I have a Nest stat, is my home smart?
I think the term ‘smart home’ is something we’ve all heard of in one way or another in the last couple of years. At the very least by now you would have certainly seen products like Nest, Hive and Amazon Echo being advertised, and usually in some way being attached to the term ‘smart home’, but what exactly does it mean? Apparently I can control my heating from an app if I have a Nest thermostat so does that make my home smart?
Well, I think the exact criteria under which a home can legitimately enter the realms of smart are somewhat subjective, and the truth is if you were to ask a hundred people what ‘smart home’ means you would almost certainly get a very diverse range of answers. So, I’m willing to accept that my definition of a smart home, or more specifically the components and functional use of them that I believe make up a smart home solution in 2017, is also largely subjective. Perhaps then I should have titled this article ‘what a smart home is not’, maybe that would be easier to discuss, however before I provide my opinion on the matter, if you’re anything like me then you probably want to know that the person responsible for the article you’re about to give 5 minutes of your time to has at least some level of understanding or credibility on the subject in question. So before I crack on I want to mention at this stage that I have been working in the building control and automation industry for 20 years now. More than 15 years of that time was spent working for Honeywell, one of the largest and most prolific corporations supplying building technologies globally. For almost a decade I was a controls engineer designing, installing and maintaining complicated control systems into large commercial buildings before moving into business development where I sold over £15million of controls hardware into the UK construction market place, with some of those projects being highly prestigious residential schemes. It was during that time that I developed a passion for the residential control sector, and more specifically the rapidly developing smart home space which is openly billed as one the largest technology growth sectors over the coming years, but one which is currently struggling to gain momentum with the mainstream consumer market. There are many many reasons for this, but ultimately it comes down to a key point… knowledge and understanding, or indeed the lack of it. More on that later.
So, back to the question, what on earth is a smart home?
Well, in my (subjective) opinion a smart home is one where the environment is automatically controlled and managed by an integrated and connected technology platform, requiring minimal input from the occupants to operate effectively and efficiently, but provides a highly intuitive and simple way for human interaction when it is needed. Simple huh! Ok, let me elaborate. Every home, or rather every building, has 2 essential elements that are crucial to the occupants’ comfort, wellbeing, and ability to survive and thrive. These are lighting and heating. We’re not a nocturnal species and so light is crucial for being able to function normally outside of daylight hours. Equally we’re not a hibernating species either and therefore central heating has become an important part of the everyday home. It is here that the core basis of a smart home begins, so lets cover this in a little more detail.
We’ve all spent our lives walking over to the light switch by the door when we want to switch on or off the lights in a particular room. Some of us may be really spoiled and have the ability to dim the lights to create a more desirable ambience in the room. Either way the process involved is manual, and can become quite laborious, especially when you first get home from work on a winters night, or when you’re heading off to bed and need to switch off a number of lights downstairs before switching on a number of lights upstairs, only to then have to switch off the lights upstairs again when you finally go to bed. Think about that for a moment. In fact, tonight when go up to bed, count how many actual light switch transactions you have to do from when you make that decision to when you close your eyes to go to sleep. It’s a process you would never have given a second thought to before because it’s such a ‘normal’ part of everyday life. We’ve always done it that way right? But, it’s actually quite a tedious process when you really think about it. Instead, wouldn’t it be great if you could simply press one button, or maybe even give a voice command, to instigate the entire process, saving yourself multiple manual light switch actuations? It’s an interesting example I often discuss with people through my line of work, and I’m regularly told, ‘but that’s just lazy… it’s not exactly a hardship to switch on/off a few light switches is it?’ My response is always the same… ‘give me your TV remote for a week and see how you get on’.
You see, the TV remote is a great example of a technological development that actually demonstrated a smart home benefit, albeit a very basic one, many many years ago. Try and imagine if you had to get up and go to the TV every time you wanted to change channel or adjust the volume! Doesn’t bear thinking about does it. Well, I can tell you from experience that when you have a decent tech solution in your own home to control your lighting and heating you will quickly wonder how you ever functioned without it. I guarantee it
And what about heating?
Well, in the same way as limiting the number of manual transactions with light switches, employing a smart heating solution can drastically simplify the way in which you manage your central heating, or rather it will allow the heating to be managed automatically. But there’s a really important point that needs to be added to the heating discussion… ENERGY. Did you know that your heating typically accounts for around 80% of the energy you use in your home every year? Well, on that basis it stands to reason that having the ability to reduce how much our heating is on, whilst still maintaining our comfort levels, is really important. There are some easy ways to do this, and making sure your heating is adjusted down at night when you go to sleep, or more importantly making sure it is off or ‘setback’ when there is no one home, will have a huge impact on the amount of energy you use. But, do you really go to your thermostat every night before bed, and every single time you leave the house and come home again after work? My experience tells me that most households don’t do this. It’s a manual process, it’s laborious, and therefore it is often overlooked entirely. And this is only half the story when it comes to central heating. The next point is one that takes a while for people to get their head around… ‘zoned heating’. This is arguably more important than the last, and unquestionably one of the biggest drawbacks of products like Nest and Hive. Think about this, how many rooms do you have in your home? And how many other areas such as hallways and landings have a radiator in them? Now ask yourself, when you’re home how many rooms do you occupy at any one time? In almost every scenario you and your family do not occupy every single room or space in your house at any one time, yet with your current heating system, when you adjust the twiddly thermostat on the wall (or your sexy looking Nest stat) to bring the heating on you are paying to heat the entire property. There are many words I would use to describe this but at the very least this is absolutely NOT ‘smart’.
Imagine if you only had one light switch for the whole house!
Thankfully, there are solutions now available that give each radiator the ability to automatically control the temperature within the room it is located. A firm favourite of mine is EvoHome by Honeywell, which has been referred to as ‘the Rolls Royce of everyday domestic heating control’ because of its ability to control each room in the home accurately and independently, and because it’s developed by Honeywell it’s backed by decades of experience in domestic heating. I can’t stress enough just how important zoned heating is, and on this point I am prepared to say that this is not my subjective opinion, rather it is a factual point that anyone involved in building control will verify. There’s a reason why commercial buildings have been deploying zoned heating systems for 30 years or more, and whilst the capital cost of a zoned home heating system is more than buying a Nest thermostat, the energy saving potential will typically repay the extra cost within 2 to 3 years meaning that the energy saving each year thereafter is pure profit in your pocket. In the building controls industry we typically call that a no brainer!
Right, so we’ve covered both lighting and heating. We all have these hence why I made the point that a smart home is one that has the ability to automatically manage them. There were some notable points relevant to each system individually, but to be truly smart we need to combine these into a single platform therefore allowing us to truly benefit in terms of functionality, operation, and energy efficiency. This brings us on to my ‘integrated and connected’ statement, and it is this piece that I believe creates the ‘smart home’. More precisely it is the ability for multiple actions to take place across multiple systems, based on a single command or demand from the occupant. So, back to my lighting example and now incorporating heating, when you decide to go up to bed, rather than switching off a number of downstairs lights, adjusting the thermostat down by 3 degrees, then switching on the upstairs lights, and finally switching them back off again, I should be able to press one button on an app, or keypad, or touch panel, and all of those things happen automatically. In fact, with the addition of Amazon Echo in my home, I simply say ‘Alexa, its bedtime’, and all of those things just happen. Leaving the house and need to make sure lights and heating are off, no problem. By utilising ‘geo-fencing’ technology through our mobile phones, when my partner and I leave the house and get more than 100 yards away the heating and lighting switch off automatically. Heading home again… well, when I’m 20 mins away the heating comes back on to make sure that the house is warm for my arrival.
For me, this is what a smart home in 2017 is. One that maximises on efficiency and management of the environmental systems within the home. When I talk to clients I have a strong philosophy of making sure that they focus on these 2 essential elements first. The reality, however, is that other technologies such as your audio system, TV, blinds etc can all be integrated into the same core platform, and in my house I do just this. So when I get home, not only is the house up to temperature but my favourite radio station is playing through my Sonos speakers, and my hallway and kitchen lights are on. When I tell Alexa it’s bedtime my music stops or the TV turns off, the lighting takes care of itself, the heating drops and the blinds in the bedroom close.
Some people still suggest that the smart home is some way off, and in many ways I understand what drives them to believe this. I read a post on LinkedIn recently from a rather well known and respected individual who commented that ‘one day when a smart home system is built with human needs in mind, with simplicity at the core, to remove decisions not add to them, to save energy, to learn, then it will all make sense’, and on this front I certainly agree, whole heartedly. However, depending on your subjective view, the smart home is arguably already the here and now, and smart home solutions are more readily available than many realise. Perhaps the more pressing question is whether or not people are prepared to pay for them, and even more importantly, whether or not they understand the benefit of such an investment.
As the gap between consumer understanding, price point and availability closes, and with growing demand in teh new build sector for smart home tech from home buyers, therefore putting pressure on property developers to incorporate the tech in their properties, one thing is for sure, homes are getting smarter, and within the next decade most will wonder how they lived without their smart home system. I know I already do.