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Increased energy savings are a desirable goal for organizations and households alike. Because of this, there is a growing number of artificial intelligence (AI) solutions for heating, ventilating, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems. Here are some compelling ways AI is improving HVAC systems and benefiting the people who use them.
Keeping spaces more comfortable without wasting energy
Even though air conditioners are becoming more advanced, it’s still difficult to keep everyone happy with the temperature. The challenges increase with the number of people in a room. It is much easier for four people in a household to agree on a comfortable temperature than, for example, two dozen participants in a meeting room.
A project at the University of Michigan provides an outlook on future potential. Researchers developed an autonomous HVAC system that uses thermal imaging cameras to detect whether people in a room are hot or cold. Measurements of occupants’ facial temperatures are fed into an algorithm that compares the real-time data to people’s climate preferences.
Next, the technology determines how most people can be comfortable with the temperature with minimal energy consumption. At the beginning of work on this project, it was tested on 10 workers in a laboratory setting. The developers said their approach does not require participants to wear detection devices, nor is it necessary to have a camera to monitor each participant.
After the system is installed, people regularly provide data from their smartphones by indicating their temperature comfort on a three-point scale. Once they’ve confirmed whether they’re too hot, too cold, or just right, the AI takes that information and uses it to make future adjustments.
reducing energy poverty
Fuel poverty is a widespread problem in today’s society. People define it in different ways. For example, a common definition is that more than 10% of a household’s income is spent on heating and cooling costs. This problem can also arise when people live in areas without reliable energy infrastructure.
Fuel poverty can lead to home hazards
Aside from making people uncomfortable, stressed about energy costs and forcing them to limit many activities to daylight, fuel poverty can pose real dangers. Statistics show, for example, that 40% of the world’s population do not have clean, modern energy sources for cooking.
They burn solid fuels like wood and dung, which can fill living areas with smoke and toxic chemicals. Then people are at risk for diseases ranging from lung cancer to cataracts.
The pandemic exacerbated fuel poverty
The struggle to pay energy bills also affects residents of highly developed areas of the world. Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, a UK charity has seen a 23% increase in the number of people needing emergency help with heating and cooling bills. However, experts believe that AI could stop energy poverty by detecting signs of distress that would otherwise be missed.
dr Aidan O’Sullivan is a professor at University College London and works at the intersection of energy and AI. He explained, “What AI can really help is correctly identify the customers who should receive assistance.” He builds machine learning HVAC neural networks that take data from smart devices. However, this is not an easy task.
“The signals that indicate a household is beginning to struggle with its energy use are complex. For example, someone might repeatedly reduce their consumption at the end of the month when they run out of money, which is a subtle signal that can be lost in data averaging,” explained O’Sullivan. However, algorithms could prompt an AI chatbot to engage with a customer and run through their options.
A trial conducted elsewhere also showed that smart controls helped vulnerable parties heat their homes to levels they couldn’t achieve before adopting the technology. There is no universally successful way to apply AI to energy management, but these examples illustrate some of the exciting possibilities.
Preventing HVAC system failures
Most people hardly think about their HVAC system until something goes wrong. However, ignoring even small changes in device behavior can be costly. For example, a clogged or full filter could cause an air conditioner to run more often than it should, shortening component life. Replacing or cleaning the filter can increase efficiency by up to 15%.
Many business leaders believe that AI improves HVAC operations by predicting failures before they occur. This is crucial in places like homes, hospitals and manufacturing facilities that need strict climate controls to support their production.
However, some homeowners can also access AI-based preventative maintenance alerts. Google Nest smart thermostats already had some artificial intelligence features built in. For example, if the device detects an empty house, it automatically switches to an energy-saving temperature. It also learns user preferences.
In 2020, Google began testing features of its smart thermostats that detect potential issues. If the technology detected anything unusual, it would send an email alert to someone in the house. The content included which system had the anomaly and helped people in some cities connect with HVAC experts.
One of the goals was to help residents get HVAC issues checked before they cause bigger problems. AI can detect small changes like increased operating temperature or excessive vibration. Then people will have the knowledge they need to take action before they suddenly find themselves without working heating or air conditioning.
Allows significant energy savings
Many smart devices prevent mistakes that could lead to waste. For example, sinks equipped with sensors switch off automatically as soon as a person removes their hands from under the faucet. Smart lighting systems work in a similar way and automatically darken a room that is no longer used. In such cases, you don’t have to worry about higher bills if someone forgets to turn off the light.
Machine learning HVAC algorithms can bring some of the same financial benefits. For example, they can spot excessive usage trends earlier and help someone determine the cause before they receive a surprise bill.
AI analysis could also highlight the most expensive pieces of HVAC equipment and convince decision makers it’s time for an upgrade. Because some AI-based HVAC systems only activate when needed, they can help users reduce their overall energy consumption.
In one example, a Marriott hotel in China achieved a 50% reduction in energy use by installing a smart HVAC system. In addition to the power savings, this upgrade resulted in a quieter setup.
Often people want to reduce their energy bills but don’t know what steps to take. AI can solve this common problem by working in the background and responding to environmental changes that humans don’t immediately notice.
AI improves HVAC performance
These are just a few of the many reasons people are increasingly curious about how AI could positively impact HVAC systems. Access to affordable, well-functioning climate controls improves the quality of life for individuals and makes companies more likely to improve their operations.
Emily Newton is Editor-in-Chief of Revolutionized, a magazine that examines how innovation is transforming our world.