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Mike Riley

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Home Thermostat Management from the Cloud

October 31, 2012

Readers of my Dr. Dobb's posts may recall my coverage of "Internet of Things" company Arrayent and its Internet-Connect development platform. Its technology was recently embedded in an Internet-enabled thermostat from Hunter Fan, creators of the original ceiling fan. This update takes a look at how successfully Hunter Fan embedded Arrayent's technology, and how Hunter's Universal Internet Thermostat performs. Its introduction comes at the right time, considering the amount of attention the tech press has given other Internet-enabled thermostat appliances… namely, the Nest Learning Thermostat due to the fact that Nest designer Tony Fadell was the designer of the Apple's iPod.

When deciding which devices to create for my home automation book Programming Your Home, I considered a thermostat project. But due to the funky analog-to-digital-to-analog hook up that would have to bridge between a circa 1960's thermostat and a circa 2012 Arduino, I vetoed such an undertaking. Tinkerer Ben Heck eventually took on the project in an episode of The Ben Heck Show, but it's definitely a hack. Elevating such an idea to a scalable, fully supported, consumer-grade product requires a lot more effort and polish. Fortunately, Arrayent had built most of the underlying embedded technology behind Hunter's Universal Internet Thermostat, as anyone who has used Arrayent's SDK can attest. The Hunter Fan Internet Thermostat user login screen on http://my.hunterfan.com is a slightly dressed up version of the Arrayent application development service.

Installation

Hunter advertises that installing its Internet Thermostat only takes 5 minutes, and while my experience took twice as long, it was still a pretty simple and straightforward process. After turning off the power to my home HVAC system, labeling the wiring connected to my existing thermostat and removing it from the wall, I connected the correct wires to the Universal Internet Thermostat's screwless wire terminals, and inserted the included 4 AA batteries into the thermostat to power its display and communicate with the gateway. I placed the gateway on the floor above where my Internet router is located. The router just happens to be conveniently located directly above the thermostat, ensuring that the signal between the thermostat and the wireless gateway radio was strong. Then it was just a matter of powering the HVAC system back up and registering the thermostat with Hunter Fan to be able to remotely control and monitor the thermostat.

When logging into the website to create a new account using the security code stamped on the sticker inside the thermostat assembly, I was reminded via the email registration process that the first three months of Internet management are free. After that, I will have to purchase a $9.99/year or a $49.99 one-time product-life-time alternative. I'm still debating which one I should choose when the free period expires. The one complaint I have against the site is that logins are not SSL encrypted. Given the fact that anyone with a little network security knowledge could easily capture this unencrypted traffic, it makes me uneasy to think that someone who wants to ruin my day could totally mess with my thermostat settings. That said, Arrayent and Hunter Fan responded to my concerns by saying they are working on implementing SSL logins and expect to have them in place soon.

Adding the thermostat to my newly created account was simply a matter of entering the unique code on a sticker inside the thermostat assembly. Upon doing so, everything "just worked". No need to manage IP addresses, NAT routes, or any other networking headaches associated with home networking and automation devices.

Operation

Arrayent's SDK does most of the heavy lifting on the backend. The hardware embedded into Hunter's thermostat negotiates the association with their systems upon registration of the hardware on the my.hunterfan.com website. From there, it's a matter of setting up thresholds for upper and lower temperature limits, configuring what email address to send alert notifications to, and scheduling the temperatures depending on the day of the week and time of day. You can do all of this from a desktop or mobile web browser, although I did have some trouble with the login UI not responding using Firefox on Android. Hunter also provides an iOS app, though this is one of those PhoneGap or Appcelerator-style apps that simply incorporate webviews into a standalone program, so there's hardly any difference between the web version and the iOS app.

Being an enthusiastic fan of hacking my own home automation solutions, I hoped I would have access to the web service SDK that Arrayent exposes so I could hook in my own Python scripts or native Android app to place the thermostat readings into a more complex toolchain. For example, knowing the weather forecast and my travel schedule, I could have my scripts dynamically set the thermostat temperature schedule based on these factors. From there, I could measure the temperature history and compare it to my gas and electric bills to see how efficient this smarter, dynamic control process made my home. Alas, until Hunter offers the option to expose Arrayent's web API, technically savvy customers will have to get by with assembling their own one-off scripts instead.

Conclusion

Compared to the elegant looking but far more expensive Nest thermostat, Hunter's Universal Internet Thermostat isn't as high-tech attractive, but it's half the price and delivers more overall functionality and ease of use. I do hope that Arrayent/Hunter improve their website dashboard security and eventually offer API access to developers, perhaps via a developer sign-up and issuance of an API key. It sure would beat being forced to go the screen scraper route to automate the login, GET, and POST requests. I would rather just have a clean web API so I could get around the device via a nice clean JSON receipt.

Ultimately, the question comes down to whether the cost of the thermostat ($99.99) plus the network service fees after the first thee months (let's go with the $49.99 lifetime) is worth the investment compared to a non-network enabled thermostat you can buy for a third of the price at Home Depot? If you enjoy gadgets that are trailblazers to the future, then yes, this is a sound investment. By purchasing this product today, you are paying a premium for a glimpse at something that will be a popular option with new homes and businesses several years from now.

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