Vacation Rental Management for busy people!

Why did I choose this system?

The  electricity bills for our two large and distant vacation rentals in Florida were huge - even when empty. Our local property management company (manco) was not turning the thermostat settings down reliably when  unoccupied and the thermostat would often be tampered with by the guests no matter what we did:

  1. The thermostat’s programming was being altered by the guests and never checked.
  2. We tried the clear plastic case with lock to stop tampering but that just got broken.
  3. We tried the Invensys Thermostats with limited guest control/lock-out but they went into unlocked mode after a power outage.

Our energy usage was just outrageous and the manco could not be expected to check the thermostat programming before each guest - at least not reliably.

This started me on a search for a new system that gave me control over my heating/cooling usage remotely but still provided enough comfort for the guests.

What did I ideally want from a new thermostat control system?

I ideally wanted a system that offered the following:

  1. Remote Access - so it could be monitored and updated
  2. Flexible control during “occupied” periods:
    • I could program periods during the day that assumed the guests were out - but could be overridden if someone was actually there without being a pain to keep changing
    • Allow the guest to change temps within a certain range and then optionally have the temps slowly drift back to where I wanted them - giving some control to the guest
  3. Min cooling and max heating temps that I could change
  4. An automated means to switch between occupied/unoccupied states, with the ability to:
    • Switch to occupied before the arrival time to get the home to temperature for Guest arrival
    • Stay in occupied mode for a while afterwards for the cleaners
  5. A viewable history of the temps and settings to:
    • To help diagnose issues - doors/windows open
    • See how the guest has been changing the settings - are they constantly setting the cooling higher or heating lower - maybe I can save energy by changing the default settings?
  6. Tamper-proof:
    • With nothing to break into
    • No re-programmability by the guest - including if they take the unit off the wall and hit the reset switch (and they will)
  7. Wireless installation - I was not going to run Ethernet cables to my thermostat
  8. Must not be too expensive to acquire or maintain

What did I find?

There was nothing that gave me everything right out of the box, but a couple of systems that were close - here’s a summary of the Pros and Cons of each that highlight the differences in the 2 systems:

Proliphix Network Thermostat

Proliphix - see website

Pro’s
  1. Has calendar for pre-programming occupancy
  2. Many people are using it, ethernet is robust
  3. March2010 update: Wireless (WiFi) version is coming
Con’s
  1. Wireless version requires ethernet cable to the thermostat.  March2010 update: Wireless (WiFi) version will be available soon
  2. No temperature history (without paying a fee?)
  3. Cost starts around $300 per wired thermostat (I need 2 in one home) - more if you want to have additional control functionality
  4. March2010 update: Wireless (WiFi) version cost $489
Vera Home Automation Controller
Wayne Dalton z-wave Thermostat

Vera from MicasaVerde - see website

Pro’s
  1. Wireless installation - z-wave AND WiFi
  2. Flexible capabilities - open for developers to extend
  3. Costs around $300 for the central box (one per home) and $90 per thermostat (simple, not programmable) - this is cheaper overall for me with 2 homes where one has 2 thermostats
  4. Forms the basis for other home automation additions - just add sensors, appliance controls, camera’s etc as needed - all wireless
Con’s
  1. z-wave is not well established and has some distance limitations
  2. No calendar capability
  3. No temperature history without paying a fee

So, what did I choose?

Unfortunately, the Proliphix system was fundamentally wired (when I was looking in 2009), not open to customization and would be more expensive to extend with other automation in future. This was ruled out on that basis, mostly due to the wiring. I know that existing users of wired Proliphix units have been able to turn the system into a more wireless one using bridges but that still requires an ethernet cable to the thermostat itself and then extra parts to do the conversion and then some more effort/knowledge to get it to work. I was really looking for something simple enough that it could easily be deployed by most people.

March2010 Update: Proliphix has announced a WiFi version that will make installation much easier now. It’s quite expensive at $489 though.

As I’m a programmer I figured that if the Vera system was able to do what it claimed, and that the z-wave connectivity had enough range, then that system could provide everything that I Ideally wanted (with work on my part). I could even hook it up to the myvrzone online tools to obtain availability data automatically and store temperature history in the account there without any additional fees.

I could potentially automate everything - this was the driver that caused me to purchase a unit, develop the custom control code and test it out in my home. In my testing and development at home I found that distance was not an issue to any location in my home (1,900sqft wood construction). I was also able to create a flexible control system and fully automated interface to the myvrzone tools. I was truly able to get everything that I ideally wanted out of a new system - and know that I can make it better as needed.

Real VR usage

After the testing at home was complete I purchased another unit and installed them in our 2 Florida VRs back in September 2009 for real use. I have been able to control and monitor the systems remotely without issue. One home has two thermostats (upstairs and downstairs) and I have had no issues with the wireless network (homes are wood construction). I was prepared to add some wireless repeaters if needed, but they were not required.

Cost Savings

Our monthly electricity bills for the 2,500sqft and 3,200sqft homes were approx $600 and we have saved the cost of the purchase in 2 months ! Your savings would be different - ours was mainly due to the unoccupied periods now not cooling/heating and when occupied I set the cooling higher/heating lower from 10am to 4pm, assuming that most guests are out. See the Full System Capabilities for details on the flexible control.

More Information

  1. Full System Capabilities
  2. Installation
  3. FAQ