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Are you ready to make your home smarter?

9 September 2020 7:30 PM

The cost and benefits are making home automation easy and affordable

There are two parts to this look at what smart homes will look like in the future.

The first part relates to making it more convenient for home living the second how our homes can become part of managing the national grid system in a more sustainable way.

Part one is becoming a reality now, while part two will take time and quite a bit of effort to make a reality.

The origins of home automation was adding remotes to turn on lights or open your curtains. It was expensive and required lots of moving parts and a fair bit of maintenance. It was also not something you actually used all that often.

The next step came with a better way to connect remotes. Using your home wifi and your phone, devices and appliances could now be connected and make your phone the remote and the internet the wires to connect everything.

Controlling lights and some appliances with your phone was a lot more convenient and with the first version you used a smart plug with the appliance and a smart light socket for the lights.

Those plugs and sockets would connect to your wifi and your phone which was good for being able to use your existing devices.

Once it came to replacing them though you could now buy wifi enabled bulbs and devices and control them directly. The improvements was not just in the control of the bulbs but also their efficiency (most are LED) and their added function. Besides controlling the brightness you could also control the colour.

If there were multiple lights you could control them as a group or individually and you could set routines for when they should be on and how they should be configured.

The game changer came with smart speakers. These were not only speakers that could stream music from your phone like the Sonos speaker but included voice activation assistants like Alexa and the Google Assistant. You could now connect the smart devices like lights or TVs to the voice activated speakers and control the devices with just your voice.

While opening an app to effectively just press a light switch on your phone rather than on the wall is not that much of an advantage, doing so with your voice is a lot easier.

What is more you can control everything connected to the speaker and get a lot more besides. Any question you could ask of your phone assistant can be answered by your smart speaker. Keen to play the radio just ask for the station you want. Should you want to play a song, simply ask and it will play more just like it. By adding more speakers you can not only control devices anywhere in the home you can have anything play anywhere or everywhere in the house.

On the face of it, it might not seem that impressive, but if you think back to what you were told you would be able to do a smart phone a decade ago, it did not sound that impressive easier.

For the security conscious, adding sensors and cameras is easy allowing you to not only monitor your home remotely but set up what should happen depending on what is detected. Home security companies are moving away from the wired systems to more internet enabled ones and you can expect that it will be the standard in the next decade.

It does mean you would want to get a much better wifi router able to maintain a signal throughout your home and handle the growing number of devices. This is where mesh wifi routers become the must have item. They are still much more expensive, but they ultimately allow the rest of the system to work so it is a worthwhile investment.

Smart homes connected to a smart grid

The word smart is overused when it comes to tech, but the potential improvements to the grid will justifiably allow it to be called smart

The biggest challenge by energy producers is matching the amount of energy produced to the amount of energy needed. Typically the grid gets put under strain during the morning and the afternoon and idles during the afternoon and overnight.

Traditional power stations need to maintain a consistent output to be optimally efficient. This means the power is wasted if the demand is low. It was hoped that renewables would help shift the reliance on coal, but wind and solar typically produce most of its power outside of the peaks.

This mismatch has been illustrated with the demand over time graph known as the duck curve.

There are two ways to taggle it, increase energy production during the peak or reduce demand.

Housing developers working with local municipalities and energy providers may be able to do this.

A start-up home builder in the UK plans to build carbon zero homes. The first steps are designing and building homes that cut down on the need to substantial heating and cooling but using better insulation options. South Africans may not use double glazing much, but they do go a long way to retain heat in winter and prevent major heating in summer. For the rest of the heating and cooling boreholes are used, not as a source of water but heat and in summer to act as a heat sink. Sensors in the home connected to smart fans would be able to automatically switch on and off to maintain a comfortable temperature. Rather than high energy use heaters or even the much more efficient air conditioners, a heat exchange pump and the fans can take care of it.

Appliances that we use that cause the spikes are hot water geysers, kettles and stoves. They draw a lot of power and as a result of us getting ready to go to work. A smart grid would monitor the geyser temperature and ensure it is heated overnight and so not needed to turn on in the morning or evening without preventing homeowners having to use cold water.

South Africa and Eskom have already addressed this using a device that would allow geysers to be turned off by Eskom remotely. It is not only the geyser but other devices that would benefit from time shifted energy use like washers and dryers. By connecting the house to the internet would allow the municipality and the energy provider to better manage the use. Once a home is connected in this way and has sufficient sensors to monitor the basic conditions in the home, smoke alarms could alert the homeowner and the municipality and effectively the fire departmant. Insurance companies would gladly offer lower premiums for homes that would not only allow for speedier emergency response but allow for proactive monitoring too. Geysers are typically replaced once they fail, homeowners rarely know to do maintenance or what to look for when the geyser is nearing the end of its life. A monitor would keep track of the when it was installed and would both be able to detect a fault and create an alert for a routing maintenance check.

The current load shedding has seen many look to find backup options. Petrol and diesel generators are more affordable but noisy and polluting. Batteries are quiet and efficient but expensive. Solar and wind options have become more affordable but work best at scale rather than at home sizes.

The option is for the homeowner and the energy provider and municipality to partner in installing battery options. The battery might be leased from the municipality or energy provider with a rate determined for consumption from the battery. The grid would charge the battery overnight or during the day and create an effectively giant battery that even if a unit failed it would not affect the entire grid. It would be able to add capacity over time and at a cost that could be managed and the investment for the system could be provided by private investors that would earn a return on the fees generated by energy use. This is a model used by the Sun exchange that invites investors to pay for the installation of medium scale solar systems in return for earning a revenue from the energy consumed by the systems.

In this way homeowners can manage the consistency of their energy supply at a rate that should be lower than the current rate escalation that Eskom is requiring.

In the future as more electric cars are bought, they effectively become another battery and while it is parked at home overnight, the smart grid could store excess energy in the car and if needed use some of that power during the morning peak while not leaving you with a flat battery.

So by combining the convenience of smart devices and smart speakers into your home and trust that developers, municipalities, insurers and Eskom will look at making the grid smarter and more connected then the efforts of the lazy all those years ago, may just help get us out of an energy bind and become more sustainable


9 September 2020 7:30 PM

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