities last summer to offer Time of Savings. For this subscription-based service, Nest capitalizes on utility data and responds by operating the space to use less electricity at peak use times, such as hot summer afternoons, when electricity is most expensive. Nest continues to layer in functionality through partnerships with other companies including Jawbone, Whirlpool, Mercedes-Benz, LIFX (LED lighting) and Logitech.

The Center for the Built Environment at University of California, Berkeley, announced in September that it will lead a three-year study combining smart thermostats — possibly Nest or Ecobee — with ceiling fans. Big Ass Solutions, maker of energy efficient fans for industrial, commercial and residential spaces, will provide about 160 energy-efficient Haiku ceiling fans for the study. The fans, equipped with SenseME technology, have learning and communicating capabilities and can modulate speeds depending on conditions such as occupancy, humidity, temperature and personal preference.

When building designs and systems keep people comfortable, they often also save energy.

The $1.9 million study is funded by the California Energy Commission, and CBE said demonstration sites will be in "housing units, common areas and fitness facilities in historically under-served low-income, multi-family housing in California."

Gwelen Paliaga, technical director of TRC Solutions, an energy services company collaborating with CBE on the field demonstrations, said research will result in open source design guides and a design tool that designers can use to plan fan layout in their spaces. CBE also promised case studies and industry outreach activities.

Ultimately, the study’s findings could influence standards and codes for fans. Paliaga is chairman of the ASHRAE committee charged with creating an ASHRAE test standard to rate the comfort impact of fans.

"We see ceiling fans as having a lot of potential as a low-energy way to provide comfort," Paliaga explained. Fans are well understood and intuitive. And in low energy buildings that may have downsized HVAC to the point of limited cooling capacity, highly efficient ceiling fans can fill in and provide a lot of comfort.

So, it seems that even as our machines are becoming more about incorporating technology and data for learning and communicating, low tech is still really "cool."

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