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The Science Behind “Home IQ”: Q&A with ecobee CEO Stuart Lombard

Sections: Features, HVAC, Smart Home

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Earlier this month, ecobee—makers of the Smart Thermostat and it’s newer little brother, the Smart Si—rolled out the beta launch of Home IQ, a free information tab for ecobee customers that the company describes as “a value-added service that provides customers with personalized insights into their homes’ energy efficiency.”

The press release continues: “ecobee’s Home IQ takes thousands of data points, automatically collected through a customer’s ecobee thermostat, and uses advanced math and physics to create a model that learns about our customers’ home, and provides them with insights into their home’s energy performance.”

After playing around with Home IQ for a few days on my own ecobee Smart Thermostat, I sat down for a chat with ecobee President and CEO Stuart Lombard to discuss the development of the service, the difficulties involved, and the company’s future plans.

HomeTechTell: What was the genesis of Home IQ?

Stuart Lombard: Since we started the company, one of the main goals we’ve had has been to give you useable information about the energy efficiency of my home, because if you look at the raw information we’ve given you in the past with the Smart Thermostat, it’s kind of like a black box. It’s really hard to understand whether you’re doing better than average, worse than average, what changes you need to make, et cetera. So the beta launch of Home IQ is really the first step in starting to try and make that information available to customers in more easily understandable ways.

Q: How long have you been working on developing Home IQ?

A: The short answer is: a long time. When you look at most energy modeling software, most of it assumes you know all of the variables about the building—construction materials, amount of insulation, type of windows, and so forth—and then it tries to predict how much energy you’re going to use. We’re trying to do the exact opposite: figure out how much energy you’re using, and then reverse engineer all of those variables without pestering you. In other words, given that we know how much energy is going into the building and how much is being used, what does that say about how the building is constructed? So it’s the reverse problem of what most energy models are trying to solve.

So we worked with a number of research institutions, we had PhDs on staff, and put some very smart people working on solving this riddle, and then we put everything we thought we had learned to the test and started over. So it’s taken a while to get Home IQ to where it is today.

Q: How long does the customer need to have had their thermostat installed before they’re getting a really valuable level of information from Home IQ?

A: After 30 days we will start reporting, and after two or three months, the data starts converging pretty well. It gets better after you’ve gone through a full season, of course. And shoulder seasons are more difficult for us, quite frankly, because the weather is less severe, and people may leave their windows open, which doesn’t give us good information about, say, how leaky your house is. So we get different data at different times of the year, but after two or three months, the data starts converging pretty well.

Q: Was that the most challenging aspect of the science behind Home IQ, and if not, what was?

A: I think that the science was the most difficult challenge—trying to estimate what is going on with the house, because there’s a lot of uncertainty, and we’re trying to solve a problem with a lot of variables, and trying to solve it without inundating the end user with questions. So, that part is quite complex, because there are a number of things that go into the energy efficiency of your home. Some very simple ones: are the windows open or closed? What’s the orientation of the house? How much solar gain are we dealing with? Are there shades in the house? How do you figure those things out without asking the person 57 questions about their home that they probably don’t want to answer?

Q: Do your calculations take into consideration the time of year?

A: They absolutely take into account seasonality, number of occupants, how your equipment runs, when it runs—all of those types of things.

Q: What will Home IQ do to help me make smarter decisions about how to upgrade the energy efficiency of my home?

A: Well, one of the things we’re working on is allowing you to drill deeper into the Home IQ reports. Right now we give you an overall “ecobee rating.” But our goal is to be able to break that down into different categories, and take some of the things we’ve amalgamated and give you more access to them.

We also want to give you the ability to do more comparisons. Today, you’re compared with people in your area, but maybe you just want to compare your home to others built in the same year. Or compare it to homes that were built in 2010, because maybe you want to see how newer building codes and technology affect efficiency. That’s where we’re looking for the first round of improvements and new features and functionality.

Q: The information tab for the Smart Thermostat contains a checkbox asking if I work from home. Is that a comparison you could add in Home IQ? Allowing me to compare my performance to others in my area who work from home?

A: That is exactly correct.

Q: You say your calculations are trying to reverse engineer what sort of house I have, how much leakage there is, that sort of thing. Say I look at this month’s report and decide, “Okay, it’s really time to put more insulation in the attic.” How long does it take Home IQ to figure out that I did so and make the appropriate adjustments?

A: It’ll take some time. Probably a month, I would think, for that to be reflected in your score, because we have to apply some temporal smoothing. We have to account for the fact that one extreme weather day doesn’t necessarily mean that your house has changed. But a change that persists over time will be picked up by the model.

Q: You’re saying a month as if that’s a significant amount of time. That’s impressive, that it can recognize that sort of change and adapt that quickly.

A: Well, it’ll definitely pick up on changes of that nature within a month, so it’s up to you to decide if that’s sufficiently fast. We hope so!

Q: What other logical areas of expansion are you looking forward to?

A: In addition to Home IQ, one of the things we’re excited about launching, hopefully within the next four to six weeks, is our public APIs, or Application Programming Interfaces, so that other people can build applications around the platform. We’ll be really excited to see how people use those.

Q: I’m excited about that, and for me it’s less about having my home automation system control the ecobee, and more about having the state of the ecobee trigger automated events based on the time of day or local weather conditions.

A: That’s great to hear, and I can’t wait to see what other sorts of things people come up with when the APIs are released.

Amazon ImageQ: Home IQ is a pretty big launch, and I don’t want to diminish that, but in the couple of months since I’ve installed your Smart Thermostat, I’ve seen quite a few updates already. So I’m curious: what else is on the horizon?

A: Actually, that’s sort of the company-wide discussion we’re having at the moment, so I don’t have specifics to give you, but whatever the specifics end up being, we know the goal is always the same: how do we save you more money? And so I think in the very short term, we have the adjustments to Home IQ, and the API, and looking a little further out than that, it’s a question of how to best integrate with other devices, other systems in the home—Control4, for example, and better integration with smart meters as they roll out across the country, letting all of that information they provide flow into the ecobee, and giving you more detailed analytics without having to do a lot of work.

It actually works today, and we’re working with a number of utilities across the U.S. already—it just hasn’t hit enough of a critical mass. But it’s really close at hand, and I’m hoping that by 2013—and it’s really jurisdiction by jurisdiction; Texas is way ahead of a lot of other locations—but we’re hoping that in more locations, users will be able to easily connect the ecobee to their smart meters and start bringing in that kind of data directly from their meters.

Q: I know your Smart Plugs aren’t quite as recent a launch, and you’re probably want to talk more about new things, but if you don’t mind the diversion, let’s talk about the Smart Plug for a minute, and how that launch ties into your overall goal looking forward.

A: Smart Plug was really a first step to see how we can enable our interface with other systems. And so our goal there wasn’t necessarily to make and build our own smart plugs and dominate that market, but more to enable paths to integrate with other companies who are doing lighting or other types of ZigBee-enabled home automation. Automated door locks are a great example of that.

The first step, though, was to get some working example of that out there and see how customers use it. We did a Facebook competition, asking people to tell us what they’ve done with their plugs and how they use them, and the response was amazing. We found that people use them in a lot of different ways—ways we wouldn’t necessarily have envisioned. They’re a fun thing, they can help you save energy, and I think they give us some insight into thought processes like, “Okay, if we want to integrate with lighting control, or locks, or whatever, what things do we need to be thinking about in the design process?” So that’s why we made the Smart Plug.

Q: What have you learned as a result?

A: Not all of our customers are using the Smart Plugs, of course, so the feedback we’re getting is from people who love automation. We have one gentleman who connected his Smart Plug up to an automated organ—the kind that can play music by itself—and used it to play a prank on his wife. It’s quite funny. But that gives us insight into the very different and creative ways people want to automate their homes.

So we know we have to appeal to that customer, without alienating the user who just wants to install the thermostat and save money without putting any thought into it.

Q: Are there other ideas for hardware development in the works, or is most of your focus on the interface and software?

I think it’s a little early for me to say. I would say that there’s still a ton of work to be done with the systems we have in place, in terms of additional energy savings, additional analytics, reporting, that kind of thing. And then, obviously, we’d like to extend that philosophy into other devices—we just haven’t quite figured out what that is. Or, it isn’t that we haven’t figured it out. We just haven’t said, “Okay, we’re doing it.”

Q: What do you think you can do for the customer who has no interest in your information portal, or at least the reports that you used to generate—how do you get them interested in the easier-to-understand information provided by Home IQ? How do you bring that customer around?

I think the key is keeping it simple, and keeping it in terms that customers understand. So, when you look at the first layer of the dashboard we’ve created, we really tried to keep it very high level and very simple. We believe that keeping it simple, while providing them valuable information, will hopefully draw them in. It’s a level of simplicity that we hope draws them into an engagement process and get people to dig in a little more. For some customers, if they only look at it once or twice a year, there’s value there.

Q: Home IQ is labelled as beta, which has different connotations coming from different companies. What do you mean by that? Are you just using “beta” to temper expectations, or are looking for feedback, and if so, what sort of feedback?

We love feedback, and part of the reason we put it out as beta is because we understand that we’re going to run into some issues, but we needed to get it out there in wider usage so we can refine it. The second thing is, we want to see how people use Home IQ, so we know how to further develop it.  As I said, we started over three years ago, and we could have worked on it another three years, but at some point you have to get it out there and see what people say about it.

I think the feedback we’re looking for is everything from “is it useful to me, is it not?” to “I don’t understand what these numbers mean” to “I like it the way it is, but”—as you said before—“I want to be able to compare my numbers to people who work from home in my region.”

Some people are going to want the information downloadable in different formats. Some people just say, “Show me the money; how much am I saving?” So we really value any and all feedback.

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