Dr. Song collaborates with OG&E to bring you smarter HVAC systems

The following article was released by OG&E in a recent newsletter. Are you smarter than your HVAC? In the near future, it may be a toss-up

If University of Oklahoma College of Engineering professor Li Song and OG&E Supervisor of Customer Support Jessica King have their way, your HVAC system soon will be smarter than you are – at least when it comes to energy management.

Song, an associate professor in the School of Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering, and her colleague Choon Yik Tang, with the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering, have been working for the last five years to create a “smart” heating and cooling system that helps customers be more informed about their energy consumption and ultimately their energy bill.

Much of the success they’ve had so far is due to the partnership between OU and OG&E – and the relationship the two women have formed during the project.

Song’s original intention was to design for large, commercial buildings and reached out to Pat Saxton, Expert Account Manager for OG&E, who was working with Tinker Air Force Base. Song discovered the model for commercial buildings was “too cumbersome” to test outside of the lab and decided to use it for homeowners instead.

“Pat introduced me to Jessica, who gave me a perspective on what OG&E was doing with its SmartHours program and the company’s interest in helping make customers smarter energy consumers,” Song said.

Song is also working with Ecobee to put the smart HVAC technology in their thermostats. OG&E also is working with Ecobee to pilot their thermostats in 700 test homes, using the existing thermostat technology.

The new technology goes beyond the typical SmartTemp thermostats currently used in the SmartHours program in that it learns factors, such as humidity and air flow, within the home, customer energy consumption preferences and the performance of the HVAC system. It also takes into account outside factors such as temperature, wind speed, sunlight, weather forecasting and the cost of electricity during certain times of the day.

The technology also provides ahead-of-time forecasting so that customers know what their costs will be if they adjust their thermostat up or down.

Customers can control and monitor their thermostats using a smart phone app.

“We envision that customers in the future will receive personalized information about their home, their energy costs and their own energy consumption and will know it ahead of time or in real time,” King said. “In other words, they won’t be left in the dark about what their end bill will be.”

King assisted Song by writing letters in support of the project that were included in the application to get funding from the Department of Energy.

“After the success of SmartHours, we were asking ourselves ‘what’s next?’” King said. “And here was this great opportunity to support our local university and further our vision of being a trusted energy advisor for our customers.”

Song and her research team are now undertaking a two-year program to test the technology in an unoccupied home on the OU campus.

“We want complete control in these initial tests but will simulate the moisture, heat and other factors created by residents.”

In the third year, OG&E will recruit about 10 customers to participate as occupied test homes and, following this pilot, will expand the program to more homes.

Both women’s eyes light up when they talk about the technology and what it can do for OG&E customers.

“We envision expanding the technology to eventually all smart thermostats to give people more knowledge about how they use energy, what it costs and how small changes can impact their end bill,” Song said. “As well as helping predict the bill, the system will improve HVAC operations, detect AC problems earlier and possibly have an environmental impact as well.”

“The possibilities are endless,” King added. “We could work with home builders to create a true Positive Energy Home, and we’ve already formed a partnership with Ideal Homes to explore this possibility. Plus the data we get from the thermostats could help us target customers for energy efficiency programs, helping us provide energy assistance to those who need it most.”

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