Baby It’s Cold Outside—The Lennox iComfort Thermostat and App
My 86-year old dad has been living with me since August. At the breakfast table this morning, he politely requested that we set the thermostat a bit warmer at night. The cold season is upon us here in mid-northern latitudes, and his elderly body just can’t handle it. To be honest, his request was not all that polite. He’s a former truck driver, which influenced his choice of vocabulary. As a result, his exact request can’t be printed here.
While fiddling with the thermostat to satisfy my dad’s unprintable request, I realized it must be time to finally write a blog about the Lennox iComfort Wi-Fi thermostat and companion app.
A Missed Opportunity
My neighborhood is designed for seniors. In our mid-50’s, my spouse and I are on the younger side of the neighborhood bell curve, but my dad fits right in. He loves the fact that there are no steps anywhere, and the three-foot-wide doors throughout the house easily accommodate his cane or walker. Unfortunately, the homebuilder failed to address the needs of the vision impaired, even though 6.5 million people in the U.S. over age 65 have some kind of vision impairment.
One example is the Lennox iComfort Wi-Fi thermostat, which features a 7” touchscreen display with high-contrast white letters on a navy blue pattern background. The large current temperature is easy for me to read with my remaining crappy vision. I thought to myself, certainly this thermostat is designed for low vision users and must have tons of cool accessibility features.
No such luck. There is no way to change the color scheme, font size, and font style. There is no built-in speaker, therefore it’s completely inaccessible for totally blind users. It does, however, have an app available for iOS and Android, and that’s how I’m able to use it. I’ll describe the app shortly. First, I need to vent my frustrations on this missed opportunity for accessible design.
Why, oh why, do companies create products with pixel-addressable displays but no facility for changing the font size? The whole point of the pixel-addressable display is that it can display anything—any font, any style, any size. While I can discern the large current temperature, everything else is too small for me to read, and there’s just no option to make it bigger.
My number one suggestion to Lennox is that they add an option to use a large font, or preferably a range of font sizes. This would be a relatively simple software modification.
A bigger font would have made it much easier for me to satisfy my dad’s thermal desires. Instead, I worked around the font size issue with a handheld magnifier. An iPhone magnifier app or even the iPhone’s built-in camera app also work. This is not a perfect solution, however. The thermostat has several screens to flip through, and by time I examine the magnified image on my iPhone, the display usually times out and goes back to the home screen. This was a serious issue when I was new to the thermostat, but not so much now that I’m more familiar with it.
My number two suggestion for Lennox—Make the screen timeout delay configurable. Five seconds just isn’t long enough for vision impaired users.
I imagine it would also be fairly trivial to allow the user to select a color palette. White on navy blue happens to work fine for me, but other low vision users might prefer a different color scheme. Even normally sighted persons might want red on black so that they wouldn’t kill their dark adaptation if they checked the thermostat in the middle of the night.
The Lennox iComfort Wi-Fi thermostat could be accessible to low vision users. The existing thermostat hardware is certainly capable of supporting all three of my suggestions above. Restricting these features in software is a missed opportunity for accessible design.
Extra Bonus Points
If Lennox wants to earn extra bonus points, they should consider modifying the hardware so totally blind people can use their thermostats. Apple has already shown that touchscreen devices can be made accessible, so it’s not like the technology needs to be created from scratch.
Nonetheless, hardware redesigns are involved and expensive. Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a way to make the thermostat blind-accessible without changing the hardware? Hmm… Let me think…
The iComfort Wi-Fi Companion App
I can access many common thermostat features from the free Lennox iComfort Wi-Fi app. It works with VoiceOver, so the font size and screen timeout issues are not a problem. It lets me check the current indoor temperature and humidity, set the temperature at which the furnace or air conditioner come on, control the fan, and set the active program.
Unfortunately, the app is not a replacement for the thermostat UI. Many features, settings, and information displays are available only from the touchscreen. The most critical missing feature is the ability to edit a program—that is, make a permanent change to the temperature settings.
The app also has some accessibility issues. Here they are, and how I worked around them.
- There are two unlabeled buttons that control “away mode” (used for vacations). I labeled both of these (2-finger double tap and hold) so that they read “away is on” and “away is off”.
- The app has two spinner controls to set the “heat to” and “cool to” temperatures. These controls have serious issues when VoiceOver is enabled:
- Their visual labels are not available to VoiceOver, so they appear unlabeled to blind users. You just have to remember that the “heat to” temperature is on the left, and the “cool to” temperature is on the right. For this reason, it’s best to place your finger on the screen and drag around to find these controls.
- They are simply not standard spinner controls. I should be able to swipe right into the “heat to” control and have VoiceOver read the current value, as well as inform me that it’s a spinner, then swipe up or down to change the value. These controls don’t behave that way. Swiping right into these controls takes VoiceOver focus to the lowest temperature—40 degrees Fahrenheit, almost certainly not what you want—and sets it as the new value. Coming at it from the other direction, swiping left into the control activates the highest temperature. This poor design means it’s very easy to unintentionally set a dramatically wrong temperature.
- It’s difficult to change these spinners with precision. If the “heat to” temp is set at 66 and I want to increase it to 68 to make my dad happy, I must swipe right until I hear “69”. In other words, I need to select one past the value I want. It’s just not intuitive.
In spite of these issues, the app is usable. Once you learn its idiosyncrasies, a totally blind person can control the thermostat with an iPhone. And as you would expect, you can also check the temperature and control the thermostat while you’re away from the house, which is handy for vacations and extended road trips.
Suggestions for Lennox
In my opinion, fixing the iComfort Wi-Fi app to work well with VoiceOver enabled should be a top priority, especially the badly broken “heat to” and “cool to” spinner controls. Lennox should also enhance the app to allow editing a program, which would eliminate almost 99% of my need to use the inaccessible thermostat touchscreen UI.
Modifying the thermostat firmware to support configurable font sizes, screen timeouts, and display color schemes would be a great second priority, and would help a lot of low vision users who don’t have a smartphone.
With these much less expensive solutions available, I don’t expect Lennox to redesign the hardware to support voice output. On the other hand, if they are looking at a major product redesign sometime in the future, it might be worth considering.
How did I end up setting the thermostat to satisfy my dad’s request? While I could use the app to set the heat temperature just before we hit the sack, the better solution was to edit the program, which I did at the touchscreen with a handheld magnifier. We will all sleep warmly tonight, and there will be no unprintable complaints in the morning.
I really enjoyed your blog. It is such a familiar story! We recently had a new heater put in on our top floor and the fancy new thermostat is totally inaccessible. I love the new heater, but, for me, the thermostat is just a plastic block hanging on the wall. I don't dare touch it or I might make the upstairs unbearable.
The thermostat for the heating unit downstairs, which is considerably older, has physical switches that I can slide or click. And, although I have absolutely no idea what the temperature might be, or exactly what incremental change I might e introducing, I can make the downstairs hotter or colder.
Thanks for an informative and entertaining piece.
I'd try contacting Lennox and explain that you're a blind individual who is trying to use the companion app with Voiceover, tell them what VO is, and maybe ask them what kinds of access features for blind/low vision users they could implement into the thermostat.
Not trying to put out a promo or anything for them, but I love the fact that Lennox equipment is made right here in Iowa, and they've been around for over 100 years. I hear a promo all the time when I'm listening to the football games, neither here nor there, but it couldn't hurt trying to get in touch with them.
Morgan, thanks for the comment. It's frustrating when everyday appliances are not designed for accessibility, or only as an afterthought, if at all. Our previous house had a completely inaccessible thermostat, which I could not decipher even with a handheld magnifier. I simply turned it over to my spouse. Argh.
BTW, "Degrees of Accessibility"... I'll consult with you next time I need a title for a blog. :-)
Thanks for the note, Justin. Yes, Lennox is a fine company, and we are very pleased with our Lennox furnace and thermostat. Contacting them about these concerns is a great idea. I understand that the AppleVis editor has tweeted this article to them. And I'd certainly be willing to beta test any changes or even act as a consultant for new designs.
S yeah, the iPhone app is definitely quirky. Thanks for the description though, I'll have to try it again now that I know there's a way not to select extremes. lol
Have you tried their thermostat web page online? Ti works really well with Firefox. Al the other browsers have issues when using screen readers with that page.
Incidentally, we tried replacing the iComfort with the Nest thermostat as that one would definitely be accessible, but Lennox uses proprietary technology, so no go.
Thanks for posting the link to the talking thermostat. Buttons? What a concept. I must admit it's frustrating when accessible solutions already exist, and manufacturers come out with "improvements" like touchscreen displays that lack even basic accessibility. Grrrrrr...
Yes, quirky and limited is how I'd describe the app. The trick for dealing with those stupid spinner-like controls is to drag your finger into the control. Then play with them a bit to get a feel for how to change their values. Good luck! I hope you don't freeze or roast! LOL.
I did try the web page when we first moved into the house, but haven't visited it since. Thanks for the reminder. That is a major omission on my part.
Bummer about Lennox furnace / AC being incompatible with other thermostats. But, now that I'm familiar with it's quirks, I'll likely stick with the iComfort at this house.
Thanks for putting this together. I feel like I shared a piece of your life, very nice! We don't have a smart thermostat, I don't even think it qualifies as dumb. Although, it does have a button interface. So I can get on there and push up and down at least. No idea what it is actually set to because of the gray LCD display. Even with the buttons, apparently you have to push a button once to wake it, then again for each increment, but if you hold down a bit too long it rapid changes. If you wait too long it turns off again. So even with buttons I can feel, it's still pretty stupid. My wife comes home in the afternoon and fixes the setting again. :-)
Thanks again for a great post. Keep them coming!
Hey Nicholas. Thanks for the comment. I'm pretty sure my dad had the exact same thermostat at his old apartment, before we moved him in with us. I visited him a few times and needed to adjust the thermostat for him while I was there. I managed to read it with a flashlight and positioning my head inches away from the screen. In hindsight, I wonder if Seeing AI would've been able to read the LCD display? Please try that and let me know, just out of curiosity.
Great post. This topic really hits home with me as it does with many vision impaired individuals. Here is an accessible option I would like to recommend. Honeywell makes several WiFi thermostat models that all work with their Total Connect Comfort iOS app and work with systems from different manufactures including Lennox and Trane. I have had one for several years and have found it to be about 99% VoiceOver accessible. I am able to completely operate the heating and cooling system and perform all programing task via the app from anywhere. My previous home had 3 levels with separate systems on each level. We replaced the original inaccessible thermostats with WiFi models from Honeywell and I was able to access the thermostat for each system via the Honeywell app. The first thing we did upon moving into our current home, was to replace the existing Nest thermostat with a model from Honeywell. My wife loves it because I am able to completely operate the heating and cooling system without visual assistants from her. As I said there are several different models of Honeywell WiFi thermostats that are available. We have one with a color touchscreen which is not accessible but my wife likes it and I am able to do everything through the app so the touchscreen's lack of accessibility is irrelevant. I can't say enough about the Honeywell thermostat and Total Connect Comfort app and recommend it to any one looking for inaccessible solution. Honeywell thermostats seem to be widely available. I have purchased mine from both Home Depot and Amazon. The touchscreen model we have is top of the line and cost about $160 on Amazon. Not a bad price for independence.
Old post, but in case folks Google in here looking for accessible thermostats, I posted a review of the Emerson Sensi Wi-Fi thermostat. I figured the Honeywells would likely be accessible, so that's good to hear. The Sensi may be one of the last smart thermostats without a touchscreen, which is why I chose it. I had the VIP from talkingthermostats.com, but did not like it nearly as much. In fact, not all settings are voice-accessible. Things like how far to let the temp swing before activating the system were sight only. Integration with Alexa, Google Home, and HomeKit are much better IMO.