***Update, June 29, 2017: Sadly, Thinkeco and the Modlet seem to no longer exist. The website is dead. The CoolNY program has also been discontinued. ***
It’s a beautiful day outside, sunny, 25C and no humidity. It is my favourite kind of day (let’s ignore the fact that I’m inside working on my computer instead of out there enjoying it). In a few weeks my least favourite weather will begin: hot, smoggy, humid and sticky. Blech.
Last year we moved from our new townhouse in Toronto, to an old duplex in Montreal. We lost all modern day conveniences that I had taken for granted: programmable thermostat, energy efficient appliances, and most importantly of all, central air conditioning. I don’t sound like much of an environmentalist when I wax nostalgic over central air conditioning, do I? We were pretty strict with its use, however. We participated in Ontario’s peaksaver program, kept the thermostat at 26C during the day, ran the central fan continuously, drew the curtains on the south side of the house to block direct heat and installed ceiling fans in all the bedrooms. In July, when the temperature rose above 36C plus humidity outside, we were thankful that we had central A/C. All in all, even with central airconditioning, our hydro bill from July 5 through August 8, 2011 indicated that we’d consumed 1,084 kWh during that time frame.
Oh what I wouldn’t give for electricity consumption like that! In our “new” place, which we are renting, the only energy and water efficient appliances in the place are our washer and dryer, which we brought with us. We have a 20 year old fridge, stove and dishwasher, the latter of which will leave you deaf if you’re in the kitchen while it’s on! Electric baseboard heating is used on the upper floor, and generally speaking, we consume between 1800 and 3000 kWhs per month, depending on how cold it is outside. If you want to know if energy efficient appliances are worth the investment, trust me, they are! Our hydro bill is now a significant expense.
But once we add our three window air conditioners, our hydro bill will shoot right back up to winter levels when baseboard heating is on. Until now, there wasn’t really a way to control your window air conditioners — they were either on or off, so it’s likely that you leave them on all day so that your house is cool when you get home at night. Now however, there is a new gadget that turns your window air conditioners into a central air system.
ThinkEco, a startup based in New York City, has developed a smart thermostat that works in conjunction with your window air conditioner so that you can control when your window unit comes on, and the temperature you want to set it for. That means you could either set it at a higher temperature (or turn it completely off), when you’re out of the house, and have it come on half an hour before you come home. It’s a programmable thermostat for your window a/c unit! The SmartAC thermostat works in conjunction with another product called The Modlet.
Earlier this year, ThinkEco launched the Modlet, which stands for “modern outlet.” The neat thing about this outlet is that when you plug in your appliances, it will connect wirelessly with your computer though a USB key and you can control your appliance through your computer or smart phone. It’s great for home or professional offices, gaming systems, stereo systems, and cable boxes — all of which draw power even when they’re off. If you leave the office and have forgotten to turn your systems off, you can do it from your phone. You can buy a single Modlet (including the USB key), for US$50 plus shipping (and they ship to Canada).They also have an office starter kit for US$345 plus shipping which includes 5 modlets and one USB key. One USB key can work with up to 100 Modlets.
How the Modlet and SmartAC Thermostat work: You need to use the Modlet and SmartAC Thermostat together. Plug the window air conditioner into the Modlet, use the SmartAC Thermostat to set temperatures, set a schedule for your unit on your computer, then control temperature either from the remote control or your smart phone or a remote computer.
In fact, New York City thinks it’s such a great idea that they’re working with ThinkEco for their “Cool NYC” program. If you happen to live in NYC you can see if you’re eligible for a kit — if you qualify, the city will send you a modlet and smartAC thermostat for free! Plus, on top of that, at the end of the summer, they’ll send you a $25 thank you gift.
I had a few questions about how the SmartAC Thermostat works, so the good folks at ThinkEco took the time to give me detailed answers, which I’ve included below.
Cathy: Does the computer with the USB key in use, have to be on in order for the appliance to be controlled? For instance, let’s say you wanted to monitor the appliance from your phone or office, would the computer the appliance is communicating with have to be on in order to get data on the appliance?
Answer: No, it doesn’t. The modlet plugs right into your existing outlet and communicates wirelessly through ZigBee technology with your home computer so you can remotely track (via web application or smart phone app) how much energy your devices consume and also set schedules for turning your devices off and on.
There are two ways to control your devices with the modlet. The first is through setting schedules through the mymodlet web application. Schedules allow you to program when you want your appliances to be on or off. You can choose from one of our ready-made scheduling templates or create a custom schedule that reflects your lifestyle. Once you program a schedule into a modlet, the modlet will continue to implement that schedule regardless of whether it is in communication with your computer/USB receiver. The second way to control your devices is by instantly turning them on or off through the mobile app or web application. For this feature to work, the modlet needs to be in communication with your USB receiver and your home computer would need to be on or in sleep mode.
We will have a new stand-alone gateway on the market later that will serve as an alternative to the USB gateway and is not dependent on your home computer to be on.
Cathy: Does the USB key need to be plugged in to the computer all the time? The reason I ask, is because it seems to me that the modlet is a good device if you have a desktop computer but not so good if all you have is a laptop. At our house my laptop is the main family computer and having one of my two usb ports taken up by one usb key all the time would be a little inconvenient. Also, if I had to go somewhere and take my computer with me, does the computer with the USB key still have a way of communicating with the modlet?
Answer: No. The USB does not have to be plugged into the computer all the time. The modlet has an internal memory and can store up to 10 days worth of energy usage data. As long as you plug your USB in your computer at least once a week for a few hours, all your data will sync up with your computer. The amount of time for the sync depends on how large your modlet network is.
Cathy: How does the SmartAC Thermostat remote control work? Do you use it to set the temperature and turn the a/c on and off when you’re in the room with it? If so, do you have to input all the settings via your computer?
Answer: The smartAC thermostat works much like a home thermostat for a central air-conditioner system. The thermostat communicates with your modlet to cycle your air-conditioner on and off based on your desired room temperature, and allows you to control the units remotely from your smart phone or computer. In addition, you can set a set a schedule through our web application for when you want your air conditioner to be on or off. With the modlet apps for the iPhone and Android phones (just go to the app store and search for “ThinkEco”) you will be able to see your energy consumption and turn your air conditioner off and on remotely.
Cathy: Can you use one remote control for more multiple window A/C units? (I recognize that each unit would need its own Modlet).
Answer: No. Each modlet and smartAC thermostat works as a pair so users need a thermostat for each modlet/air conditioner. The smartAC thermostat measures the current room temperature and works with the modlet to turn your air conditioner off or on in order to maintain your desired temperature. By having a separate thermostat for each air conditioner, each room has separate control so everyone can have their air conditioner set to their preferred temperature.
Cathy: How much will the SmartAC Thermostat sell for?
Answer: MSRP $150 [US]