Technology systems

Will smart home technology systems make consumers more energy efficient? | Guardian of sustainable business

You leave work early one afternoon, so you log in and set the thermostat to preheat your home. After dinner, you load the dishwasher and it decides the best time to run based on renewable energy availability and cost. On your way to work the next morning, you forget to lock the house and turn off the lights, but pull out your smartphone and set the house to “away” – problem solved.

After years of hype, home control and automation products are gaining momentum, enabling these types of scenarios in what marketers call the smart home. The most dramatic validation of this trend was Google’s $3.2 billion acquisition on January 13 of startup Nest, which makes a thermostat and smoke detector connected wirelessly to a home network. Since Google is often a technology pioneer, this move will likely accelerate the development of smart home technologies.

Traders are also stepping up their efforts in home automation. At the annual consumer electronics conference, CES, in January, U.S. retailers Lowe’s, Home Depot and Staples each expanded their smart home offerings by forming partnerships with tech vendors and ramping up in-store marketing. .

Staples intends to increase the number of stores where consumers can see a display of home automation products designed to work together, including remote-controlled thermostats, door locks, blinds, lights and security cameras. Each connects to a wireless hub in the house, allowing people to use a smart phone app to control each device.

Why this peak of interest?

Tech pros say hardware prices have come down significantly over the past few years, making home control products much more affordable. And retailers are keen to be a sales channel for these related products and services, rather than technology companies.

The always-on social media lifestyle has changed consumer expectations, says Mike Harris, CEO of smart home software company Zonoff. “This idea of ​​being able to see and control your home through a smartphone makes sense because people are already connected to everything else in their lives,” he says.

From an environmental perspective, some home automation has potential benefits. Programmable thermostats can have a significant impact. The United States Environmental Protection Agency find consumers could reduce their energy consumption by 10-30% by using programmable thermostat schedules and temperature settings. The problem is that consumers often struggle to program thermostats effectively and achieve these benefits.

Smart thermostats that connect to home Wi-Fi networks come with easy-to-use apps and have the added convenience of remote control. And just getting people to use programmable thermostats can make a real difference: Since October 2011, Nest customers have saved more than 1.4 billion kilowatt hours, enough electricity to power more than 135,000 American homes for a year.

How it works in practice

There are few other ways digital technologies can improve home efficiency, says Tom Kerber, director of home controls and energy research at Park Associates. For example, a system could use the GPS feature of a smartphone to automatically put a home in away mode when a person leaves a property. Some companies collect and analyze energy consumption data, from two-way power meters to smart thermostats, to tailor heating and cooling settings to specific buildings.

Simply giving consumers more details about how much electricity different appliances and electronics use can inspire people to save. “The obvious message to consumers is that you can stop wasting energy,” says Kerber. “Automation gives you the ability to optimize settings.”

Cloud-based services can further reduce energy bills. Utilities, for example, can reduce energy use during peak hours with smart thermostats or analyze heating and cooling equipment to recommend ways to optimize efficiency.

But overall, people are drawn to full home control systems first for convenience and home security, Kerber says. Features like the ability to see when kids come home from school or automatically turn off lights tend to outweigh the energy-saving potential of home automation, he says.

“The primary value proposition is protecting family and property. People interested in saving energy are definitely there, but it’s usually second or third in the message,” adds Kerber.

Location, location…

At the same time, what motivates consumers varies by geography, says Zonoff’s Harris. With higher energy costs, consumers in Western Europe and California tend to prioritize energy efficiency, but this is often not the case in Central America. “In a way, saving energy is justification. It’s like recycling – it feels good to do the right thing and at the same time I get cool technology,” says- he.

Ultimately, whether a smart home is an energy-efficient home is more about the owner than the technology. Adjusting heating and cooling schedules and installing efficient appliances can reduce a lot of wasted energy, but only when these features are enabled. If, for example, a homeowner leaves the television and video game box on all day, even the smartest home will consume more energy than the low-tech version.

Martin LaMonica is a Boston-based journalist who covers energy, technology, business and the environment. follow him @mlamonica