After an unseasonably cold winter for most, many Americans are more than happy to welcome spring.
But inevitably, we'll soon turn to complaining about the heat. As far as consumer-hungry technologies go, air conditioners are arguably right up there with refrigerators and light bulbs: just about everyone wants the most up-to-date product on the market.
But air conditioners are also costly energy hogs. In Madrid, a region prone to scorching temperatures during the summer, for instance, air conditioners can account for as much as a third of the total power consumption during peak periods, according to a recent study. It's a reality that angers environmentalists as they stare down a worldwide reliance on indoor cooling that is expected to increase 30-fold by 2100.
The recently unveiled Aros air conditioning system hopes to offer a solution. Outfitted with Wi-Fi capability, mobile app integration and a host of other "smart" enhancements, the new $300 appliance is designed to minimize energy usage without sacrificing comfort.
The product was developed through a collaboration between General Electric and Quirky, a research and development firm that hosts a popular online forum where inventors share, discuss and submit ideas to staff members who ultimately decide which ones to pursue. The original idea came from Garthen Leslie, an IT executive and member of the 800,000-plus community; he was inspired to send in a proposal after noticing how many AC units were lodged in the windows of houses, apartments and businesses while driving to his home in Columbia, Maryland, last summer.
“It made me wonder whether people turned their air conditioners off when they left home to save money and conserve energy or left them on to ensure that their home was cool and comfortable when they returned," Leslie said in an email. "So you're forced to make a trade off either way."
So far, efforts to revamp air conditioning for better energy efficiency—compact adsorption chillers that tap into waste heat as a source of fuel, for example—have centered primarily on central air conditioning systems, as they aren't as limited by the tighter space specifications of portable units.
Aros isn't, by any means, a new cooling technology; cold air from the unit is generated much the same way as other mounted devices. It's also not the first Wi-Fi connected model that can be controlled remotely. But what consumers do get with the product is a conventional 8,000 BTU window unit that, like Nest's Learning Thermostat, helps consumers save on their energy bills through a series of unique automation features. For example, to figure out the most cost-efficient way to cool a room that's no bigger than 350 square feet, Aros' smart management system keeps tabs on your usage habits, and after a couple of weeks, creates an optimal cooling schedule based on this data. For the very budget-conscious, the unit will even self-regulate based on a pre-set spending amount for cooling.
The system can also be linked to Quirky’s free WINK app, available on iOS and Android, to track your movements. With this GPS-enabled feature, called “smart away,” the unit can be programmed to power down whenever you leave home or start cooling a room when it detects that you'll be arriving soon. In a way, it's similar to the Nest thermostat's auto-away function, which uses a series of motion sensors and algorithms to turn itself off when nobody's home.
Other features include a unique airflow design that, instead of circulating air from the bottom and out through the front grill, sucks air in through the front and blasts it upward via vents located on the top. This allows the cold air, which is much heavier than warm air, to distribute more evenly throughout the room as it gradually sinks to the floor.
Sound too good to be true? You're not alone. There's at least one person who isn't impressed by this data-enhanced iteration of the trusty old AC. In an editorial, Treehugger.com managing editor Lloyd Alter laid out what he perceived as the technology's most glaring flaws; our power grids aren't prepared for an influx of power-savvy products. Of the invention, he says:
It doesn't connect to the smart meters that most houses now have, so when everyone is coming home at the same time and everybody's Aros click on at once, the load on the grid spikes like mad. Washing machines and water heaters are smart enough to do this, so that the utility can control it and slice some peak load off the top. It's the single most important thing that a smart air conditioner should be able to do, and it doesn't.
Having more appliances plugged into a smart grid helps utility companies monitor a home's power consumption throughout the day and improve the efficiency of how electricity is distributed. Alter also goes on to make the case that, often times, the discomfort caused by warmer temperatures can be alleviated simply by cracking open the window to allow for cross-ventilation. Air conditioners, including this one, he says, would only encourage consumers to rely more on technology, since the units are already blocking the window. He does, however, acknowledge that the system's advanced management capabilities should allow it to at least operate more efficiently than conventional systems.
For his part, Leslie will receive 5 percent of royalties from subsequent sales. The Aros air conditioner is available for pre-order at Amazon.com, but the units won't ship until May, which means we'll have to wait to see if the product lives up to the hype.