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Just a touch away

Addictive iPhone apps help save the planet

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Lately, Ido Raam's customers have been leaving his office bragging about what they bought.

This would be expected if Raam was selling new cars, or new stereos, or big diamonds. But Raam's industry is a bit more... functional: As the president of Penguin Heating and Cooling, the 28-year-old entrepreneur puts in heating systems.

And the latest buzz in his industry is downright eco-sexy... and putting energy efficiency at your literal fingertips.

Meet the Ecobee, an award-winning thermostat that's as much gotta-have-it gadget as it is, well, a thermostat. It's a slick little unit, faced by a cheerful touchscreen. And not only does it do all the things thermostats typically do, the Ecobee taps into a Wi-Fi connection, allowing users to control the smallest details of heat in their house over the Internet.

Best of all, you can control your furnace with a tap on your iPhone, no matter where you are in the world.

Gee, think that could be addictive for hip, green-savvy folks?

Based out of an old Notre Dame warehouse, Penguin is the only Manitoba distributor listed on Ecobee's website. Raam discovered the thermostat at a Florida trade show in January, and instantly twigged to the possibilities. "It's a more expensive product, more high-tech," Raam says. "And I'm always looking for the best of the best."

He launched the Ecobee locally at the Home Expressions Show at the convention centre in March. Since then, Penguin has installed about a dozen of the thermostats.

"All askers up to 40 (years old), they always take it," Raam says. "They love it. They always talk to their friends about it, they're always showing (the Ecobee) off on their phones."

This is where the worlds of high-tech and eco-mindful meet. Once, the dawning of the digital age threatened only to drain international energy taps, as power-gobbling desktop computers became necessary fixtures of any home or office.

But now, as culture gives way to smaller, more energy-efficient smartphones and their mobile applications, the synergy between technology and an increasingly eco-conscious society is opening up unexpected new ways to save energy... and giving people a much better excuse to tap away on their cellphones all day, to boot. ("Don't mind my texting, I'm just saving the planet.")

Consider this for eco-conscious convenience: You program your thermostat to keep the temperature in the house cool while it sits empty, but have it timed to be warmed up to a balmier temp for when you get home from work.

Then a co-worker announces it's her birthday and, before you know it, you're settling in for a long night at the pub. Nobody else is home, so all that cosy heating (and the energy it needs, and the money that it costs, and the environmental impact it has) is going to waste.

With the Ecobee, there's no waste and no bother: Just tap the thermostat down on your iPhone, while scoring some cool points with your friends.

True, it's a pricey toy. The Ecobee costs about $750 installed, compared to a range of $100 to $400 for most other units, and most of the customers who shell out for it are looking to "spoil themselves," Raam says.

They also tend to be younger, with young couples and entrepreneurs under 40 most jazzed about going eco-friendly and iPhone-compatible with their heating and cooling system.

The energy-saving perks might make up for the cost. Not only can you tweak the temperature, humidity and fans in your house or business while you're on the run, but the system automatically alerts you on efficiency-boosting maintenance measures, such as when it's time to replace your furnace's filter, which can cut down on bills.

There are other efficiency-boosting, cost-saving features built in to the system: For instance, it can be programmed to recognize a "low point." If the heater fails in your house or business when you're on vacation, the system sends an automatic email to the installer, paving the way for a service call and a fix before you come back from Cancun to find your pipes frozen or your products damaged.

Not that all of this is news, mind you. "A lot of this stuff, believe it or not, has been around for a long time," says Peter Kidd, an engineer at Manitoba Hydro.

Kidd isn't familiar with Ecobee specifically. And obviously, iPhone apps are only as old as the iPhone itself. But the real question in the energy industry, Kidd says, is whether or not people will use them.. and stick with them.

"Home automation products have been around literally for decades," he says. "All of it's been technically possible for some time. The frustration that a lot of us in the industry would find is, all this good stuff is there, why hasn't it been adopted? The home automation industry has devolved into really fancy theatres and mood lighting."

But at least according to the company's own stats, this iPhone-enabled thermostat may just bridge that gap. According to an Ecobee release, 82 per cent of its users regularly program their thermostat to maximize energy efficiency to the hour, compared to 30 per cent of those using other thermostats; almost three-quarters of them fiddled with their thermostat within a given five-day period.

All that programming, Ecobee said, means its young community of users collectively saved about 750,000 kilowatt hours of energy and stopped 540 metric tons of carbon emissions.

No wonder the Ecobee system has scooped up an armful of industry awards this year for its innovation and green-friendly ideas.

Launched in 2007, the Ecobee was already a "smart" thermostat when it launched its iPhone app in late 2009. The app scored big buzz on tech blogs and environmental advocacy websites; Toronto-based founder and CEO Stuart Lombard pledged it would "make it even easier for our customers to conserve energy without sacrificing comfort."

In the long run, Kidd says, while "less glamorous" innovations in insulation, refrigeration and electrical charging are all making big strides to a more energy-efficient world, marquee innovations like iPhone-enabled thermostats could contribute to a "critical mass" of technology that puts energy-efficiency at consumers' fingertips.

And that, he muses, might just help folks get over the biggest hurdle to efficiency of all.

"One of the problem with some of the really neat technologies is that people get used to it, and then they start to forget about it," he says. "But when something like Apple's iPhone comes along, and it's so attractive... there's a hope that this might push things that (energy-efficient) way."

melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Four Other Apps to

GREEN YOU UP

11

greenMeter

Cost: $5.99 USD

Nobody likes a backseat driver, but what if it's a mere iPhone looking over your shoulder? Through this app, your phone takes in all sorts of data -- how fast you accelerate, the temperature, your car's drag -- and spins out some suggestions for how to get the most gas mileage out of your car. App designers say it'll pay for itself within a few tanks of gas, and can save users hundreds of bucks a year.

GoodGuide

Cost: Free (Our favourite.)

Part game, part environmentally-conscious directory, the GoodGuide app lets you scan the barcode of tens of thousands of household products and learn how it rates for health, environmental performance, and social responsibility, as determined by a crowd of legit scientists. You can also earn badges as you buy more good stuff.

SeafoodWatch

Cost: Free

This must-have app from the Monterey Bay Aquarium puts its world-renowned Seafood Watch right at your fingertips. The list shows your which seafood products come from unsustainable sources... and which you can chow down on without fear of, y'know, collapsing fish stocks and drowning endangered sea birds. Don't leave home without it -- it could give you a chance to interest your dinner companions on sustainable seafood, too.

MeterRead

Cost: $2.99 USD

It's basically a glorified calculator, but admit it: you couldn't puzzle out most of this on your own. This simple app lets you plug in your meter readings to get detailed energy usage stats, and compare over hours, days or weeks... meaning you can find out exactly how much more energy those fancy new window panes are actually saving, and notice energy-losing trends quickly.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 18, 2010 H16

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