The smart home stretch

The idea of the smart home has been around for decades but there is still plenty of work needed to move beyond the ability to remotely switch devices and lights on or off.

A European collaborative research project ENERSIP has claimed that cities can reduce their energy consumption by 30 per cent by using appliances connected to energy sensor networks in the home. The energy reductions are achieved by giving people data that will help change their behaviour and also to switch consumption to times when energy can be generated from local renewable resources like solar panels.

In many ways, this is an extension of the concept of the “Quantified Self"  that involves acquiring data about all aspects of a person’s life. The idea of this is that with the data, you can modify behaviour to improve aspects of your life. The most obvious example of this is monitoring activity in order to make sure you are getting enough exercise or in order to lose weight. The "Quantified Self" approach involves the use of personal wearable sensors that are now frequently wirelessly transmitting data to a PC or smartphone.

Setting up a wireless sensor network measuring appliance power consumption would be hard today. There are individual monitors that are available that have an LCD display and sit between the device and wall but they usually cannot transmit the data wirelessly to a phone or PC. This still requires a great deal of commitment on the part of the household to monitor and record data, make sense of it and then decide what to do with that information. A wireless appliance sensor network would be able to do all of this for the consumer and then provide directed advice on what to do reduce power consumption.

The smartest device in this category currently available (in the US) is the Nest thermostat which can learn the patterns of activity in a house and adjust the temperature automatically to suit. Data from the device is fed back to a smartphone or PC and allows for manual adjustment of the schedule. 

In some ways the approach taken by the Nest is a good one in trying to achieve efficiency by being autonomous. It makes the most of switching itself off when nobody is in the house for example. It still needs behavioural change to persuade the occupants of the house that they don’t need the temperature to be quite so cold or hot all of the time. 

At the moment, the most we can hope for in the home is a smart meter at the level of the house that feeds data back to the electricity supplier. The data from these devices can be accessed through the web or through in-house displayed. Smart meters may also one day be connected up as part of a "Smart Grid" which allows for more efficient delivery of electricity to homes.

Although smart meters will allow consumers to get a general view of their consumption, it doesn’t really help them in knowing exactly where the problems lie, nor how they could go about altering their behaviour to fix it. Although most people are aware of switching off lights when not in use, this pales into insignificance when compared with power use through the air conditioner for example.

Although not part of the ENERSIP proposal, another way of using detailed energy consumption data would be to “socialise” and “gamify” the data and to provide incentives to compete with neighbours to achieve the lowest energy use or the highest drop in consumption.

To a certain extent you can do this at the household energy consumption level but it becomes more engaging when the data can break down to the appliance level. Of course, if you have solar panels, the objective of the game would be to always be a net producer of energy.

Project like those of ENERSIP remind us of how slow technological and social change is in certain areas. The idea of the smart home has been around for at least 20 years and we haven’t progressed much further than the ability to remotely switch devices and lights on or off. It is possible that the advent of the smartphone, which has sparked an acceleration in the development and availability of personal wireless sensors may also do the same for the home. 

David Glance is a director at the Centre for Software Practice at The University of Western Australia.

This article was originally published on Technology Spectator.

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