All about Airtopia
The past two years has seen the meteoric rise of a local company specialising in HVAC control. Paul Skelton reports.
The word ‘accident’ has such negative connotations and yet some of the most important inventions were the result of being in the right place at the right time. Take the microwave oven as an example, or x-rays and pacemakers – all of these were discovered by accident. Even the slinky was discovered by pure chance, and where would we be without the slinky?
The simple truth is you never know when inspiration will hit. For Dominic Cannalonga, that moment came while doing an energy audit for Monash University.
“The University was concerned about how much power its lighting was consuming so it called on us to conduct an energy audit. The University wanted to have the lights switch off automatically at a set time or when the building was unoccupied and it was up to us to figure out the best way to do that,” Dom says.
“Strangely, while we were walking the halls we heard a buzzing sound. The source, we discovered, was a split system air conditioner that had been running in an office that had been unoccupied for weeks.
“Of course, this was more important to control than the lights; it probably cost the Uni 10 times more to run than the lights.
“So it decided that it wanted to incorporate centralised control of split systems into the building management system. Easy, right? Well, we started to do some research and searched for a control unit that would turn off split system air conditioners automatically when nobody is in the room or if it is set too high or too low. We couldn’t find anything.”
A major challenge stemmed from the University having several different brands and models of split systems installed.
“Traditionally split systems aren’t centrally controlled, so these things could run continuously and nobody would know about it.
“Of course, the Uni could have purchased each brand’s own control unit, but that is prohibitively expensive – sometimes costing up to $10,000 each. So if you have even just three or four split systems it isn’t economical.
“That was when we talked about how great it would be to offer complete control over any split system with one little controller.”
And so Airtopia was born, or ‘inIRt’ as it was then known (“inIRt was the result of three engineers trying to come up with a clever name but failing,” Dom says).
“We started by mucking around with a little Arduino board and learning IR codes. We quickly realised it wasn’t going to be simple, particularly because the IR codes for split systems are incredibly complex. But we started building and creating what would eventually become Airtopia.
“The back end was the most important thing. We had to figure out how to decipher these complex codes and then map them so we could provide the information as a language that control systems would understand.
“It took us a couple of years to build but the resulting product talks to any automation system, as long as it’s TCIP/IP or Modbus, or of course C-Bus.”
The beauty of Airtopia is that it can work in any country; it’s powered via Power over Ethernet (PoE), USB or 12V. The company is also working on a wireless version with the aim of releasing that in 2017.
The device is controlled via a web app, so it scales perfectly on any device.
“Given that Airtopia is a little black box with a couple of wires it may not be the sexiest looking box on the market, but that wasn’t our focus. We want it to work and we want it to last a very long time.
“As for installation, all an integrator is doing is connecting an IR transmitter. There’s no programming, port forwarding, IP address settings. It’s a plug and play device – at no point do you have to open up the air conditioner. This means you don’t need a sparky to install it either.
“You just plug it in, open the app and log in with your credentials. The Airtopia unit will automatically be associated with your account.
“A 10-year -old could install an Airtopia unit. It’s not meant for the DIY market but we want it to be something integrators just a plug in.”
Dom explains that if you can run a cable from A to B then you can install an Airtopia unit. And if a particular IR code is missing from the database, Airtopia will work with the integrator to add it in no time at all.