How smart are your ‘Smart’ heating controls?

February 23, 2018

The world of heating controls is moving along with all other devices and appliances, reflecting advances in technology to both improve their performance and make them more use-able. The problem is that the term ‘Smart Controls’ has been used to describe all manner of devices without necessarily defining the attributes which make them ‘Smart’.


In fact, many heating installers would argue that a lot of householders already fail to understand existing, conventional heating controls before introducing anything more sophisticated and there is plenty of evidence to show that people still believe that turning the thermostat up will make the heating work more quickly. In fact, a well-used set of controls can make a huge difference to achieving your desired temperature to make you comfy, at the times you are present, in the rooms that you occupy and, crucially, most economically. A full set of heating controls will normally consist of a timer/programmer, a room thermostat (and a cylinder thermostat for those who have them) and thermostatic radiator valves (TRVs).


There is an excellent piece of research carried out by the University of Salford on behalf of BEAMA which showed that there was a 41% improvement in efficiency going from an uncontrolled boiler to a system using a room thermostat and TRVs.


Many people assume that a ‘Smart’ heating control is connected to a wi-fi network and thus potentially the internet. However, there is a great deal more smartness available without any requirement for internet connection. Unfortunately, heating controls are described with their very own set of technical terms which will be gibberish to all but those in the industry and I will try to unravel some of these in this blog.


Let’s start with the thermostat, it turns the heating on until the room reaches the temperature you have set, and then off until the temperature drops. In many cases thermostats are integrated with programmers to provide both time and temperature control. The programmer will control the on and off commands during every day. Thermostatic radiator valves (TRVs) control the flow of hot water through the radiators (NOT the operation of the boiler) and when the desired temperature is achieved they will restrict or stop the flow of water.


So how do these devices become ‘Smart’? The first point that I would make is that the thermostat must be able to control the boiler. Some devices are only able to integrate with a single or limited number of boiler brands, that doesn’t seem too smart to me? This is yet another reason you should ALWAYS use a fully accredited heating engineer to source and fit your controls. And remember, you may want a different brand of boiler when you replace the existing model and if that means having to change the controls too then it could get pretty expensive. You would feel very disappointed to buy a control device that does not work with your boiler. Whilst it is not my place to promote any particular standard it is true to say that the ‘Open Therm’ protocol seems to be the one most widely recognised.


The accuracy which the control device achieves in controlling the boiler provides our first degree of smartness. Modern programmable thermostats have automated processes built-in that make the boiler work more efficiently; these clever algorithms help householders to save energy and maintain their desired room temperature.



Time proportional and Integral (TPI) – uses a sophisticated algorithm to provide close control of room temperature to ensure the boiler is fired just long enough to achieve the desired temperature, and not a second longer.


Load compensation – Intelligently detects internal conditions to adjust the heating system in the most energy efficient manner by measuring the difference between the internal temperature and the temperature set on the thermostat, and adjusts the boiler to avoid overheating.


Weather compensation - Intelligently detects external weather conditions to adjust the heating system in the most energy efficient manner. Clearly, if the weather is warmer then the boiler will need to work less hard or for a shorter period to achieve the desired temperature than in periods of very cold weather. This is the result of either a sensor fitted to the outside of the building or by using local weather information from online service (requiring internet connection).


Occupancy detection – An occupancy sensor recognises internal presence to activate the system using infra-red, ultrasonic, microwave or other technologies.


Self-learning – devices that remember habits and learn preferences to adapt settings over time reflecting the unique conditions of individual circumstances.


All of this may be achieve without internet connection. However, it is true to say that connectivity offers a host of other useful features which can improve both convenience and efficiency.


Location based control or Geo-fencing - Geo-fencing is a feature on mobile devices that uses the global positioning system (GPS) or radio frequency identification (RFID) to define geographical locations. This means that smart controls can provide remote control of the boiler by turning the heating on or off dependent on the location of the homeowner.


Remote Access – connection via the internet can allow several functions which can be accessed from anywhere in the world receiving an internet signal. This may allow us to:

Remotely view – See information about what the device is controlling but can’t interact.

Remotely control - See information about what the device is controlling and  make changes

Receive Alerts – Send user alerts based on user settings.


Zoning – wirelessly connected radiator valves/controllers allow the establishment of multiple heating zones each with individual time and temperature settings. This allows very precise temperature control in each zone and if they are connected to the internet, then can be managed remotely.


Lastly homeowners are increasingly seeing the possibility of integrating automated systems together into one system allowing then to monitor and control multiple devices, this has become known as ‘the internet of things’. There are already security devices such as locks, cameras and alarms (smoke, CO and intruder) allowing remote access, as well as lighting and some white goods.


I shall finish with a piece of individual experience. The fact is that even the most sophisticated systems will benefit from increased use and involvement. The internet access from phones and tablets has undoubtedly increased my own use of my heating controls which, if I’m honest, used to be 3 or 4 times a year to 3 or 4 times a week.


I’m a fan, but as ever, the more sophisticated the system then the more expensive the devices or systems become. It is very possible to spend in excess of £600 on an integrated system but very clever devices will cost less than that. I would strongly advise getting advice from a professional installer before making a decision.

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