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Are smart homes a clever move?

Lloyd Alter in the Guardian the other day made a plea for dumb homes and dumb cities, riling against the recent rash of smart everything. I came across this via a tweet from Nick Grant (@ecominimalnick) saying that “in a Passivhaus a smart thermostat would be bored silly :)”

Yes, but… but… it’s not about the passive house (haus!) it’s about all of the rest of us!

Firstly, lets catch up on my own clever house. Since writing last, my house has become cleverer. I’ve installed an Owl intuition system.

I can now use my iPhone to make sure there is a tank of hot water from anywhere in the world that has mobile coverage – useful if coming home with muddy children. I can programme my heating zones from a laptop to be the temperatures I want them at the times I want them, without having to be fluent in Klingon – or whatever language those little screens on thermostats are programmed in. Even better, I can set the under floor heating to come on depending on the temperature in my thermal store, so that if I get a sunny day in the winter, I can make good use of my solar thermal harvest.

Brilliant! – but there is no iPhone button for making it sunny or laying a fire in the boiler stove, and since these are my two main heat sources, what’s the point?

Also – are my thermostats bored silly? After all my house has better performance than a Passivhaus (6kwhrs/m2/annum in 2011/12, I thank you), and being thermally massive, takes days to cool down a degree or two, even with no heating of any form at all. Do I need all this smart stuff?

Well for me the smartness is irrelevant; it’s the convenience that’s the benefit. Because I can programme everything from a well designed, intuitive web dashboard via my laptop, it’s easy, so I do it. I didn’t even have to read an instruction book, let alone attend the 'Klingon for beginners' evening classes.

So is this the point – making it easy for the householder who wouldn’t really be bothered otherwise, to make their energy system efficient?

Well, no! As I’ve been arguing in my clever house blogs, the smartness is not necessarily about living in your house - it’s living in your country, or world even.

If the smart thermostat in your Passivhaus is telling the country that it’s lovely and warm at the moment but could do with switching some heat on within the next few hours, the country could say back: Would you mind waiting three hours as we are expecting it to get windier then and we’ll have some spare power on the grid? Likewise it could say: Yes, please take it now while it’s sunny as we are expecting a rush at tea time. Or, if you are in Germany and your Passivhaus has government funded batteries to store spare PV harvest, the country could actually ask if it could plan to borrow a bit of that power if it was caught short around tea time. (Tea Time is a big thing for the National Grid).

All of these conversations might help your thermostat avoid boredom, as well allow the country to move out of the 20th Century dark ages of one way demand-based energy supply, to dynamic multi-way energy relationships between householders, local community energy cooperatives, grid operators and those people with big power stations and wind and solar farms.

So maybe there is a point – but we are not there yet. My thermostats might be a bit bored for the time being. However last week Apple announced its move into home automation with Home Kit. Given their pedigree for arriving late but then doing stuff properly (think smart phones and tablets before the iPhone/Pad), maybe my thermostats have something to look forward to.

Test test test

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