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With green “in,” home automation’s time is here

ieee_225_145_pixels_blueEditor’s Note: This article is the third in a series of six special features the IEEE is preparing for Greenbang, and is authored by George Hanover, IEEE Congressional Policy Fellow and IEEE Consumer Electronics Society Membership Chair.

Intelligent consumer use of our limited energy supply is now recognised as one of the major factors in the green revolution. According to the Smart Energy Home Initiative, which brings together companies to overcome the barriers that prevent sustainable houses from being the norm, buildings consume 40% of the energy used in Europe and contribute to 36% of greenhouse gas emissions, with the loss in monetary terms estimated at €60 billion a year.

Using home automation technology for energy control can reduce power consumption by limiting use to where and when it is most needed … therefore saving money on energy bills without affecting quality of life.

The Potential

Not so long ago, home energy control was one of the more mundane applications of home automation. Now, though, it has become the most important one, thanks to the need to conserve our planet’s resources.

Some examples of home energy control: zoned heating and cooling, lighting control, and automatically opening and closing windows and curtains for natural lighting and heating control. There are impressive applications even for energy control. One of my favourites is a dishwasher (which has been set to start in the middle of the night) that can send a message to the water heater to turn up the water temperature as needed — so dishes are properly cleaned and sterilized — and then turn it down again. This is realistic, practical and definitely possible.

The Proviso

Let’s be clear, however. Home automation will never conserve energy in the sense of making an inefficient product more efficient. That’s a whole other opportunity (or problem).

Also, although such automation will allow energy consumers and their providers to reschedule tasks for when energy costs are lower, rescheduling won’t reduce the amount of energy used for a specific task. Drying a load of clothes in an electric dryer will still use very close to the same amount of energy whether it is done at 3 am or 10 am.

The Practicalities

It’s clear that a dwelling with home automation really is, like the fuel-efficient car, the wave of the future. So let’s now look at some of the attributes that are important for a good home automation system.

First, is the startup cost low? It might not be easy to convince consumers to spend big bucks up front on a home automation system for somewhat vague future green savings.  Systems that allow the home automation protocol to be embedded into each home automation-capable appliance (distributed intelligence), rather than requiring an initial purchase of a full-time specialised central controller, can reduce or even eliminate the pain of starting a home automation system. The consumer can then phase into a home automation system by replacing old appliances as needed with ones with home automation capability.

Second, can the system easily be retrofitted into the consumer’s existing house? Even if the cost of home automation-capable appliances is no more than that of “regular” appliances, some people may balk at the idea of breaking into walls to install cabling to carry home automation messages between appliances. For this reason, organisations such as the Zigbee Alliance, the Infrared Data Association and HomePlug have developed non-invasive means such as wireless, infrared and the existing home power line to carry the messages to control and coordinate power consumption.

Third, now that the consumer has a fledgling home automation system — and, hopefully, really likes it — can the system be easily expanded to add new appliances or new features and functions in the already installed appliances? This is called plug-and-play capability, and all home automation systems should have it built into their standards. When a new appliance is added to the local system, it exchanges information with the other devices to establish its own unique address and tell the other devices what it is and what its capabilities are. Consumers should not have to do anything except possibly tweak the application for their own individual needs.

Fourth, is the system designed to easily interface with the outside world? Consumers should insist on external networking capability as a feature of the system they choose. We know that external networking allows the power providers to manipulate appliance usage to low energy-cost times, but for actual energy savings the consumer can reduce the home’s consumption using a mobile phone or computer at work to let the house know, for example, that he or she will be arriving late.

A Good Example

Below is a slightly modified version of a review of a paper which appeared in IEEE Transactions On Consumer Electronics (Volume 54, Number 4). The system presented in the paper is a good example of a home automation application that demonstrates some of the attributes just described. This review itself appeared in a recent issue of the IEEE Consumer Electronics Society Newsletter:

Retrofitting Home Automation Makes Old Houses Smart

Some say home automation is the wave of the future and always will be. One of its significant problems is that of retrofitting a useful system into an existing house. The paper, A Wireless Power Outlet System for Smart Homes by Guangming Song et al, addresses that situation by offering a network of low-cost, add-on power outlets — modules that communicate with each other via a 2.4-GHz rf link and to the outside world through a base station.

The paper’s figure 1 shows a plan view of a house with the power outlet modules connected to standard electrical outlets (“AC”). The system also includes provisions for sensors using PIR (passive infrared), also linked via the 2.4-GHz channel. So, for example, when a person enters the house he is detected by the PIR module which sends that information to the base station or a module. With the collected data, the base station then sends pre-programmed messages to the various outlet modules to turn on the lights, draw the curtains and so on.

In conclusion …

Home automation capability has been around for many years. The cost reduction, retrofit ability, expansibility and external network capability have become better and better. But it has been very slow to catch on. Maybe its natural fit with green technology will end that, and spur consumer demand.


  • Insteon vs X10
    Posted February 5, 2010 at 11:53 pm

    Honestly the green applications of home automation will take a backseat to the early adopters and “cool factor” for a while I believe. Until the integration comes from the product manufacturers (ie zigbee) and is ubiquitous we won’t see any real traction in this market. My 2 cents anyway…

  • Mikko
    Posted February 4, 2010 at 1:54 pm

    If this dishwasher story is the best example Mr. Hanover can come up with, we will wait for long until his predictions materialize. Adjusting the house’s heating system as required by a dishwasher does not appear smart, nor energy-saving.

    The French idea of replaceable rental batteries for electric cars is much more creative. It can make the transition to e-cars quicker by reducing the up-front investment in batteries and it also enables faster adoption of new battery technologies.

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