Dipul Patel believes there is not much point in having a “smart” thermostat unless the rest of the home heating system is just as intelligent. That is why his Boston-based startup, Ecovent Corp., is building smart air vents, capable of precisely controlling the temperature in every room in houses that have forced-air heating and cooling.
Conceived during Patel’s stint as an MBA student at the MIT Sloan School of Management, the Ecovent system will learn the needs and desires of its users and set each room to the right temperature automatically.
“We’ve developed a solution to a problem that has existed since the beginning of homes,” Patel said.
His solution has impressed venture investors, who have put $2.8 million into the young company since October.
And last month, the Consumer Electronics Association chose Ecovent as the automation device of the year at International CES, the electronics trade show in Las Vegas.
Patel and several of his colleagues were formerly employed at Lockheed Martin Corp., a defense contractor, where they designed missiles and electronic warfare systems.
It turns out that designing a smart air vent is almost as difficult.
“You have to apply very, very complicated science,” Patel said. “The same kind of techniques that go into some of the stuff we were working on at Lockheed Martin are now being applied here.”
The obvious parallel for Ecovent is the Nest Learning Thermostat, which adjusts a home’s temperature after learning its residents’ habits.
Last year. Google Inc. bought Nest Labs Inc. for $3.2 billion.
The market opportunity for smart home systems such as Nest and Ecovent is huge: In the United States alone there are some 86 million homes with forced-air systems and old-school technology.
But Ecovent will not have the market to itself. Keen Home Inc., of New York City, has developed a smart vent system that is set to go on sale at Lowe’s Cos. home improvement stores this spring.
Ecovent expects to begin shipping its product in August. A system for a typical four-bedroom home will cost about $2,000.
Ecovent uses battery-powered vents that adjust the air flow to individual rooms and can be controlled through a smartphone app. Each air vent includes a thermometer and air pressure sensor. Another set of sensors is plugged into an electrical outlet in each room. Finally, a central control module is connected via Wi-Fi to the home’s Internet connection.
All of the Ecovent devices talk to one another over a separate low-powered radio network.
Each family member can adjust a particular room’s temperature through a smartphone. All adjustments are recorded and analyzed by the control hub, eventually allowing it to predict the best vent settings for a particular time of day.
For instance, if people frequently increase the amount of warm air flowing to the bathroom at 6:30 a.m., Ecovent will begin doing that automatically.
Ecovent also begins to learn the unique thermal profile of every room. For instance, if one room gets more sunlight than the others, Ecovent will notice and compensate for it.
In time, Patel said, the system will know the home’s thermal profile so well that when someone simply walks into a room, Ecovent will detect it and make the proper adjustments.
“A home that adapts to you,” said Patel. “That’s what automation is.”
Michael de la Maza, a 44-year-old software consultant, installed a test version of Ecovent in his Woburn home last spring. For years, his two-story house had been plagued with uneven heating and cooling, with a 15-degree temperature difference between the first and second floors.
“I’ve lived with this for many years,” said de la Maza, who received quotes of as much as $7,000 from contractors to fix the problem. Installing Ecovent cost just $1,500.
“Instantly, the temperature difference between first and second floors dropped to about four degrees,” de la Maza said. “The home is much more comfortable to live in. I basically get the use of another floor.”
Patel said that computerized systems should be built into all home heating and cooling systems, to maximize energy efficiency and user comfort.
Michael Wolf, a smart-home analyst at NextMarket Insights in Edmonds, Wash., said that widespread adoption will be difficult because there are so many different manufacturers who are tied to their own technologies. But he predicted that brainy furnaces and air conditioners will eventually be common.