With the rising costs of household energy and wide-reaching benefits of using energy less, or when renewable energy production is highest and when daily tariffs are lowest, this short blog discusses some game-changing ways smart tech can help with this and improve our experience of household energy use and control, and the impact this can have on energy saving and sustainability.
The age of digitalisation, automation and the internet has already transformed key sectors and how we interact with these. This includes how we monitor, manage, use, shape and gain from everyday products and services. Online banking and supermarket shopping are prime examples you may all have already come to like or loathe. A key sector where internet-based or ‘smart’ technologies can really make a difference yet lags behind many others is the energy sector. The epitome of this and a crucial component of everyday life, the energy sector and carbon emissions is the domestic or residential setting. It is energy used here, for instance, that collectively accounts, by far, for the second largest source of energy used in the UK (as figure 1 illustrates) and enables or disables new sustainable energy models based around renewable generation, storage and flexible demand response.
The prospect of making the step to smart homes and smarter energy use is thus compelling. For this, however, householders are key. They are the primary domestic energy demander, user, consumer and also potential innovators and influential trend-setters. Yet with energy prices rising (Since 2002, gas and electricity prices have more than doubled over the period, and in the UK energy prices are expected to rise by 9% this year, which would add about £100 to the average standard variable tariff) and at least 30 per cent of households being worried to very worried about paying for their energy bills, coupled with moves towards smart grids and tariff structures, the benefits of us all, that is to say the general public, embracing smart tech for in-home energy monitoring and management are substantial. Here we look at three unique ways Project SCENe is contributing to advancing this smart step and how we interact with energy in our homes.
Temperature how you want it, where you need it.
Consider the normal central heating system that pumps the same level of heat around the house regardless of where you want it or need it, requires adjusting the schedule, heating level and radiators manually, and with limited knowledge and control of the actual temperature of different household areas, at different times of the day or year, and minimal degrees of accuracy in how radiators can be individually adjusted. As a result the heating is often not quite right for all members of the house, is sometimes left on accidently when we are out, some rooms are often too hot or cold for our preference and we may have a worse night sleep sometimes because the bedroom is too hot or cold, open the window to cool down what we’ve overheated, and have to wait for a shower or stomach a cold one because we forgot to set the hot water to come on for an hour earlier or later this time.
This describes the situation for almost all householders in the UK. It is however, far less convenient, practical and comfortable than options now feasible and flying off the shelves thanks to smart tech. A prime example of this is one all the houses in Project SCENe will be fitted with, the award-winning Honeywell Evohome system. With electronic radiator controls for individual radiators with inbuilt sensors and digital monitors, linked to your hot water system and all connected to your wi-fi server (yet using minimal bandwidth) and displayed and controllable via a neat internet-connected thermostat and app, you can create, know and adjust the optimum temperature for every room or ‘zone’ all from the comfort of a thermostat or internet device. Each zone can include and synchronise multiple or individual radiators, and can also be controlled by a thermostat per zone. You can do this for up to 12 zones (although more if you buy additional EvoHome radiator valves and controller) and control it all from one multi-zone thermostat or app. This means you can effortlessly have your bedroom at exactly the preferred or recommended sleeping temperature (180C), and adjust other rooms according to when and for what you or others use them for, even when you or they are not in the house.
Key to the appeal of this is that people have limited time, inclining or ability to think about or change their energy habits and people’s heating demands and requirements vary per household, per member of the household, over time and also according to other variables such as work, holiday and social schedules, weather dynamics, visitors and use of each room and increasingly price signals and levels of household or local renewable energy generation and storage. The Evohome system accommodates all this through all the components being intuitive, easy-to-use, quick and simple to install, feels and looks great in the house and hand, requires no messy or costly upgrades, such as new boiler or radiators, and all controllable anywhere and on-the-go via a neat app. The images below give you an indication of all this.
Control your home comforts anywhere, anytime. Evohome multi-zone smart thermostat clips neatly onto the wall, fits neatly into the hand or can be stood on any table top. Pairs with an app for any smart phone or other smart device, and also smart radiator valves that are more attractive and easy-to-use than traditional valves. Provides maximum convenience and control according to different user needs and preferences.
The thermostat and app provided also have very useful displays, and can provide automatic warnings, notifications and advice. The colour-coded interface could be especially useful for users with failing eyes-sight, reducing the time required to use it and conveying the core messages, such as room too hot or too cold or costs, at a glance. The convenience and peace of mind, such as knowing your baby’s room is always the perfect temperature when other rooms might be set differently, and improved comfort are also big draws of the Evohome system. Users emphasise these benefits as much as heating bill reductions. Trent Basin residents also save on any installation costs and concerns.
But what happens in the background is at least as valuable, such as learning the specific rate at which your home (rather than an aggregate and less representative measure) heats to help optimise your system; and communicating and controlling across the heating system seamlessly to achieve exceptional energy efficiency (awarded Class VIII – the highest Energy-related Products (ErP) rating for thermostat control). The room-specific controls and automatic, self-regulating thermostatic radiator valves (TRV) also add considerable energy-efficiency improvements. Various clear settings and notifications, such as on the Evohome controller display illustrated below, allow you to optimise your thermal comfort and energy savings further, collectively making it among the best smart heating systems at there. Research on these savings suggest average savings of 40% on the average UK household’s heating bill, which is about £240 per year.
Voice-activated control and feedback
The smart design of the heating system enables it to be interlinked to other valuable features and appliances, such as home security and voice-based interaction. Project SCENe is doing exactly this for its users, providing feedback on occupancy through motion sensors linked to a smart app we’ve developed, and also linking the heating system and other energy use to Amazon’s Echo Spot.
This allows residents to literally speak to their heating system, verbally ask it questions, adjust it and receive feedback, and also receive prompts and reminders. The Echo Spot also provides another visual point of reference through its digital display and for Trent Basin residents links with small sensors (2 for temperature and relative humidity, 1 for CO2; 1 motion sensor), an electricity/power meter and a bespoke “skill” to provide feedback on the conditions in your home and the energy usage or status of the Project SCENe community assets such as the Tesla battery and solar PV farm. Such exclusive and tailored information and services adds further value to domestic energy consumers. The community site and assets are simulated on our interactive 3D energy model here:
Voice-based interaction also provides a more socially inclusive interface via providing an invaluable extra facility for people with sight, mobility and or dexterity issues or preferring not to use a thermostat or smart app. It is also perfect for multi-tasking as it keeps your hands, sight and body free and can provide you up-to-date info on weather forecasts, your appointments and traffic routes before you leave the house and enable you to call people and send messages simply by voice-command rather than reaching for your phone. This project is the first to offer voice-based energy monitoring and control, but it, as well as the room or zone-specific control, is likely to become the norm in the next decade due to the greater ease and efficiency it enables.
This all provides control where you need it, comfort where you want it, and energy and cost-savings all the time, helping you with the day to day and improving your and your family’s comfort at home. Its sensor data and Wi-Fi platforms means it can also be used for other valuable services, such as related to health, fitness and assisted living.
Visibility, accountability & community
Finally, studies show that the most powerful drivers of behavioural change and improved energy performance are increased visibility, social and emotional connections and routinised action. These are far more powerful than the common policy and intervention approaches of monetary rewards, personal behaviour and hard-to-use technologies, expertise and information. Project SCENe supports these drivers in numerable ways, and smart tech is a core part of this. This includes the simple smart thermostat and app and the 3D interactive model displayed on any IOS or Android device such as smart phones, laptops, tablets and a collective, multi-user compatible touch-screen in the Community Hub, a physical space provided for members of the project community.
The collective approach of the project, such as through community events, participation, benefits and community-scale PV and battery assets further increases the individual and collective visibility, cultural significance, meaning, emotionality and routinisation of energy practices and how this compares to and influences others. This supports socialisation and learning and the promotion of new energy cultures, expectations, capabilities and customs. This could be key to reconnecting people to the energy we use and waste every day, and instilling new standards and tendencies regarding these rather than often benefits failing to be realised because users struggle to adopt or feel no obligation to change something. The collective and smart tech approach Project SCENe is taking is also invaluable from an environmental perspective. The US Environmental Protection Agency, for instance, found that consumers could reduce energy usage by 30% using schedules and temperature settings of programmable thermostats but many fail to do so because individually they struggle to effectively program thermostats and realise wider benefits. These are conservative figures, especially with rising energy costs and potential losses and savings.
Indeed, even just giving consumers more detail on how much electricity different appliances and electronics use can prompt people to conserve or reschedule energy practices, especially when such details are shared rather than private. Integrating such social science and technological advances, Project SCENe actions the considerable hype surrounding smart technologies that in recent years have gained real traction to being the new norm in the residential setting. Key validations of this was Google’s $3.2bn acquisition of start-up Nest, which makes a thermostat and smoke detector that are connected wirelessly to a home network, and acquisitions earlier this year by Amazon of home smart security developers Ring and Bell. Given that Google and Amazon are often technology trendsetters, these moves will likely accelerate the development of smart home technologies. Project SCENe aims to do the same for the benefit of sustainability and society, and related research and development across interrelated disciplines of energy, built environment and social science.
In sum, smart home technology is making life easier by automating many things that we used to do manually, or not at all, and making this easier to use, learn, share and manage. Linking and communicating among these through various WiFi based devices, forming the so-called ‘internet of things’, allows us to do this for multiple services and purposes all from our homes or phones. Ultimately, however, whether a smart home, system, grid or city is energy-efficient, sustainable and enhances wellbeing or not will depend at least as much on the users and their collective or social drivers as the material and technological. The more we and other projects, R&D and policy can work with users and communities, therefore, the better.
Blog by Lewis Cameron, Research Fellow, Project SCENe, University of Nottingham