How automation is changing environmental controls

Automation is sweeping the service industry by storm, and while hotels have shown interest in automation and interactive devices, they have struggled to find a place for this technology. Interacting with a machine at the front desk may be out of place in an industry defined by service, but speaking to a robot in the guestroom, in privacy, is a trend with potential.

Thomas Melson, VP and GM of commercial buildings at Honeywell Home and Building Technology, said that the functionality behind in-room environmental controls hasn't changed much from the guest’s perspective over the past five years, but advances in automation have provided new opportunities for driving a higher-quality guest experience.

“When looking at what Amazon and Google are putting out with regard to wireless and voice interaction, we’ll see a lot of adoption of this technology by hotels, which will be integrated with the property’s HVAC and in-room control systems,” Melson said. “They allow guests to control the room’s functions with their voice.”

Melson said technology such as this is not in a position yet to drive revenue at hotels; rather, this is a crucial building stage for what will eventually become a new way to interact with the hotel guestroom. Hotels struggling against rising utilities costs often look at new environmental-control technology and wonder what they have to pay to play with voice controls.

Ted Helvey, CEO and founder at Angie Hospitality, a developer of interactive guestroom-management technology “Angie,” said costs are low if your hotel has an inventive maintenance team. His company’s device is compliant with zigbee specification standards, meaning with a few low-level purchases a hotel can have voice interactive controls for under $1,000 per guestroom.

Once installed, Angie, like Amazon’s Echo and other devices, includes a built-in occupancy sensor with a 270-degree view of a guestroom. This can be networked with a guestroom door lock to improve monitoring for environmental controls. Helvey said this is important because hotels like to ride the line between meaningful energy savings and guest comfort, an area where hotels are running out of room to experiment.

“It’s the biggest dilemma out there for energy management,” Helvey said. “You want a great guest experience, but if almost 10 percent of your operating cost is spent on energy, it’s tempting to push it a little. Unfortunately, the research we’ve seen suggests guests want to be ‘green,’ but don’t want their comfort taken away. The guest’s comfort is still key!”

Douglas Mackemer, national director—parts, supplies & specialized equipment at PTAC and HVAC manufacturer Carrier Enterprise, said the ability to control a hotel’s environment by remote can improve the guest experience by automatically queuing lights to turn on as a a guset checks in via their mobile device, suggesting the hotel is still aware of their presence.

“Business travelers, for the most part, arrive at hotels at night and leave in the mornings,” Mackemer said. “The more things you can program to lie dormant until the room is rented, that’s where the savings and improvements on the guest experience are. Too many operators think automation means ‘turning on and off by itself.’ What it really means is that it allows technology to be engaged only when it is needed by the guest.”

Though a strong case can be made for hotels to upgrade to modern energy controls and systems, Mackemer said taking the first step toward deploying is often a challenge for the industry because so few operators understand the return on investment behind these upgrades.

“In terms of lighting, some operators say that their guests leave the guestroom lights on for a couple hours per day. Only a couple of hours? Over weeks and months that adds up to substantial figures, and we’re talking properties with dozens to hundreds of rooms,” Mackemer said.

Part of this, Mackemer said, is that hotels are coming from a foundation of bad energy-management tactics. For example, Mackemer said that guestrooms many not need to hit the low temperatures sometimes seen in the residential market, and that limitation can be achieved without sacrificing guest comfort

“You may find you don’t need to get a room to 61 degrees, just increase the bottom available to 65,” Mackemer said. “The reality is that many guests drop the temperature low and then raise it up because they aren’t sure what they prefer for their comfort. Meanwhile your hotel is wasting energy dropping the temperature low and in some cases engaging the heat in order to bring it back up.”

Melson said energy-control algorhythms are fairly well optimized at this point in time, and ample information is also available these days on utility rebates. Because of that, the return on investment behind new energy-control installations continues to hover around 2.5 to 3.5 years. However, Melson said the newest opportunities to shave costs reside in automating and data analytics.

“We are now trying to analyze inefficiencies in a property in real time; we want to know if mechanical equipment is underperforming and track if we can repair it or if we can come up with ways to steer maintenance to address underperforming equipment sooner,” Melson said. “That’s where energy controls will get their next lift.”

It’s a tough situation for hoteliers to be in because many of them face down regular property improvement plans and chase other trends in technology, so it can be difficult to sell them on improving existing systems that will provide eventual returns. But Melson said there is plenty room for future improvement.

“Spending initially on this technology leads to returns, but what I’m waiting for is to see where the [industry’s] creativity will take us,” he said. “We are just now scraping the surface in terms of good ideas for analytics here.”