A few years back, I covered a trifecta of startups that were building connected air vents. Ecovent, Keen.io, and Flair were putting motors and sensors onto air vents so the vents could open or close based on the ambient temperature in individual rooms. Since most thermostats measure temperature at the thermostat (Nest and Ecobee both offer sensors you can place in other rooms), that means your HVAC flows hot or cold air all over the home based on input from just one small area of it, likely a hallway.
Ecovent and Keen were sold off, but the idea of using motorized smart vents to help regulate temperature in individual rooms never really took off. However, Alea Labs, a 5-year-old startup, thinks now is the time to reintroduce the concept. The company has put many more sensors on its vents compared with the earlier generation of vents, and plans to sell them both as individual pieces of hardware and packaged as a monthly service.
Alea’s vents come in seven different sizes. They all have battery-powered motors and a cluster of sensors, including four temperature sensors, an audio sensor, an ambient light sensor, a UV sensor, a VOC sensor, and a humidity sensor. This array of sensors helps ensure closed vents don’t cause too much pressure to build up in the ducts and the sensors can track indoor air quality. The motors are powered by four AA batteries that last for roughly a year, and each vent costs $175. Each home also needs a $225 gateway to take data from the vents, handle computation, and connect the system to the internet.
Consumers can use the vents with their existing thermostats and get insights, says Hamid Farzaneh, CEO at Alea Labs, or they can connect them to their Ecobee or Honeywell smart thermostats and get even more insights. The vents used to work with Google’s Nest thermostats, but when Google killed the Works with Nest program, Alea no longer had access to the Nest APIs. Alea doesn’t have formal partnerships with Ecobee or Honeywell, so if those companies change their API programs, the Alea vents will lose whatever features rely on them.
However, just having smarter air handling in individual rooms has several advantages. For example, customers using the vents tend to save energy simply by not, say, cooling an entire house to make a single room that has westward-facing windows comfortable. Or by not overheating the first floor to keep the daylight basement comfortable, as would be the case with my house.
I want to test this out, but the intense array of sensors and computing make the system pricey. Farzaneh recommends people start with two vents and a gateway to see if they can save on utility bills or have a more comfortable home, but that’s $575 just to get started. The high price tag is why Farzaneh says the company is moving toward a hardware-as-a-service model. The idea is that a customer could buy a gateway and two vents for $99 up front and pay $6 per month. If they like it, they can purchase additional vents. If they don’t, they can ship it back.
Having lived in an extreme climate (Austin, Texas in the summer), I appreciate the continued efforts to make HVAC systems smarter and more efficient. I imagine a lot of folks are seeing their HVAC savings from thermostats like the Nest evaporate from staying home because of the pandemic. The beauty of programmable thermostats and learning thermostats is that they can automatically adjust when no one is home. But with everyone at home, finding savings is more challenging.
I also think the attention that COVID-19 brings to our indoor air quality and ventilation will help promote products that make HVAC systems smarter. Such intelligence can also help predict problems and let people know if their HVAC is struggling to perform. Alea inked a deal with KB Home to put its vents into that company’s new homes because the increase in consumer comfort and performance data helps KB Home avoid spending too much on HVAC-related warranty claims. Other home builders or companies building smart home services (like Resideo) might want to partner up as well.
Alea Labs is currently self-funded but is in the process of raising a $10 million first round. Times are tough, but the idea here is compelling. I especially like the fact that Alea isn’t relying solely on a consumer audience for sales.
Updated: This story was corrected on Sept. 4 to note which connected air vent companies were sold. Ecovent and Keen were sold, while Flair remains an independent company.