discussion on home automation for the environmentalist

March 2, 2009 § 5 Comments

For the last week or more I’ve been flirting with home automation. I knew about it but never looked deeper inside its guts. Now I can say my knowledge on the subject is wide enough to be able to make some decisions and discuss it in an article. Anyway any responsible and knowledgeable comments are more than welcomed.

Home Automation Solutions, known as Domotics in Europe, is a way to control every bit of equipment and device in a home with the purpose of lowering energy bills (efficiency) and rising the comfort (quality of life).

As far as I understand the term, in terms of energy efficiency, an automated home must cut waste of resources. So no more Lights ON that no one benefits of, no more Vampire Energy from stand-by devices, no more Water Wasting when you don’t actually use it (e.g when you do the dishes, while pouring the dishwashing soap on the dish and while cleaning it, before have it ran off by water, this water is flowing in vain and goes down the drain as clean as it comes from the pipe, thus a waste), no more Heating Energy wasted in rooms you left out from and more.

In terms of quality of life, this means everything you do while at home serves your relaxing needs, visually pleasing environment, cozy feeling, etc, home automation is about having remote-controlled appliances, gesture controlled appliances, being able to create scenarios for routine stuff, presence recognition by motion sensors or intelligent recognition software installed on always-on home servers and not less important having home surveillance and security.

For the environmentalist the first option is always the energy efficiency. Here and there energy efficiency of the smart home also helps increase the  quality of life which is great. Let’s review the means of increasing energy efficiency and decreasing the negative footprint the modern homes can have on the environment.

The management of lighting in a house can be done by automatic devices and of course by computers. Automatic devices include motion sensors, brightness sensors that balance the amount of artificial light a room needs, to compensate for the decrease in natural light outside, timers that keep the bulbs ON as long as it’s needed so that switching On/Off repeatedly doesn’t damage the bulb or shorten it’s life which would lead to a higher carbon footprint (waste material, pollution from producing a new bulb, transporting it, etc). Of course CFLs and LEDs will be used to reduce the energy bill, placed in appropriate locations. The CFLs will be used where the lights will be on for long periods of time, at least 15 minutes (as the CFL needs more time to warm up to get to full capacity) and LEDs will be used for transit zones, mood lighting and night soft lights. Also LEDs are required in table lamps, reading lamps aside the bed, wardrobe lamps and so on.

On the quality of life side the management of lighting requires remote-controlled lights, making lighting scenarios based on daily routine, motion sensors that turn on night lights when you get out of bed and don’t want to get up your spouse, having the spots above yourself getting brighter when you take a book or magazine to read (this involves artificial intelligence: gesture recognition, etc), and so on.

Cutting vampire energy is a must in today’s requirements on energy efficiency and CO2 footprint of homes. This can be achieved by devices like smart power strips ( check out Smart Strip Power Strip for $32 a strip, Eco-logical Surge Protector for about $28 ) that use an electronic circuit that senses the fall in electricity need when the master appliance is turned off by remote control and cuts the flow to all other slave appliances attached such as DVD players, sound systems, game console. Another way of doing the same thing is interposing between the power socket and a normal power strip a device called Bye Bye Standby® Smart Socket Adapter which does the same thing but is remote-controlled, placing itself also on the quality of life side of domotics.

Of course if you need new appliances the best option would be to choose green ones, that draw in stand-by mode less than 1 watt of power. And on top of all, buy a surge-protection smart power strip or a remote commanded one that draws itself less than one watt to save each sub-watt energy all connected appliances would waste otherwise.

Water gets more pricey every year and not only because it’s more and more expensive to run big facilities to treat it but also because pollution levels limit the amount of fresh water we can get. Anyway it’s a must that we cut down the consumption of water. The most obvious way is to use automatic faucets with infrared sensors especially useful in bathrooms when washing hands is the main function of it. In the kitchen there is another story as the automatic faucet can’t tell when you want water running to clean the dish or when you just pour dishwashing soap and rub it clean. You need other type of faucet, either knee or foot maneuvered like this one:

Another nice addition to a smart house, even if it isn’t related to domotics is aerated showerheads and aerated faucet heads, which insert water bubbles in the water drops thus creating the same feeling of volume in less quantity of water.

In an intelligent house you would like a scenario where at a text message or web interface you set a certain hour when you want the bath tube be prepared just before you arrive home.

I can’t think of anything else concerning automating water-running  appliances so I’ll get explaining the HVAC/Ventilation/Air Conditioning equipment automation. This is one of the easiest to grasp as it’s one of the most common home automation directions. So basically on the energy-saving line it requires a control system that can set different temperatures for different zones in the house. On the artificial intelligence line it means of course scenarios: preheat before I come home, lower the heating in the other rooms when we’re sleeping in the bedroom, etc.

In the case of an electric underfloor heating I think that heating less the untouched areas and heating more the areas where I step on the floor for a better comfort would be a nice addition but as many of the heating systems around are water based makes this impossible to do, and difficult enough with electric-based underfloor heating.

Having discussed the main automation solutions for the environmental conscious guy, I consider having a central home server a necessity. Even if it’s an always on device, it can have many benefits on your home security and can provide that extra automation that you’d expect from a 21st century home: entertainment (“multi-zone” audio and video, lights and blinds setting scenario for home theater rooms), security (all open TVs in the house will switch to camera view when intruders are sensed in an area, you get a text message on your phone when there’s a treat detected, video-streaming to an internet server makes evidence safe, you can speak on the phone and be broadcast on all TVs and speakers in the house, all light in the house go ON, etc  ), home management through a specialized software that can make graphs and reports on energy consumption, water usage, gas usage, TV usage, etc.

To serve all these functions the server must be pretty powerful especially if you want it to have DVR functions included. Encoding realtime isn’t for tiny machines. Even if most of the time this computer will be idle and some of them are able to draw zero watts in this state, the cumulated power consumption of the home server won’t be negligible. Perhaps you’ll save a hundred watt each hour of vampire energy but this one will put those watts back on the bill. Anyway at least it’s not a waste.

Besides the home server a home automation system needs an interface between the computer and the controlling equipment ( power sockets, light switches, thermostats, etc). And of course this equipment which can come in many flavours from different companies. Some of the solutions are standardized, some not and you can pretty easily find all of them on a web search. I personally find them pretty expensive and even the price is going down, it’s not down enough. X-10 protocol seems the most affordable today but only in USA, here in Europe it’s not adopted on a big scale and it’s powerline transmission of the commands and single-way operation makes it less desirable. Lately second generation X-10 capable devices solve many of the known issues of the first X-10 generation. But anyway X-10 can’t transmit heavy data that KNX/EIB or Z-wave can. These are powerful protocols that have some potential here in Europe but prices are very high.

I’ll be waiting for an affordable home automation solution and hope that this will come soon as a viable solution to help homes achieve that zero-footprint on the environment.

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