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Why Everybody Wants a Smart Home

Everybody wants a smart home, but everyone has a different idea of what a smart home looks like. This article aims to provide a checklist of what a smart home is in the context of the environment we live in. So, what is a smart home, and what is going on around it?

There is a storm of smart devices, from smartphones to smart voice controllers, that link to a wide range of specific devices that control the home: heating, A/C, doors, windows, intruder alarms and more. With the “Internet of Things,” just about anything that moves in the home is controlled by a smart device, from the dog to the toaster. All of these things are becoming connected and can work together, though they can conflict as well.

They are driven by a wide range of software, some of which is highly sophisticated, some of which — due the size and cost of the device — is pretty dumb. They are all working together in a soup of radio frequency communications that fills your home and its locality. We have gotten this far without thinking about security, but all software is at risk of being subverted and made to do things that the designers and makers never envisioned. The dumb stuff is becoming a serious issue. This article isn’t a paper on security, but it is a growing area of worry.

Then we have entertainment, marked by a mix of new smart devices. TV and programming belong to the 20th century; now you can get at any media from anywhere at any time with little difficulty. Not knowing where to find this media, however, can cause issues. Luckily, smart entertainment devices are connected, making up a major part of the smart home. This, of course, brings us to communications and social media, and a discussion of how what’s new today is old tomorrow. Devices are becoming continually smarter; technology is rapidly overtaking our ability to comprehend it all existing in the same smart home. The internet is ubiquitous, and the smart home uses it everywhere.

What we at the Smart Homes & Buildings Association are trying to do is help people better understand smart devices. We start at the top with the manufacturers and retailers, holding regular panel meetings where we allow them to explain what they are doing and how they fit into the smart home mix. We work on the principle that if these people don’t understand their take on the smart home, then we are all doomed. What we need to do next is bring the understanding of the smart home down to consumers. In order to do that, we’ll need to start producing short, public videos that explain what smart devices in smart homes are.

So far, I have avoided the fabric of the smart home, but we are heading into an age where it is quite possible that if our smart homes use too much energy from fossil fuel sources, we will heat up the whole planet. We have already seen extreme weather events, but these could easily get worse. Smart homes, then, must be energy efficient; ideally, they should use no (net) energy from outside, keeping occupants warm or cool without calling on any external electricity or other fuel. Furthermore, they need to be smart enough to feed electric vehicles.

Looking at how smart homes are built and how they are insulated, what size their windows are and how sunlight can be used to help ventilate a home are areas often ignored. But in the future, the cost of fossil fuel will increase, its use restricted because of the potential risk of global warming. Not coincidentally, we are going to look at projects that aim to deliver energy neutral houses that are inexpensive to create. In Europe, it can still be said that many building technologies have hardly progressed since the Roman Empire 2,000 years ago. We have to build smarter.

Lastly, the smart home has to embrace “renewables.” We know that we can use solar photovoltaic cells to convert sunlight into electricity; we have wind turbines that harness the wind and produce power; we have had hydroelectricity for countless years. We can manipulate heat as we do in heat pumps, using some power to make low-grade heat much hotter, very much as a refrigerator does to remove heat from stored food. There are even systems where the chemistry of phase change (as when water turns to ice) can be used. All of these are technologies that the smart home can use — to a greater or lesser extent — in its efforts to make the home energy neutral, and need to be the subject of further debate and study.

The smart home might also consider externalities. For instance, many smart home devices utilize systems “in the cloud” to control them and carry out actions. Energy losses in the data transit with the cloud and in the cloud itself are often ignored; they’re small, but they add up. This energy is still part of a smart device’s power budget and should be added to the energy neutrality calculations for the home. A device’s carbon footprint should always be considered; in many cases, we export the carbon emissions to the countries where the devices are built.

The Smart Homes & Buildings Association aims to inform everyone about these and many other issues. This article is simply a what-we-do and what-we-think-about. Smart homes can deliver, but can they do so in ways that are always beneficial to the people who live in them? And what opportunities are available for manufacturers, retailers, communications providers and others?

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