Want to control the air conditioning units in your home even when you are on the road? Now you can, thanks to your smartphone. Read The Wall Street Journal’s review of Honeywell Lyric thermostat and Aros window air conditioner, two revolutionary technologies in climate-control systems.

Image Source: online.wsj.com

When it’s hotter than Hades outside, wouldn’t it be nice if your air conditioner knew you were coming home and cooled things down inside?

That’s the idea behind two new “smart” climate-control systems, the $279 Honeywell Lyric thermostat and the $279 Aros window air conditioner made by Quirky and General Electric. They blast the AC when you’re at home, and not when you’re out.

Welcome to the era where your AC keeps tabs on you. These Internet-connected appliances take commands from apps and work by tracking the location of every smartphone in your household—yours, your spouse’s, and Grandma’s too. (In a pinch, you can still control them manually.)

I installed Lyric and Aros in my San Francisco home, and in two friends’ homes in warmer Bay Area climes. We found both devices can go a long way toward liberating you from fiddling with thermostat dials, and possibly saving energy. But neither are quite smart or simple enough to just set and forget.

These appliances are attempts at reinvention by Honeywell and GE, two of the biggest brands in climate control, now under attack from Silicon Valley. Nest Labs raised the bar in two ways when it launched its first consumer-installed “smart” thermostat in 2011: First, we now expect our home heating and AC to be smartphone-controllable and have some intelligence to supposedly help save us money. Second, many of us no longer balk at paying $250 for a dial that used to cost less than $50.

To make their systems more competitive, Honeywell and GE (working with partners at product development firm Quirky) added Wi-Fi and remote-control apps and simplified their interfaces with big, clear displays. But their biggest innovation is tracking location.

The app knows when your family is or isn’t home by drawing a virtual circle around your house, visible only to your smartphone, called a “geofence.” In my tests, this worked as promised: Every time I moved past the perimeter, my phone would quietly alert the app, which then sent commands to the appliances via the Internet. Both were also smart enough to understand my family—it conserved energy only when everyone had left the house and kicked back on for the first person to return.

Climate control may be the first compelling use case for geofencing, which has been around a while. It has the ability to complement busy and unpredictable lives, which normally confound automated things. Thermostat schedules we set on our own or through a program, like on Nest, are always just one sick day or late night out away from being wrong.

The geofencing downside: For the energy-efficiency promise to come true, everyone in the house needs to have a smartphone—a deal-breaker for some households with preteens or elderly residents. And for those of us already glued to smartphones, turning on geofencing can drain your battery faster, as it did in my tests. (Both companies say any drain should be minimal, and is lessened if you make sure your Wi-Fi is turned on, as opposed to just GPS, which is a lot more battery-intensive.)

I also wanted more control over the perimeters that the apps monitor. Lyric lets you choose only 1,500 feet or 7 miles; Aros uses a radius of about 300 feet.

Geofencing can be a little creepy: A resident of one of my test houses declined to use the Aros Wink app because he didn’t want a company tracking his whereabouts. Both companies say they don’t actually track your location; rather, iPhones and Android handsets just alert the apps when you cross the geofence, and then the app makes adjustments on the thermostat. There is a risk that a hacker could somehow get access to data about whether or not your family is home, but the companies say they’ve taken steps to beef up cyberdefenses.

The alternative approaches to climate control seem less accurate than geofencing. Nest makes educated guesses based on your past behavior plus info from motion detectors, which report if there are people in the house. That works fine in my house, where the thermostat’s motion sensor is in a spot you almost always have to pass. But what if you have an erratic schedule or an out-of-the-way thermostat? This issue alone may make Lyric more appealing to people with large houses.

The verdict is still out on energy savings. In the year after I replaced my old clunker thermostat with a Nest, my heating bills actually increased slightly, perhaps because Nest made my house more comfortable. But during my recent test, I couldn’t see a significant difference in energy usage between Lyric, Nest and my old thermostat.

Don’t count on earning back your $279 right away, but certainly any of these devices would improve upon a poorly scheduled thermostat or an AC unit left running all day.

The ultimate test of a smart home appliance is how well it can do its job while receding into the background. After a year, the Nest in my home has become so good at predicting my needs that I can’t remember the last time I had to adjust it. Both Lyric and Aros require more futzing.

Installing Lyric should be easy with the help of the free app, but turned out tricky enough that it required both of my test households to call the company for help. (The app didn’t help enough in switching over the wiring from one of our old thermostats, and we had both failed to push wiring into the thermostat firmly enough.)

The bigger problem: While Lyric could tell when I left the house, it didn’t know when I went to bed. Instead, I had to manually adjust it via the app by turning its round dial, or set up good-night and good-morning schedules. That’s easier than scheduling an old-fashioned thermostat, but hardly “smart.”

Aros tries to split the difference, both running a geofence and offering to build out automated schedules based on when and how you’ve commanded it before. But at least one time, the app’s geofence didn’t seem to respond right away for my 23-year-old friend Whitney, who tested the AC in a hotter area.

At other times, Aros activated in ways we didn’t expect, perhaps because it was using an “eco” power-savings mode. “I couldn’t figure out how to manually override its smartness,” Whitney told me.

With Lyric and Aros, the old guards of Honeywell and GE have advanced smarthome technology. But neither device is quite smart enough to keep you cool without intervention.

Fortunately, we’re in an era where a better appliance is only a software upgrade away. The Aros AC is already a decent buy—especially at a similar price to many “dumb” window units. GE’s partner Quirky launched its smart home control software last month, and it will undoubtedly improve.

Lyric could be a serious competitor in the smarthome race if it incorporated all of the available sensors and data to schedule its operation, building on some of the best of Nest.

Honeywell execs say they built motion sensors into their thermostat. Today, they’re just used to light up the display when you get near, but they could be used to tell when you’ve stopped puttering around, like Nest. Similarly, Nest’s makers tell me they’re not opposed to using geofencing to improve their thermostat’s scheduling and operation. Hopefully both companies wise up, and we can choose a system that truly understands our need to keep cool.

Comfort Experts is the premium provider of air conditioning repair and installation services in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Follow this Facebook page to keep updated on the latest news in home automation.

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Microbes are a concern for every homeowner, but are all microbial threats equal? MicroBEnet scrutinizes the myths about microbes in the built environment and presents facts. Microbe.net  scrutinizes the myths and presents facts about microbes in the built environment.

Image source: microbe.net

Myth 1. Microbes are ALL bad (including “Bacteria are bad”, “Viruses are bad”, “Fungi are bad”, and so on).

Probably the most common myth about microbes in general, the “microbes are bad” myth, inspires irrational fears and excessive, cleaning, sterilization and use of biocides. There are certainly dangerous microbes that can be found in the built environment. Many human pathogens are transmitted indoors. Likewise there are microbes that can thrive in moist, nutrient rich environments created indoors that are responsible for allergic reactions and other adverse effects.

However, the vast majority of microbes found in the built environment (or anywhere else) are most likely innocuous from the point of view of human health. Some of the microbes in the built environment are likely to have beneficial effects on humans. Beneficial microbes include both those that are naturally beneficial (such as some types that metabolize toxic chemicals) and others that we use as tools (such as those used for cleaning, art remediation, or to attack pathogens).

So when someone says “Kill the germs” don’t forget that most microbes around us do not hurt us, and some may even help us. The methods we use to indiscriminately kill microbes can also have side effects on other organisms (e.g., us).

Myth 2. The only good microbe is a dead microbe.

This sentiment is incorrect in two ways, firstly because there are many beneficial microbes present in the environment and in our own bodies (see above). Secondly, even dead microbes can impact human health. Toxins produced by microbes can linger even if those microbes have been killed. In some cases, killing the microbes and breaking them open could make this worse. Similarly, allergic reactions to microbes can be triggered by pieces of microbes as well, or even better, than by living microbes.

Image source: microbe.net

Myth 3. E. coli bacteria are all the same (i.e. always dangerous).

Just as humans are all one species, yet showcase a diversity of shapes, sizes, and talents, different strains within microbial species are also specialized. Most people are aware that the bacterium Escherichia coli (aka E. coli) has caused outbreaks of lethal foodborne disease. However, only certain varieties of E. coli make us sick. Strain “O157:H7″ has been particularly dangerous. Other strains of E. coli help out with the normal human digestive processes. Most people carry safe strains in their guts all the time without getting sick. Therefore testing food simply for the presence of E. coli wouldn’t be sufficient.

In the built environment, there are numerous species, or groups of species, that have the potential to cause illness, but many of the tests commonly employed to detect particular microbes species don’t actually differentiate between pathogenic and non-pathogenic strains. For example, finding Pseudomonas species in a hospital is not particularly alarming. Finding a pathogenic strain of Pseudomonas aeruginosa is a matter for concern.

While it makes sense to be cautious when assessing the danger posed by microbes in the built environment, it would be inefficient, wasteful, and potentially counter-productive to chase after the wrong members of a species or group of microbes.

Image source: microbe.net

Myth 4. The biggest microbial health concern in buildings is mold.

Among both the general public and building scientists, the majority of attention on microbial-related health issues in buildings is given to “mold”. Mold is highly visible, and in many cases has a detectable odor as well. Mold often grows quickly after water leaks or flooding. Good evidence correlates visible moisture and/or mold with a host of negative health outcomes, including asthma, coughing, allergies, respiratory infections and even eczema.

However, it is still not known whether mold causes these effects or is simply a “marker” associated with dampness and the problems caused by other microbes (or chemicals, or insects, etc.). Very little is currently understood about the causal link between microbes in buildings and human health outcomes in those buildings. So while some species of fungi may indeed be problematic, other microbes such as bacteria, viruses, and archaea may play important roles as well.

Myth 5. I see mold. I am sick/I have allergies. Therefore, the mold is causing the problem.

As discussed in the previous myth, there is indeed a very good correlation between visible mold/dampness and negative health outcomes. However, it should be emphasized that correlation does not equal causation. It is not known at this point whether the mold is actually causing problems or is just a marker of dampness. Of course by virtue of the known correlation, visible mold should indeed by a matter for concern in a building and the underlying problem needs to be addressed.

Myth 6. Microbes in the built environment affect everyone the same way.

This is a myth that most people would not agree with consciously, but is often implied in discussions about health concerns indoors. Even the most dangerous pathogens don’t infect everyone. In the built environment, different microbes will be problematic for different people. An understanding of this complex landscape is a long ways away, since we not only don’t know which organisms are causing health issues, we don’t even know what organisms are present in most built environments.

Myth 7. I need antibiotics for my cold.

While not directly related to the built environment, this is an extremely pervasive myth in much of the world. Antibiotics are an incredible discovery that are very effective against most bacterial pathogens. However, most “colds” are caused by viruses, upon which antiobiotics have absolutely no effect. Taking antibiotics for a viral illness is ineffective, costs money, can disrupt your natural microbiota, and can contribute to the evolution of antibiotic resistance.

Myth 8. We understand microbes best in pure culture and as single colonies.

A common image associated with microbiology is that of the plastic Petri dish. The ability to grow microorganisms like this is in fact the foundation of microbiology and much of our knowledge about microbial biochemistry, genetics, physiology, etc. comes from culture-based work. However, there are several limitations to this approach, some of which can now be addressed with alternative methods. Culturing organisms in a Petri dish meaning growing them in non-natural conditions, not only are the organisms in an artificial environment with a pre-defined collection of nutrients, they are usually grown in isolation… cut off from the normal community of microbes surrounding them in nature. In addition, we now know that only around 1% of the microorganisms in a typical environment can even be cultured at all. New sequence-based techniques such as metagenomics and rRNA sequencing can help address both of these concerns to varying degrees, and are an important complement to culture-based techniques.

Get to know more about HVAC cleaning and maintenance and other services to help improve air quality in this Hobson Air website.

Emily Miller of  The Gainesville Sun writes about the recent reopening Starke Elementary, which had been closed due to unacceptable air quality brought about by mold and other particulate matter.

Image Source: www.gainesville.com

Z’rya Davis spun in circles — her purple backpack and Hello Kitty jacket in hand and a mural with the words “Home of the Eagles” painted on the wall behind her. The 10-year-old is a fourth-grader at Starke Elementary School, and she couldn’t be happier to be back at her school.

For the full article, click here.

Poorly maintained ventilation systems are a hazard to the health of a household. Companies like Hobson Air Conditioning offer expert cleaning services to keep one’s air conditioning and ventilation systems clean and effective. Visit this website for details.

The Guardian reports on Climate Council’s 1971-2008 climate findings which show that the heatwaves gripping Australia are becoming more frequent, hotter, and are lasting longer as a result of climate change.

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A tennis fan cools off at the Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne. Photograph: MAST IRHAM/EPA | Image Source: theguardian.com

Heatwaves in Australia are becoming more frequent, are increasing in intensity and are lasting longer, according to an interim report by the Climate Council.

The report, which will be released in full in February, finds that climate change is having a key influence on a trend that has seen the number of hot days in Australia double and the duration and frequency of heatwaves increase in the period between 1971 and 2008.

South-eastern Australia has baked in extreme temperatures this week, with Melbourne set for four consecutive days over 40C – a run not replicated since 1908. Adelaide is due to go one further and have five days over 40C, with Thursday’s forecast of 46C threatening to break city’s record temperature of 46.1C.

The Climate Council, a privately run group of climate scientists and economists who previously formed the government-funded Climate Commission, defines a heatwave to be at least three consecutive days at a temperature in the top 10% for that time of year.

Its interim report states there will still be record cold events but that these events are being eclipsed by record hot events by a ratio of three to one. Heatwave frequency in Australia will “increase significantly” in the future, the report warns.

“As greenhouse gases continue to accumulate in the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels, more heat is trapped in the lower atmosphere,” the report states. “This increases the likelihood that hot weather will occur and that heatwaves will become longer and more intense.

“It is crucial that communities, emergency services, health and medical services and other authorities prepare for the increases that are already occurring in the severity and frequency of many types of extreme weather.

“The south-east of Australia, including many of our largest population centres, stands out as being at increased risk from many extreme weather events – including heatwaves.”

Dr Sarah Perkins, report co-author and research fellow at the UNSW, told Guardian Australia that the current heatwave was happening during a “neutral” period of climatic variability.

Before the 2009 Black Saturday fires, there was a decade-long drought, which produced some climatic variability reasons behind it,” she said.

“This year, we aren’t in an El Niño, we’re in a neutral pattern, so we might expect some extreme weather but not this hot scorching weather. Last year was a neutral year too, on the back of a strong La Niña, and we still got extreme weather.

“I’m not discounting natural variability, but there is still the background signal of climate change. The high-pressure system probably would’ve happened anyway, but climate change is exacerbating these events.

“While we can’t blame climate change for any one event, we can certainly see its fingerprint. This is another link in the chain.”

Perkins said her latest work had analysed heatwave trends up to 2013. She said the trend “just gets worse – it’s a bit scary really”.

“We are experiencing between one to three extra heatwave days a year, compared to the long term average, which doesn’t sound a lot but it doesn’t need many of these days to kill people or cause damage,” she said.

“And this is with background warming of 1C. If current trends continue and we get to 4C warming, it will be a whole lot worse than now.”

Perkins’ fellow report author Will Steffen said the increase in heatwaves would have a wide range of impacts on the way Australians live.

“Heatwaves have significant impacts on our health, our infrastructure, our agriculture and our ecosystems,” he said.

“It is essential that we understand the influence of climate change on heatwaves to ensure that health services, transport providers, farmers and the community are prepared for what is happening now and what will happen increasingly in the future.

“Australia has always had hot weather. However, climate change is loading the dice toward more extreme hot weather.”

The Greens have cited the heatwave in an attack on Tony Abbott’s climate change policies, calling for him to abandon plans to dismantle the carbon pricing system.

“The Climate Council has warned that global warming will bring more extreme weather and heatwaves and we can’t pretend it’s not going to happen,” said the Greens senator Lee Rhiannon. “We must prepare for it and stop it getting worse by reducing greenhouse pollution.

“The clean energy laws are already reducing greenhouse pollution and creating jobs. It really is time for Tony Abbott to abandon his ideological rejection of the climate science and put the Australian community first.”

The Department of Environment has been contacted for its response to the report.

During the summer and winter months, a properly installed and maintained HVAC system is especially important. Specialists from Hobson Air Conditioning Inc. can help you keep your heating and cooling equipment running properly and at peak efficiency through its range of services, from maintenance checks to installation to replacement and repair. Click here learn how you can keep your home well-ventilated and energy efficient.

Hobson AC is a full-service air conditioning and heating contractor providing services including new unit installations, heating, ventilation, and repair and service.

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Quote  —  Posted: December 17, 2013 in Uncategorized

How to Cut Heating Bills This Winter

As the price of heating fuel continues to rise, home owners can take the following steps to lower heating bills. While a few suggestions are more costly and will structurally improve your home, others are easier suggestions to seal your home and keep heat in. A little time spent now can mean dollars off your next heating bill.

Link  —  Posted: December 13, 2013 in Uncategorized

Clean ducts are a vital component of an efficient HVAC system. What are the signs and symptoms that a home’s air vents need cleaning? The Environmental Protection Agency lists down a few reasons.

Knowledge about the potential benefits and possible problems of air duct cleaning is limited. Since conditions in every home are different, it is impossible to generalize about whether or not air duct cleaning in your home would be beneficial.

If no one in your household suffers from allergies or unexplained symptoms or illnesses and if, after a visual inspection of the inside of the ducts, you see no indication that your air ducts are contaminated with large deposits of dust or mold (no musty odor or visible mold growth), having your air ducts cleaned is probably unnecessary. It is normal for the return registers to get dusty as dust-laden air is pulled through the grate. This does not indicate that your air ducts are contaminated with heavy deposits of dust or debris; the registers can be easily vacuumed or removed and cleaned.

On the other hand, if family members are experiencing unusual or unexplained symptoms or illnesses that you think might be related to your home environment, you should discuss the situation with your doctor. EPA has published Indoor Air Quality: An Introduction for Health Professionals and The Inside Story: A Guide to Indoor Air Quality for guidance on identifying possible indoor air quality problems and ways to prevent or fix them.

You may consider having your air ducts cleaned simply because it seems logical that air ducts will get dirty over time and should occasionally be cleaned. While the debate about the value of periodic duct cleaning continues, no evidence suggests that such cleaning would be detrimental, provided that it is done properly.

Image source: EPA.gov

On the other hand, if a service provider fails to follow proper duct cleaning procedures, duct cleaning can cause indoor air problems. For example, an inadequate vacuum collection system can release more dust, dirt, and other contaminants than if you had left the ducts alone. A careless or inadequately trained service provider can damage your ducts or heating and cooling system, possibly increasing your heating and air conditioning costs or forcing you to undertake difficult and costly repairs or replacements.

You should consider having the air ducts in your home cleaned if:

There is substantial visible mold growth inside hard surface (e.g., sheet metal) ducts or on other components of your heating and cooling system. There are several important points to understand concerning mold detection in heating and cooling systems:

  • Many sections of your heating and cooling system may not be accessible for a visible inspection, so ask the service provider to show you any mold they say exists.
  • You should be aware that although a substance may look like mold, a positive determination of whether it is mold or not can be made only by an expert and may require laboratory analysis for final confirmation. For about $50, some microbiology laboratories can tell you whether a sample sent to them on a clear strip of sticky household tape is mold or simply a substance that resembles it.
  • If you have insulated air ducts and the insulation gets wet or moldy it cannot be effectively cleaned and should be removed and replaced.
  • If the conditions causing the mold growth in the first place are not corrected, mold growth will recur.<

Ducts are infested with vermin, e.g. (rodents or insects); or

Ducts are clogged with excessive amounts of dust and debris and/or particles are actually released into the home from your supply registers.

Other Important Considerations…

Duct cleaning has never been shown to actually prevent health problems. Neither do studies conclusively demonstrate that particle (e.g., dust) levels in homes increase because of dirty air ducts or go down after cleaning. This is because much of the dirt that may accumulate inside air ducts adheres to duct surfaces and does not necessarily enter the living space. It is important to keep in mind that dirty air ducts are only one of many possible sources of particles that are present in homes. Pollutants that enter the home both from outdoors and indoor activities such as cooking, cleaning, smoking, or just moving around can cause greater exposure to contaminants than dirty air ducts. Moreover, there is no evidence that a light amount of household dust or other particulate matter in air ducts poses any risk to health.

EPA does not recommend that air ducts be cleaned except on an as-needed basis because of the continuing uncertainty about the benefits of duct cleaning under most circumstances. EPA does, however, recommend that if you have a fuel burning furnace, stove, or fireplace, they be inspected for proper functioning and serviced before each heating season to protect against carbon monoxide poisoning. Some research also suggests that cleaning dirty cooling coils, fans and heat exchangers can improve the efficiency of heating and cooling systems. However, little evidence exists to indicate that simply cleaning the duct system will increase your system’s efficiency.

If you think duct cleaning might be a good idea for your home, but you are not sure, talk to a professional. The company that services your heating and cooling system may be a good source of advice. You may also want to contact professional duct cleaning service providers and ask them about the services they provide. Remember, they are trying to sell you a service, so ask questions and insist on complete and knowledgeable answers.

For more on duct cleaning services, visit the Hobson Air website.