Regular MoDaCo readers will know that I have something of an obsession with hooking stuff up to the Internet. Power sockets, security cameras, devices, even Christmas trees - if it’s IP enabled, I want to be able to get to it from outside! But for me... there’s always been one piece of the puzzle missing - it’d be fantastic to be able to control the house’s heating when not at home. The thinking behind this is pretty obvious and it’s much more than just a gimmick - how often have you been out for the day and left the heating on in an empty house? How often have you gone away for the weekend and come back to a cold house because you turned the heating off? The reality is that heating schedules are generally limited, inflexible and a bit of a pain to manipulate, so an Internet (and thereby mobile) enabled heating controller seems the perfect answer.
It was with this in mind that I stumbled across the Internet Room Thermostat from Inspire Home Automation which at first glance seemed to answer my prayers. Internet enabled? Check! Android enabled? Check! Well priced? Check! Compatible with my rather ancient heating system? Surprisingly - check!
I contacted the company behind the exciting gadget with a view to finding out if it lives up to it’s potential - read on to find out!
Pricing / availability
The Internet Room Thermostat (IRT) is priced at £124.99 including delivery and a 1 year warranty, with extended warranties available at a price of £10 per year, sold directly from the Inspire Home Automation website. While this is more expensive than the simple ~£20 ‘dial’ thermostat it replaced, it’s actually very competitively priced when it comes to programmable thermostats. For example, a 7 day Honeywell programmable thermostat will set you back more than Inspire’s offering, with no connectivity options whatsoever, so i’m pretty impressed with the price point - I think it’s good value.
Thermostat vs timer
One of the first things I had to get my head round was that the IRT replaces the thermostat in the heating system and not the timer. My heating setup is fairly typical in that it has a timer hidden away somewhere where I set what times that the heating / hot water comes on, then a thermostat ‘dial’ in a high traffic area of the house which controls when the heating is activated based on temperature (within the constraints of the periods set on the timer). The way in which the IRT works is by replacing the thermostat and using it’s control to manage not just temperature based switching, but time based switching too. This means two key things for your timer - first of all that the hot water is not affected / controlled in any way and secondly that the heating should be swithed to ‘always on / constant’ on your timer, delegating control to the IRT.
Package / installation
The IRT is a 2 wire thermostat, making installation as simple as possible with only a switching circuit. This was initially a concern to me as my thermostat was hooked up to 5 wires, but after discussion with the excellent Inspire technical suport team (and me sending them a photo of my existing thermostat wiring) they confirmed that I only needed to hook up 2 of the wires and could seal off the others. Simple!
When the IRT box arrives it contains 3 main parts. The first part is the wireless controller which plugs into your Internet router via a supplied Ethernet cable. Easy! The second is the backplate for the new thermostat. This fixes to the wall using supplied screws and rawlplugs (the instructions even tell you which drill bit size to use, useful for a DIY idiot like me) and is home to the connectors for the aformentioned 2 wires. Easy! The final piece is the controller itself, which is powered by 2 AA batteries (supplied) and clips onto the backplate, secure by two small screws. Really easy!
Installation really is just a case of drilling 2 5mm holes and connecting 2 wires - that’s it. The controller is surface mount (yet just 22mm deep at it’s largest point). A comprehensive installation manual is provided both in the box and online (PDF) - the usual caveats apply, check for buried cable locations before drilling, get the unit fitted by a qualified electrician if unsure etc. etc.
Before we get into the specifics about how the device is in operation, it’s worth a quick paragraph about build quality. This thing is beautifully engineered. When you fit the backplate, attach the wires and then add the thermostat it’s evident at every step that a lot of thought has gone into the design of the product, It’s all very high quality and very well made. Very refreshing!
After the thermostat is installed, the next step is to hook it up to your router. The thermostat and the gateway (the part that connects to the internet) are pre-paired at the factory for ease of installation. A pairing button on the back of the gateway performs manual pairing should this need to be carried out (for example your gateway or thermostat is replaced), used together with a button combination on the thermostat itself. The wireless connection is at 2.4GHz - if you have other devices in this range then it’s probably worth siting the gateway for minimal interference, although I haven’t found this an issue personally despire a whole host of 2.4GHz around the house and the IRT is designed to provide robust communication between the gateway and thermostat using transmission acknowledgement (the devices don’t just ‘fire and forget’, unlike my Bye Bye Standy kit for example).
After the thermostat and gateway are paired (power, internet and link status are indicated by 3 LEDs on the gateway and an icon on the thermostat), the last step is to register the device online. Pressing a button combination on the thermostat displays a registration code which is entered at the Inspire Home Automation website - then you’re ready to go!
The thermostat itself has a large display and 4 buttons which allow you to carry out all of the main functions without resorting to your web browser / phone. You can set the current time / day, set the on / off times, set the target temperature for the programmes and set the current target temperature. In it’s idle state the display shows current day / time, current function (i.e. off / programmes / on), gateway connectivity status, low battery indicator (if applicable) and the current temperature. Pressing the buttons allows you to view the currently configured timings and temperatures. The display is not backlit.
When setting the heating programmes, the device can be configured with independent settings for each 7 days of the week or with different settings for weekday / weekend depending on the granularity you require. The thermostat currently allows you to create 2 control times (e.g. morning on / morning off and afternoon on / afternoon off), with independent temperature settings for each. This means you can effectively have 14 different activations in a week, each with it’s own on / off time and temperature.
You can of course override the settings manually from the controller - you can turn the heating off or turn it on continuously, states which remain active until you switch the thermostat back to the timed programmes. You can also choose whether to run just the first programme of each day (P1), the second programme of each day (P2) or both (P1 + P2).
Everything you can do on the thermostat itself is replicated on the website. On the main page, 5 large buttons let you set heating to ‘Off / One / Two / Both On’, a slider lets you choose the current target temperature and the current temperature is displayed. A text area gives you the current status of your heating - for example mine currently reads ‘Your heating is currently turned off. You have a 5/2 day program set. Your heating is next scheduled to switch on Today at 15:00, until 21:00 and heat your home to 18°C’. The ‘Advanced’ tab on the website is where you set up your programmes. You can also turn ‘automatic time’ on and off. The ‘User’ tab lets you manage your login credentials.
There is one option on the main page of the website that I haven’t mentioned yet, the ability to set up a ‘scheduled start’. The scheduled start allows you to choose a time and a target temperature and what happens is that your heating will turn on at the specified time and stay on until the house reaches a specified temperature before reverting to your set programme - quite a nice feature!
So that’s how it all works in theory... how does it work in reality? Brilliantly actually! Everything works exactly as you’d expected, switching is very reliable, temperature measurement is spot on and remote commands are delivered very quickly. I have seen the gateway lose connectivity a few times due to issues with my Internet connection but in every case it has managed to reconnect on it’s own just fine and without losing any commands I sent while it was disconnected - exactly what you want. The website, while deceptively basic in a appearance, gives access to everything you need to do and is simple to use.
The Android app for the IRT (as seen here in the Play Store) echoes the website in that it looks a little simple, but gives access to all the same features meaning that everything you could need to do you can do from your phone. The handy scheduled start option is present too.
The only issue I initially had with the Android application was it occasionally requiring me to re-enter my login credentials, but that was due to me using it on multiple devices, an issue that has now been resolved.
I was about to write that the app could do with a bit of ‘Holo love’ to bring it up to current Android ICS user guideline standards, but actually the flipside of this is that the app runs just fine on Gingerbread - which is rather important!
An iOS app is also available in the App Store, a Windows Phone application is not currently available.
Direct access / server dependance
When I tweeted about the IRT, one of the concerns that potential buyers raised was that the whole service is dependent upon the Inspire Home Automation servers and that, should anything happen to the company (something people seem to be extra concerned about in the currently cliemate), that might cause a problem.
The reality is that yes, the IRT is using a server based solution so should that server disappear, the Internet functionality would stop working. Should that happen, the thermostat would of course still function perfectly as an offline device, so it’s not a case of ‘your heating wouldn’t work’. I raised this concern with Inspire themselves and while, of course, they don’t ever see this happening (as you’d hope), they did give me assurances that should this ever occur (again, hopefully not!) they would ensure that they allowed users to continue using their devices either by issuing a patch to allow users direct access to their gateway / thermostat or by releasing the server software for someone in the community to run. To be fair, this is a server dependency that is evident in a whole host of consumer electronics nowadays, so for me personally this is totally a non issue.
When I installed the Inspire Home Automation IRT I had very specific ideas about what I wanted it to achieve - I wanted to upgrade our old, ‘dumb’ system with an Internet connected system that I wanted to control from my phone. I wanted it to ‘digitially’ provide all the functionality of the ‘analogue’ setup it was replacing. I have to confess that at £124.99 I thought it perhaps couldn’t be that good or might have failings . But I was wrong. The Internet Room Thermostat is a great product that does exactly what I want it to do.
It’s well made, thoughtfully engineered, competitively priced, has great potential for future development and it’s made IN BRITAIN by a small British company based in Bournemouth.
Every house should have one.
While the IRT is a great device today, the scope for the future is even greater! I would love to see the ability to have more than 2 control times during a day, intelligent features such as learning when to turn on to heat to a specific temperature by a set time, an API to allow programmatic heating control, additional hardware that can be connected to the gateway... the possibilities are endless! From my conversations with Inspire I definitely get the impression that they too plan to extend and improve their offerings as the IRT becomes more and more popular... i’ll be watching with interest!