Monitoring Indoor Air Quality at Home
Do you know what’s in your home’s air?
This is Part 3 in a multi-part series for December 2021, reviewing a wide range of air quality monitors currently available for the residential market. The objective of these reviews is to help consumers understand the IAQ monitoring options available. We will focus on real life experience, use cases, and consumer perspective, rather than on technical aspects that are readily available on other reviews and manufacturers’ websites.
Part 1: Airthings
Part 2: Awair Element
Part 3: Broan Overture system
Part 4: Low price entries from IKEA and Amazon
When we invested a decent chunk of change into better air quality for our home, we also wanted to have the same level of insight and control we were accustomed to from the rest of our smart home. Unfortunately, that did not happen. During the system design process for our ducted whole home dehumidifier and energy recovery ventilator (ERV), we asked our installer, searched online smart home forums, and even called support at Nest & Ecobee. While there are options to have the Nest & Ecobee thermostats control additional devices, they can only control 1 additional device beyond your heating/cooling, and the installation team didn’t want to use our existing thermostats to control. So we ended up with 2 additional basic control units on our walls, without any smarts.
This preference for smart control may seem overkill, but it was largely rooted in minimizing the number of additional control devices on our walls, and in the year since commissioning these systems, we have noticed several situations where better control or automation of the dehumidifier and ERV would be beneficial. When I first heard of Broan’s Overture system this past summer, my interest was peaked. Could this be a possible smart solution?
Full disclosure: Broan did provide an Overture system for our home at no charge, and without any strings attached. This review is my personal experience and opinion, and has not been reviewed or approved by Broan.
What air quality parameters are monitored?
Broan’s Overture system is made of three devices: the Smart Air Quality Monitor Wall Control, Smart Air Quality Monitor Room Sensor, and Smart Plug. As you can tell from the device names, 2 of the 3 monitor air quality.
Smart Air Quality Monitor Wall Control: CO2, Humidity, TVOC, Temperature
Smart Air Quality Monitor Room Sensor: CO2, Humidity, TVOC, Temperature, PM2.5
What is unique about this monitor?
Overture’s unique position in the market would be its simple, retrofitable, automation of ventilation based on active air quality monitoring. Out of the box, it is an all-in-one smart ventilation control system.
Set up and what is included
Overture devices have followed the packaging trend of other smart home tech; it’s attractive, high-quality, and encourages the use of a smart phone. Included in the box is the Overture device and some basic instructions which direct you to download the Overture app from the Apple or Google app store.
Set up is super simple. If you’ve set up other smart home devices, the process will feel familiar. Once you’ve downloaded the app, you’ll have to create an account and then follow the on-screen instructions. I found the in-app instructions to be some of the best I’ve encountered. It is refreshing when you encounter a product and can tell the developer has clearly been a user themselves, as opposed to the times you can tell the developer likely never used the product because the UI or instructions are convoluted, perhaps lost in translation. Broan even includes multiple wiring diagrams during the set up for the Smart Plug and Wall Control devices.
Currently, Overture is targeted at HVAC companies and smart home integrators, so most homeowners would likely not experience the set up process. However, set up is consumer friendly.
Smart home integration?
Overture itself is a promising smart home integration, as it turns dumb ventilation equipment into connected home components, activating only when indoor air quality is out of range. As I have used the Overture system for just over a month, I have not yet fully explored the integration options available such as Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa. I will follow up with a longer term review in the future.
Monitoring air quality: real time & historic
Like most other air quality monitors on the market, Overture monitors display status lights in green, yellow, or red based on current air quality.
Current and historic readings are viewable in the app. Air quality status, or current readings, are displayed by clicking on the room you’d like to view. Each air quality parameter is displayed with a colored ring broken into green, yellow, and red with an arrow indicating where on the ring the current level measures, much like a tachometer in a car. The current numerical reading is displayed in the center of the ring.
Historic readings are displayed in chart form, and viewable in periods of 1 hour, 1 day, 1 week, 1 month, or 1 year.
Real life use & experience
The best place to start is likely expanding on the devices that make up the Overture system. Two Smart Air Quality Monitors: the Wall Control and the Room Sensor, and a Smart Plug that controls a ventilation system such as an ERV.
The Room Sensor is a plug-in device that can be placed anywhere there is an outlet. Broan suggests a bedroom or living area. I placed mine beside my range as I have an over the range microwave rather than a range hood, and for experimental purposes as I wanted to see how well it detected our home’s most frequent pollutant: exhaust from cooking. Set up is simple, just plug in the device and pair it in the app. Be sure the monitor has air flow, so do not place it behind furniture or directly beside an air vent.
The Wall Control occupies a single gang space and is designed to replace the switch for a bath fan or range hood. The best use case for the Wall Control is likely for controlling a range hood. Studies show a majority of occupants fail to turn on their range hood when cooking whether because they forget or because of noise. By passing the control to an air quality monitor, occupants do not have to remember, and the range hood only runs when air quality is poor. Our Wall Control is installed in the guest bathroom, located just off our lower level kitchen. While the main air quality concern in a bath is likely humidity, being located near the kitchen allows the bath fan to be a back up for any smoke, etc that gets past the range hood. Installing the Wall Control was the most complex of all the Overture devices, but the Overture app makes it simple. Once power is off, you can begin adding the device in the app by entering the fan model info, and following the wiring diagrams provided in app, based on fan type. Once wired, turn on power and continue following the app instructions to onboard the Wall Control. The indicator light is bright. If this were in your ensuite bath, it might irritate some people when trying to sleep, so be thoughtful on placement.
The Smart Plug is designed to link with a Room Sensor or Wall Control, and boost a ventilation system when indoor air quality is poor. This is the big feature of Overture. The plug is fairly basic, it has a smart outlet on the front, and connections on the side for 2 control wires. (Thank you Broan for making this a horizontal plug so it only takes up one spot) These 2 control wires are what control the ventilation device, not the smart plug on the device itself. Broan recommends 16-20 gauge solid wire. I used 18 gauge doorbell wire I had left over from a recent doorbell upgrade. Like the Wall Control, the app walks you through setting up the Smart Plug and even provides wiring diagrams for connecting to your ventilation system. Super easy. I linked my Smart Plug with the Room Sensor in my kitchen, and have watched it boost our ERV anytime we cook. It was exciting to see it work the first few times, now it just blends into the background, like it should. Of note: Smart Plug is UL rated for operating temperatures up to 95F. Something to be aware of in case you install yours in an unconditioned attic as I did. I have not had any issues, and installing in a conditioned space would be fairly easy, especially if you were having Overture installed at the same time as your ventilation system.
Recently, we had a perfect storm of events occur simultaneously that allowed us to find a couple things we would change with the system. So about that perfect storm…our whole house dehumidifier failed in late October, and we are still awaiting installation of the warranty replacement. Last week was unseasonably warm in Atlanta and our home holds heat well, so our home was a comfortable temperature without heating or cooling. It also rained, and the next day we had a power outage for an hour (not related to weather). I told you it was a perfect storm.
All of this led to our indoor humidity hovering in the 60s for several days. Not good for allergens, and also not something liked by the Overture Wall control in our lower level bathroom. With humidity reading above the threshold for activating the bath fan, Overture was continually running the bath fan attempting to lower humidity, but unfortunately it was also humid outside, so the makeup air was no help. We would manually turn off the bath fan when we noticed it running, but it made me wish there was an override or a way to raise the threshold for activation for times such as these. As temperatures dropped and heating was needed, the Wall Control did calm down and so did the humidity.
About that power outage. Both the Smart Plug and Room Sensor include a smart plug which can be turned on/off with a physical button on the device, or in the app. Our Smart Plug is located in the attic with the ERV. The Smart Plug is hardwired to the ERV control panel for control, but I also plugged the ERV power cord into the smart plug on the device as the other outlet is occupied. Similarly with the Room Sensor, I had a Sonos speaker plugged into the device’s smart plug. Which brings us back to the brief power outage. After the power came back, we noticed the ERV had not. Quickly I noticed the smart plugs had not returned to an ON state once power was restored. I can understand safety or precautionary reasons for this, so I have now moved these items to regular outlets. Just a note for anyone who might think of trying the same.
Simply put, Overture just works. From a simple set up, to operating and boosting ventilation automatically, I’ve thought about my ventilation a lot less since installing Overture. And when it comes to thinking about most homeowners, that’s exactly what they need, and why Overture could be a big win for Broan.
Final thoughts & verdict
-Works seamlessly in the background
-Monitors air quality for a wide range of parameters & automates ventilation for corrective action
-Minimizes home occupant activity’s impact on indoor air quality
-Easy to set up and monitor
-Ventilation equipment only runs when needed
-Price point of entry
-Current limited distribution
-Current inability for home occupants to override or adjust activation thresholds
Currently, Broan is focused on professional HVAC installers and home integrators. It’s a smart first move based on price and for a new product category. With the simplicity of install and set up, I would not be surprised if a wider public distribution model occurs. I have found a couple online suppliers serving both trades and homeowners with Overture for sale, such as SupplyHouse.com, so homeowners can purchase this now.
The prices are roughly as follows: Smart Plug $200, Wall Control $300, Room Sensor $400. Overture is not cheap, but neither are most smart home controls or the previous air quality monitors we have featured. Admittedly, I balked slightly when I first heard the prices, but after realizing what’s included on the device and experiencing how they function, the value is easily understood. This is not a system that everyone will be able to afford, but if you have a whole home ventilation system you likely can afford Overture. Those who have it installed by a professional will pay more for markup and labor.
In summary, Overture is part of the smart solution we were looking for. With a simple set up, seamless automation thanks to built-in monitoring, and ability to work with many existing products, it is hard to beat. After time spent with other air quality monitors, I appreciate that Overture not only monitors air quality, but also automates ventilation to bring in fresh air when IAQ levels are out of bounds.
I will share future updates as we spend more time living with the system. As Overture is still a newer product, I look forward to how Broan adds additional functionality, controls, and periphery products over the coming years that may allow it to automate our whole home dehumidifier, air purifiers, or Haiku fans.