Smart thermostat in a home

Smart home energy management

With delays to smart metering rollout, focus is turning to smart thermostats in the home.

The vast majority of homes in the UK have thermostatic heating controls. However, until very recently, the technology of these thermostats had not changed a great deal.

The momentum for ecotech in households is driven by government policy, but focused on improving insulation. Where it is related to electronics, it is very much supply driven - with subsidies funnelled through the utility companies to encourage the uptake of smart metering in homes.

Great savings could be made from energy-management devices. In the UK, several brands have already launched their first ‘smart’ thermostats with the promise of intelligent control over energy usage in our homes. They also promise remote control of heating and, most importantly, offer to save consumers money.

Products such as Hive and Tado are the most established. But the product that has taken the US by storm, and which recently launched in the UK for the retail price of £179, is Nest.

“With the UK Office of Gas and Electricity Markets (Ofgem) saying that UK residents spend on average £1,342 per year on energy, and heating being responsible for over 60 per cent of the bill, it’s the perfect time to bring the Nest Learning Thermostat to the UK,” says Lionel Paillet, general manager for Europe, Nest.

“Nest Learning Thermostat customers in the US experience savings of 20 per cent on average off their heating and cooling bill and we’re looking forward to helping customers in the UK save as well.”

Nest Learning Thermostat

Essentially, these devices are at the vanguard of what experts are referring to as the Internet of Things, a world where all devices are interconnected using IP (Internet Protocol) to allow greater control and monitoring of each device and its functions.

But the big obstacle for many consumers will be price. As with all new technologies, the cost of smart thermostats is relatively high - they can cost up to £250. At a time when energy costs for consumers are rocketing, how many will be able to afford to install one?

Nest Labs, the company that has gained more column inches than most, was founded in 2010 by Tony Fadell, the former Apple employee who was responsible for the creation of the original iPod. A year later, Nest was launched and immediately started selling 40-50,000 units a month. By the end of 2012, it had sold a million units to US customers. Now the product has crossed the Atlantic and is available to UK consumers.

The Nest thermostat learns your preferences over time via its Android and iOS remote control apps, including when you reduce the temperature and to what level, for example. It aims to anticipate the needs of the consumer with the eventual aim of saving energy.

However, this is not the only selling point. Much of the product’s appeal is both visual and functional, which is what you would expect from a former Apple engineer. The thermostat itself has an elegant, minimalist, touch-sensitive LED display and the companion smartphone and browser remote apps are clean, intuitive and simple.

Nest also has ‘occupancy detection’, which means it can tell when registered users are in or out. With this sensing capability, it can turn down the heating and then predict when you will return home to turn it back up in advance. If you have an integrated air-conditioning system, it will do the same for those occasional hot and balmy days of the British summer.

Critics of Nest point to the time the thermostat takes to learn the behavioural preferences of its users. Even so, energy savings are reported to be between 10 and 25 per cent in relation to the US consumer.

Tado takeover

The Nest is not the only smart thermostat hoping for a slice of the UK market. Tado is a German company that has already taken the lead in its home market and hopes to replicate its success in the UK. The biggest advantage it has over the Nest thermostat is the speed with which it can learn and configure.

Tado’s browser interface and smartphone apps allow the user to predefine many more settings. Its smart-tracking of consumers, like the Nest, recognises when you have left the home and, using the smartphone app rather than a predictive model, it can track your location to ensure that the heating is on when you return.

Tado suggests that it could save smaller households over 30 per cent with larger homes saving over 20 per cent. However, these are the company’s own claims and they are untested as yet.
Sadly, Tado does not have the good looks of Nest and control is entirely via your smartphone or browser-based device, which may be too technical for some users.

Hive in the UK

UK companies have developed smart thermostatic devices of their own. British Gas is the market leader with its Hive device.

Hive Active Heating was launched last September replacing its precursor, Remote Heating Control. Both allow customers to control their heating through a smartphone app while Hive also allows its customers to control hot water. British Gas estimates that the products could save consumers up to £150 a year on energy bills.

In January, Nina Bhatia, managing director of British Gas Connected Homes division, said she was not fazed by the increased competition: “More competitors in this space will do better for consumers. The advantage we have is we are in UK homes. Our engineers are walking into 50,000 UK homes every day.”

In fact, British Gas plans to move increasingly into the consumer electronics, space: “We have quite significant ambitions in this space - imagine if you left work and your smartphone knew that you were leaving and prompted you to turn off your heating.”

AlertMe provides the white label technology used in the Hive Active Heating system on a partnership basis. The company’s chief executive Mary Turner says there was increasing interest in the company from telecoms and utility firms.

Like other smart thermostats it comes with web browser and smartphone apps. It enables remote control of your heating, but a key differentiator from Nest and Tado is it allows control of hot water as well. This won’t be crucial to homes with combination boilers, but it could prove a deal-maker for those with pre-heated water tanks.

Heatmiser Neo

Another UK innovation is the company Heatmiser. Like the Hive system, Heatmiser’s Neo offers control over both heating and hot water via web browser or smartphone apps, and its thermostat marries the discreet form factor of the Tado while also offering a large, adjustable digital display. A separate hot water model, the neoStat-hw offers changeover contacts so can be used on standard- or mid-position valve systems.

Heatmiser says their ‘Control from Anywhere’ service will be free (subject to a fair use policy), although in future there will be add-on services that may come with a subscription fee.

Unlike Nest, Neo uses profiles allowing users to switch between heating control parameters from within the neoApp. You may have a different profile for the weekend, during the week, and in various months and seasons, for example.

The company describes Heatmiser as being developer friendly and points out that the communications protocol has been published. In addition, the company is releasing a new neo API (application protocol interface), which will be open to any developer or user that wants to write their own new modules for the neoStats.

Third party developers can integrate with the Heatmiser Cloud Server, which handles the connection to the neoHub. The Neo system is mesh-based on a closed version of the ZigBee standard. The API is JSON-based (JavaScript Object Notation) and has been designed for easy integration with third parties.

Heatmiser also sells the neoX Repeater to help propagate the mesh network where required in larger homes.

Automated homes

Nest Labs has also recently announced a developer programme for home automation companies with the ability to connect to devices such as home appliances and lighting. The API here would be web-based.

Nest is taking the first step towards working with partners to build a simple, secure and connected experience for the home. Since launching earlier this year, only a handful of third party devices have yet been launched.

“Since we launched in 2011, there has been steady demand from the developer community for Nest to create an API,” says Matt Rogers, Nest founder and vice president of engineering. Home automation specialist Control4 is working on integrating Nest.

“While we’ve always wanted to create a Nest Developer Program, our first priority was to build a great product, customer experience and team. We’ve defined what the Nest experience should be. And now we’re getting ready to open our doors.”

“We’ve been working with Nest to bring our customers and installers a level of integration that previously hasn’t been available with the Nest Learning Thermostat,” says Eric Anderson, senior vice president of products at Control4.

“For customers, the partnership means they’ll be able to control their Nest thermostats through any Control4 interface such as a remote, touchscreen or mobile app.”

“We are working with Control4 because their open platform is designed to make all the devices in the home work together,” says Rogers. “It’s the perfect opportunity to integrate with a partner who sees the same opportunity to create a great customer and installer experience as we do.”

E-Insight from Sweden

The company that manufactures Hive for British Gas, AlertMe, also has a partner programme. Swedish energy company, Essent, has created a cloud service to provide monitoring, remote control and advice on home appliance efficiency called E-Insight.

E-Insight provides customers with an AlertMe home hub, two smart plugs and a personal login, enabling them to monitor and remotely control any plug-in devices from anywhere via the Internet or a smartphone. It also gives the user the ability to profile and compare their own home appliances with new appliances in the market by taking up-to-date independent data from across websites in the Netherlands.

“To be more efficient, consumers need to have easy access to digestible information, help and advice, and the ability to control services in their home,” says AlertMe’s Turner.

With smart meters, these home-energy management services are considered to be key catalysts in accelerating the development of the emerging connected-home market.

Western Europe is expected to be a leader in smart home services, with a predicted 23 million smart systems in homes by 2015 and 46 million by 2020. The market is expected to generate over $10bn in revenues by 2017, says Bill Ablondi from Strategy Analytics.

However, the UK government has no plans to offer a subsidy for smart thermostats. Some territories around the world do offer rebates but these are still few and far between.

It has to be noted that smart thermostats are a relatively new area and that governments tend to play catch up with new energy-saving technologies. Smart meters, in one form or another, have been talked about for more than two decades. Therefore, it may take a while for any proposal to underwrite the expensive hardware and installation costs for even the poorest of households. *

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