icon caret-left icon caret-right instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads question-circle facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle

The Privacy Blog

My Smart HVAC Controller Sucks and Blows


Yesterday, I lost my privacy battle against the smart home.


This past winter, we had a new central HVAC system installed. The original one had been installed in 1984, so it was time. As the season began to change from winter to spring, the upstairs indoor temperature would soar to 80 degrees farenheit in the afternoon.


We tried pretending it wasn't a problem. My husband, son, and I all fiddled with the fancy-dancy digital controller on the wall. It assured us it was cooling the house. We checked all its menus. They indicated that all systems were functioning normally.


Days dragged into weeks. The entire family continued to grumble about the oppressive heat. My son -  whose office is upstairs – put his English degree to good use by describing his barbaric working conditions in Dickensian terms.


Let's face it. Humans are weak. Our bodies tolerate only a narrow range of temperatures in our climate-controlled environments. You feel nobly uncomfortable when you set your thermostat to 64 in the winter to "save energy"(reduce heating costs). And 80 is just too hot, indoors anyway.


So we arranged for a $79 service call to diagnose the problem. And the problem was simple and inexpensive. And unexpected. We had "neglected" to bring our smart HVAC controller online. Because of that, the system was running an outdated version of software, which led to the schizophrenic temperature variations described.


First of all, we didn't "neglect" to put our HVAC online. I was actually hoping it wouldn't come to joining the smart home set. As a privacy author, I see infringements on my privacy everywhere. Some might think I'm paranoid, but once you start to understand how invasive technology is, you'll see boogeymen behind every app and transaction.


Now our HVAC is online so that software updates can arrive via our wireless network. The reason I caved was that this appeared to be the only way to keep the software up to date and the temperatures comfortable. But what else is this wireless connection doing?


Living at the bottom of the hill, we have a pump that pumps greywater back up the hill to the metropolitan sewage system. Our pump has a modem, a device that allows it to wirelessly communicate with a headquarters monitoring station. Should it stop functioning, all sorts of bells and whistles go off. Aside from the low-tech light on top of the controller box that flashes, I get alerts on my cell phone that something is amiss. The monitoring station starts trying to contact me. I'm sure if I got the super-de-duper deluxe plan, they'd come out and diagnose and fix it without involving me at all, as long as they had the details to charge my bank account.


Now don't get me wrong. When this pump fails, it is a household catastrophe. Sure, there's fresh water in the house, but there's nowhere for the used water to go once the holding tank is full. Eww. I speak with authority because the last pump reached its end of life two summers ago. We had to move out of the house for eight days while the new one was being sourced and installed. Hopefully, all this pump-connectedness should help us continue to keep our basement from being flooded with, well, you-know-what.


The bottom line is that the smart home is unavoidable in this day and age. Even if you resist it with every fiber of your being, there will come a point when your lifestyle risks serious compromise if you don't get with the program.


But there is also a privacy compromise here as well. I put my HVAC online for better climate control in my home. What else does the network know now? Could the energy usage pattern the system senses predict when we are home or away? If that was correlated with the daily weather report, one could refine that assessment. Is the link secure? Who has access to the information? What could a criminal do with it?


Excuse me, I've got to go check and see what my smart thermostat is up to. I think it's becoming self-aware.


Be the first to comment