Sunday, November 27, 2011

Web Based Control and Monitoring

As a solar thermal company, its really important to us that we be able to monitor the performance of our solar heaters. What we've learned in our 14 year struggle with this technology is that we also need to do control. We can't justify the cost of a separate monitoring device with separate power supply when it should all just be built into a standard solar controller. So that's what we did. We spent much of 2011's R and D budget on developing a web based solar controller that does monitoring of energy. As a side benefit from this work we realized that we also had a web based home automation system. We can control home thermostats with a web interface. We can also control boilers. That means that we can provide you with a spreadsheet on your computer screen (on a web page) that allows you to set schedules for your boiler. Most commercial swimming pools we run into are looking to save money on their sometimes $20,000 a year energy bills yet they are running their boilers on thermostats set at 84 degrees all the time no matter what? So why not just use a regular programmable thermostat on the boiler? Why not just do all this with existing building management systems? What's wrong with the IP thermostats that are on the market today?

The answer is plenty. We felt this whole industry needed a re-boot. Home automation, building automation and even internet based thermostats that are available today (sort of) all grew up over the last 20 years in the PC age.


Let's start with commercial building automation systems since Gord (my brother the IT expert) and I just finished single handedly installing two commercial solar heating systems for the City of Richmond BC. Neither system needed a solar controller because the engineer, an ex Siemens building automations guy, felt that the building automation systems were already there and control just meant a few lines of code. Now that these jobs are done we can all see that it wasn't nearly that simple and the end result is that the building management systems are not capable of storing more than 2 weeks worth of data. Also, nobody can view anything outside the local network. I don't know if these systems are working or not. The controls company provided a portal via the local network allowing certain data to be monitored in a certain way but I can't show you online and I can't control anything online. The problems stem from the fact that the local network is secure. To allow control from the internet or even monitoring in this case requires a web server on the local network. The IT people for the city are rightfully not too keen on this. These solutions are afterthoughts. The technology is all PC based so you have to store the local data on a pc. That was all fine until the internet came along with ipods and ipads and all of a sudden all this data had to be accessible on the internet. No problem. Just tunnel through the firewall and access the pc that is on the local network. Problem. That's exactly what network security is all about preventing. End result. We have no remote access, no control capability. We have $12,000 worth of building automation doing the job of a $100 solar controller.


Look at any of the internet based home thermostats available through any of the big names. They require full access to your previously secure home network. They require a web server built into every one of your thermostats. They require an ethernet cable and power to each thermostat. OK fine if you have a new house and you've run bundles of wires to each thermostat in the home. If you've done that you already have a home automation system. If you're like me, you have 2 wires going to your thermostat. You short circuit them at the thermostat when heat is called for by the mercury bulb style room temperature adjuster and the 24VAC zone is activated. What we can do with our technology is replace the thermostat with a very simple and low cost thermostat that has a thermistor attached to it. The thermistor tells us the room temperature. A switch on the thermostat switches between manual and automatic mode. Manual means the thermostat itself controls the room temp just like before. Auto means the room temp is controlled by a spreadsheet online. Its super easy to program. You can see every temperature every hour for every day and you can change them in blocks with a simple scheduling interface and as you make changes you see the temperatures in the spreadsheet. No more trying to remember how to use the programmable thermostat interface. The main unit that is ethernet connected is plugged in in one place in the basement. It wires up in series with the wires going from the boiler control to the thermostat. I have a 6 zone system in my house. It wires to 6 thermostats and 6 zones are all controlled online. We've developed a way to do this where it is secure and does not require a web server or a computer. I don't want to baffle you with tech talk at this stage but the key to all this is the unit itself is nothing more than a client on the local network. It initiates the contact with the web server and the web server is on the internet not on the unit itself. It initiates contact no differently than when your computer initiates contact with this web site so you can read what you're reading right now. There is no security issue. Plug one ethernet cable into the main unit and you're done. We tried doing this all wirelessly through the local wireless network but this proved fussy and we ended up scaring people in terms of security (unwarranted fears abound) and we had nothing but issues with the wireless network and the internet connection to it. We ended up becoming the person's internet support system. We scrapped all that and went ethernet port only. In a short time wireless bridges got a lot cheaper so we can still do all this wirelessly through an off the shelf bridge and none of it is our problem. Get internet to the ethernet port on our unit and it works.


The same internet based thermostat programmable scheduling can be done for a boiler on a commercial (or residential for that matter) gas heater for a pool. Our unit is a solar controller and boiler controller. The most basic unit has two outputs. The inputs are 4 temperatures and a pressure and a flow rate. Among the features are the ability to set what we call a control type. An example of a control type would be when solar is on gas is off. Another control type would be that the gas heater fires to meet the desired setpoint automatically far enough in advance such that the pool temp setpoint is achieved. For example if you want the pool to be 83F at 9 am but you're letting the pool cool off overnight as much as it wants, this control type would mean that the gas heater would start firing x hours before 9 am in order to make sure the pool was 83F at 9 am. Any control type you can think of can be configured by our programmer and posted to our server so that when your controller posts data on the next 15 minute cycle it picks up the program update and you're able to use that control type instantly. This type of customization after the fact is not expensive because we don't charge for building the library of control types based on your needs. Its 5 minutes of work changing your interface. The savings possible from monitoring and controlling a gas heater that is running all year can be enough to pay for the system in one month. That's a better payback period than we could ever see from a solar heater...and it puts us in an industry where companies achieve Fortune 50 status. Get ready for the launch of this technology in January 2012. This technology is how Hot Sun will survive the current killer combination of low natural gas prices, poor economy, and the resignation that global warming is too big a problem and too long term a problem to pay much heed to when jobs and short term economies take a higher priority in the minds of voters.

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