Hive dashboard

Software reviews: smart heating

There are big savings to be had from smartphone apps that take control of your home or office central heating system.

Nest Labs

Nest Thermostat

$249 (North America only)

The obvious comparison for Hive is the much-hyped learning thermostat from Nest, a US start-up which was recently bought by Google. Nest's unique selling point is that it is supposed to analyse and learn from your behaviour, and to persuade you to save energy using psychological spurs or incentives – "creating the conscious home", as the company describes it.

For example, motion sensors detect your presence and adjust the temperature accordingly. There is more to it than that, though: Nest's analysis has revealed that people who go out in the morning tend to be out all day, while those who leave later in the day are likely to return relatively soon – pretty logical if you think about it, but which of us has our heating controls set to allow for that? Nest even adapts to how often you adjust its settings, recognising that users who like to fiddle with it have different expectations.

However, it is a low-voltage system and most UK installations use 240V thermostats, which is one reason why Nest is not yet available outside the US, although this will very probably change in the future.

It is also a different business model: unlike Hive, Nest is designed for confident users to buy and install themselves (although for the less confident it is possible to still hire a professional).



The Heating App

£249 or £6.99/month

Products resembling Hive and Nest are widely available, both from other energy suppliers – Scottish Power, for example, also offers a remote heating control, complete with Web portal, smartphone apps and even an SMS interface – and from independent suppliers. There are programmable thermostats with a built-in webserver from companies such as Heatmiser, and others with a built-in M2M mobile phone allowing them to be controlled via SMS text messages.

In the main, these work by replacing the room thermostat. You would then set the boiler timer (if you have one) to always-on and let the thermostat take control. Some work directly on Wi-Fi, others use one of the low-power wireless links, as Hive does.

One of the most interesting is Tado. A smartphone app is an integral part of this German-developed smart thermostat system as it uses geolocation to work out when you are home (or on the way home) and adjust the heating accordingly.

You can also turn the heating on manually or set a timed program, in case you have guests or some of the residents don't have smartphones, and it checks the weather forecast online so it can adjust how it heats. Along the way it learns how quickly the building cools down, and how its temperature is affected by the weather.

Like Hive, the control unit replaces the room thermostat and uses low-energy wireless to talk to a hub plugged into your router. If you don't have a room thermostat and your heating is activated by an outdoor temperature sensor, you wire the Tado box to the boiler and install a wireless thermostat in your living room.

Tado says that 95 per cent of users install the system themselves, and claims that UK users will save £10 to £15 a month on their heating bills.


Android Interface 1971

Home Energy Calculator

Free with ads

There are many free apps offering energy-saving tips for your home or office. Be warned though that some are merely tasters for paid-for apps or ebooks, while others – this is especially true on the iPhone – are really adverts for LED lighting, solar panels or whatever.

Also, among the paid-for apps and ebooks a lot are US-centric. In these cases many tips and tricks will still be useful, but much of the specific advice will not be applicable in the UK and the rest of Europe. Many apps have also not been updated for several years.

For all its spelling and typing errors, Home Energy Calculator therefore scores by being UK-oriented, fairly recently maintained, and pretty comprehensive. Inevitably, it needs a lot of data entry, but the results provide for some interesting what-ifs and estimates – for example, if we ran our two PCs 24x7, they would consume more power than pretty much everything else in our house.

There are challenges: how do you know how many air changes your home experiences per hour, say? And figuring out how much water your shower uses will be time-consuming, especially if you do not have a water meter. Other things need a creative approach – for instance if your PC or TV uses significantly more or less power than the app assumes, enter it as a fraction of an appliance.

The results are just estimates, as the app's author acknowledges, but they give a good idea of where to look for potential savings. Usefully, the app can also estimate the likely return from investing in solar and wind generation, based on the typical solar irradiance and so on for your location.

Right, I'm off to look for apps that will automatically power-down and restart our PCs. Happy energy saving! 

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