Thursday, 11 May 2017

Behind the scenes: heating systems from an installer's perspective

Jon is a member of Darren's installation team. I was having a conversation with him recently and he mentioned that if he were getting Loxone products installed in his own home, he would prioritise automated heating controls above some of the other more 'fancy' features available. I wanted to know why so I arranged a little interview with him...

Thanks for being up for answering some questions about smart homes. I want to ask you about smart heating systems, but let's introduce you first. How long have you been working for Darren?

About a year and a half.

What do you do for him?


How did you start working for him?

I met him a few times through other work he was doing and we met up for a coffee as I was looking for some direction and advice in the building industry. I had no prior knowledge of smart homes, but after he chatted through his 'vision' for the business and mentioned that he was looking for someone to take on and train up, he offered me a job! And here we are today..!
What's been your impression of smart systems as someone who actually installs them in people's houses?

As I've mentioned, I had no prior knowledge of smart homes before starting to work for Darren so experiencing first hand the designing/building/working phases of the installations has been mind blowing. It's like a whole new world has been opened up to me. It's also really exciting working on each new project as no two houses are the same.

What smart stuff would you fit into your own home?

If money was no object... everything. Life at home made easier, simpler and more fun! Right now though, while I can appreciate the lighting and sound controls and all the quirky, cool features of the systems, what I'm really impressed by and so what I would prioritise fitting would be the zonal heating control.

Why are you more convinced about the heating benefits over the other features?

It's not that I'm unconvinced about the other options, it's just that having full control of the heating in your house makes so much sense. It feels like a basic necessity which should be in every house; more so than being able to change the lighting to 'set the mood', however cool and clever that is. I've only got a small terrace house but the amount of energy I must waste when the heating is left on in empty rooms or when we forget to switch it off or close windows must be crazy. With the Loxone system you can put each room on a 'zone' system and choose what temperature you would like each room to be at any point instead of just firing the boiler up and blasting heat round your whole house until you turn it off. It even goes one further than that, as the system learns how long it takes to heat each room to the required temperature so fires up at just the right time. It'll even send alerts and shut off radiators if you're pumping heat out of an open door or window. The system can accommodate your every need all while saving you precious energy which translates into money. All these options can of course be easily changed and overridden via the app. Also, it's not a 'final decision' when fitting these systems; you can always change or add more as you go. As long as the cables are in anything can be programmed to do whatever you like, so the possibilities are endless! We always plan for the future and that's a great lesson I've learned off Darren: it's so worth pulling in that extra cable, thinking what might be needed later on... and because the Loxone system is so flexible and customisable clients don't have to worry about a thing.

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Welcome to wireless: meeting Loxone Air.

When I was first introduced to Loxone's wireless smart home technology, 'Air', I have to say I was a little confused. Having just written several blogs extolling the virtues of wired smart houses, suddenly I was presented with a wireless alternative which claimed to be virtually identical in terms of its functionality.

Immediately I had several questions.

If smart-wiring is so good and I can't even trust wifi to consistently deliver the internet, why would I choose to use a wireless system for something as indispensable as my home electrics?

If in fact the wireless option does as it claims and keeps pace with the wired option, why would anyone bother with the extra time and effort of rewiring their house? Surely being able to fit devices without opening walls makes them much more appealing?

What are the costs of installing each system and if those costs differ, why is that the case?

Now, if I ever have queries about this stuff, I go to Darren. Not only does he spend his days discussing options with his clients and fitting these systems into real houses; he also uses both wired and wireless Loxone technology in his own home.

So I put my questions to him.

If smart-wiring is so good and I can't even trust wifi to consistently deliver the internet, why would I choose to use a wireless system for something as indispensable as my home electrics?

To answer this, Darren introduced me to two terms I'd never heard before: 'Bi-directionality' and 'Mesh technology'. I'll do my best to explain them here.

Simply put, Loxone developed their own wireless communication technology in-house and have ensured that each and every component of Loxone Air can both send and receive digital signals. Every individual part of a Loxone Air system communicates both ways with the other units in the installation. This 'bi-directional' capacity not only enables all the devices to feedback information to the Miniserver Go (the 'brain' of the system), but it also removes any problems that may be experienced when using other wireless technology. For example, when using wireless internet and a tablet, distance and obstructions (such as thick walls) can cause a breakdown in signal quality. With Loxone Air, this problem disappears.

As a result of each Air component being able to communicate bi-directionally with any others, the system forms a 'mesh' of signals. In the case of the internet router and tablet, the router sends a signal which must make its way across any distance and through any obstacle to reach the tablet. This obviously leads to differing signal strength in different areas of a building. With Loxone Air, information is sent around the system via the easiest possible route. A signal might 'hop' from the Miniserver Go to a light switch; from the light switch to a motion sensor; from the motion sensor to the electricity meter; and finally to a motor which opens the blinds in a bedroom on the other side of the house. By 'hopping' short distances between components, signals sent to and from the Miniserver Go avoid the problems of range and obstructions. Bi-directionality and Mesh technology ensure that signal strength is reliable and fast no matter how large the system becomes.

Mesh technology
Here are three Loxone Air components (A, B and C). Component A needs to send information to Component C and then receive a reply. A and C are right on the edge of each other's signal ranges (shown by the green circles). Instead of fighting to send information to the edge of its range, Component A simply sends the data to Component B, which is much closer. Component B (range shown by the yellow circle) is well within range of both A and C, so having received the signal from A, sends it on to C. C then responds, sending data to Component A via Component B. The 'bi-directionality' (ability to both send and receive signals) of the components is shown by the two-way arrows between them.
In reality a Loxone Air installation would have many more components, making the system even more reliable; however for simplicity only three are shown here. 

If in fact the wireless option does as it claims and keeps pace with the wired option, why would anyone bother with the extra time and effort of rewiring their house? Surely being able to fit devices without opening walls makes them much more appealing?

When I asked Darren this, he was very honest. He explained that no matter how dependable a wireless system is, there is always a greater inherent reliability with a wired installation purely because it carries information down specially designed pathways which are guaranteed to be clear.

However, he was also quick to mention that he uses Loxone Air in his own home and is yet to have even a hint of signal problems!

The main bulk of our discussion centred on the issue of power sources. A wired system obviously has access to as much power from the grid as it ever needs. A wireless system relies on batteries, and with that comes some differences in owner experience.

I personally don't think that any of these differences are deal-breakers, but nevertheless they are there.

Firstly, some of the Air versions of Loxone's smart kit have slightly reduced features to extend battery life. An example of this would be the touch switch used throughout Loxone-fitted homes. The wired version of the switch contains an LED which illuminates a small area around the switch, making it easier to find in the dark. With the Air touch switch, that LED has been removed to reduce power consumption.

Feedback from individual components is an essential part of a Loxone system. With a wired system, devices might send information back to the Miniserver every thirty seconds; for Loxone Air, the gaps between data transfers have been lengthened, again to extend battery life. All this means for a Loxone owner is that it might take a minute or two for them to be notified on the app of a window being left open for example, rather than receiving the alert immediately.

Finally, the fact that Loxone Air products are battery-powered means that they have an inherent need for maintenance: they need their batteries changed. However, Loxone have gone to such great lengths to save power and extend battery life that if you don't mind a visit from Darren once a year to swap in new batteries then this isn't really an issue at all.

What are the costs of installing each system and if those costs differ, why is that the case?

The simple answer to this question is that there is very little difference in price between wired and wireless systems. Loxone Air products are more expensive than their wired counterparts because they contain the additional technology needed to send and receive wireless transmissions. However, they cost much less to fit. Wired products are cheaper to buy but more costly to install because of the extra time, effort and materials needed to place wires into walls. For someone looking to transform their house into a smart home, Darren believes price differences are negligible, and only vary slightly depending on the requirements of a particular home.

All this means that customers are free to choose. If your dreams for your home suit a wired install, you are free to choose that option. If a retrofit of Loxone Air suits your plans, you are free to choose wireless. In fact if you want to pick and choose a mixture of wired and wireless tech, all Loxone products will work seamlessly together so you are free to choose a combination as well.

This is what Darren has done in his own home.

'I use a mix of standard Loxone products and Loxone Air because when making improvements to the house sometimes wired has been the best option; other times wireless has made more sense.'

Every system fitted by Intelligent Living Wales is bespoke. Darren and his team use their wealth of experience to advise homeowners as to where and when wired/wireless is best. They are there to help and answer any questions you may have.

Loxone Air just makes the plans for your smart home even more flexible.

Wired? Wireless? Both?

The choice is yours.

Monday, 6 March 2017

Designed to adapt: why choose smart wiring?

It took him five minutes.

Five minutes (or fewer) to completely change how his house worked, and he never even got up from the table.

I once heard a joke about living with an electrician; the joke was that while they do great jobs on other people’s houses, more often than not in their own homes pressing a button on the T.V. remote is liable to start the kettle boiling, and any attempt to use the toaster opens the garage door. I must say that I saw little evidence of foibles like this when I went round to Darren’s house to have ‘smart wiring’ demonstrated to me; well, at least until he began to play around and show me just how flexible ‘smart wiring’ can be.

I was visiting at his suggestion. I’d been given plenty of booklets explaining the benefits of hiring a smart electrician to wire a house, but was having a hard time actually visualising what made them worth that much more to a homeowner on a day-to-day, year-to-year basis. ‘Flexibility’ was a buzzword which I had come across a lot, but what did that look like in reality? Hopefully Darren was going to show me.

Things looked quite interesting as I walked through the door. A Loxone Miniserver was poking its nose out of the under stairs cupboard and a length of bright green cable snaked away from it through the hall and into the dining room. After a quick ‘Hello!’ to Darren we followed the cable and I was introduced to a simple demo circuit (if it’s simple enough for me to call it simple, then it certainly was). Two switches, two lights. Switch One turned on Light One. Switch Two turned on Light Two.

‘So Ed, here we have the simplest of switch functions. Just the same as in any house. I flick a switch and a light comes on. I flick it again and it goes off,’ Darren told me. ‘But what if I fancy a bit of mood lighting?’

He proceeded to explain that with traditional wiring methods a homeowner who decided in hindsight that they would prefer adaptable lighting would have to have the on/off switches replaced with dimmer switches. While not a huge cost in itself, the process would still take time and is exactly the sort of work rendered unnecessary now that smart wiring exists. And dimmer switches obviously need fiddling with each and every time the lighting is required to be ‘just so’.

'These ‘scenes’ are configured on the Loxone app and can be selected on there too if a sofa is particularly comfortable and a light switch too far away...'

With a smart home, however, no physical work was required. With a minute or so spent tapping on his laptop and the Loxone app, Darren was ready to show me that he had completely changed the functions of the two switches before me. Now, the very same switches cycled through various light settings or ‘scenes’ (for more information about ‘scenes’, have a look here).

‘Standard,’ said Darren, as his first click turned the lights on fully as before. ‘Dinner’ was next, as a second click dimmed both lights to give a softer mood. At the third click, ‘Cinema’ dimmed one light slightly and turned the other off, simulating the lighting in a large lounge room where you might want one area to remain lit and another to be in darkness to watch a film. A double-click turned both lights off completely.

These ‘scenes’ are configured on the Loxone app and can be selected on there too if a sofa is particularly comfortable and a light switch too far away, or if friends are round who are ready to feel like they’re living in the future. Completely customisable, and with the capability to set as many as you need, lighting functions in a smart home can be set and reset as often as you like with no cost or hassle from physical alterations. I’ve got to say it was impressive.

But before I go on writing about just how far this customisability extends, it might be helpful to explain just how a ‘#SmartSpark’ wires a house differently to enable seemingly limitless changes and creative thinking. I want to point out that while this blog is focused on the lighting circuit which was demonstrated to me, the inherent flexibility of smart wiring applies throughout a house. The second of the two diagrams included in this post shows a variety of electrical components to illustrate this.

I’ve said before that I’m not an electrician. I’m not even particularly practically-minded. So it took a while for me to grasp exactly why smart wiring is inherently more flexible than the traditional way of wiring a house. I even read a booklet about it, and I trust you're suitably impressed. Now I’ve got my head around it, I’m hoping I can explain it. What makes it different? And why is it worth it?

It basically comes down to stars and stripes. Not the ones found on an American flag, but the layouts of wiring in a home.

Traditional wiring (which hasn’t changed much in sixty years) wires in lines (or ‘stripes’, if you’re a writer who wants to shoehorn a memorable phrase into his explanation). To give a simple example, a basic circuit for lighting operates in the following way:
Traditional wiring

Power runs to the switch (which allows or disallows the power to pass through the bulbs) lights up the bulbs and loops back to complete the circuit. The power moves along a single line which passes through the switch and the bulbs. What that means is that the function of that switch is locked down forever by the actual physical wiring of the circuit; that particular switch can only ever turn those particular lights on or off. The only way to alter its function would be to cut open the wall and change where the wire runs and what it runs to.

By contrast, a smart electrician wires in stars. In a star-wired system, circuits looks quite different (I have added extra components to illustrate the fact that each component in a house has its own individual path from and to the Miniserver):
Smart wiring

Rather than all the components being stuck on one long line like stops on a train track, each switch and each bulb (or group of bulbs; it comes down to individual choice) is linked straight back to an intelligent hub. Each and every component in a house (lighting or otherwise) has its own individual circuit and stands alone, unrestricted by direct links to other parts. At the centre of them all is the building’s ‘brain’, and it is this ‘brain’ which defines what each part can or cannot do.

What this means in real life is that changes to the way a house’s electrics operate only require a quick programming alteration in this ‘brain’; no physical work needs to be done. No more ‘I wish I’d thought of that when we were having the house wired.’ No more ‘Oh it would have been so useful to have known we’d need to use the room for this!’

With a Smart Spark, hindsight doesn’t cost the earth.

It certainly doesn’t disrupt your life either. In some cases, Darren told me, he wouldn’t even need to leave his home to make the desired changes, saving clients money on transport costs. The brevity of the work and the fact it only requires some tapping on a laptop all but eradicates the interruption of having somebody work on your house.

'I cannot stress enough how simple, impressive and dramatic this was.'

This takes us neatly to the final demonstration Darren gave to me. He chose to simulate a scenario where a client wanted to alter the original functions they had chosen when smart-wiring their house.

Remember Switch One and Switch Two? They were lying on the table exactly as before, turning on lights One and Two.

‘Imagine,’ said Darren, ‘You have these switches in your kitchen. For years they’ve been turning on your lighting scenes there. But then for whatever reason you think it would be useful to be able to turn on the lights in the back garden and garage from inside, so that you don’t have to wave at a motion sensor ten times to be able to walk out and lock the garage at night...’

It took him five minutes. The switches, the cables, the demonstration light bulbs all lay there untouched. All he did was some programming on his laptop.

‘Now try them.’

The first switch still happily operated the pair of light bulbs, just as before. But a click of the second switch lit up the whole garden. I cannot stress enough how simple, impressive and dramatic this was.

‘So now your ‘kitchen switch’ turns on the lights out the back of the house,’ Darren grinned. ‘I haven’t had to rip out a wall and dig up a driveway. But it’s all done.’

Maybe at some point in the future a homeowner might decide they wanted to be able to turn the outside lights and the garage lights on from their ‘kitchen switch’. Maybe they would want to be able to cycle through lighting states or be able to light up different parts of their garden from the warmth of their home. Or maybe they would decide to return the switches to their original functions. Time moves on. The required uses of switches, components, and whole rooms change.

With a #SmartSpark, your house is wired with those future changes in mind. It grows as you grow and changes as you change. It is designed to move forward in step with you.  

Sunday, 19 February 2017

Taking a step forwards: experiencing a smart home.

It’s not every day you get invited to visit the future.

Then again, it’s not every day I get invited to a steak night, and that is really where this ‘discover smart homes’ journey (and so this blog) began. As a very nice steak settled in my stomach I began talking to a man called Darren, an electrician who, it emerged, is right at the forefront of bringing what he called ‘smart homes’ to South Wales. I had never heard of such a thing. I have also never held any great interest in electronics, household or otherwise, so I may well have been the least qualified person in the room to be engaged in a conversation about rewiring homes to make them more intelligent and efficient. But what a degree in English Literature fails to teach you about wiring a plug it makes up for in giving you the ability to put together a fairly cohesive blog. As it turns out, that was something Darren was looking for.

Barely one week later, I found myself sat next to Darren in his van on my way to visit one of his most recent projects: a newly built retirement property he was wiring to make life as easy, simple and comfortable as possible for the couple who had built it. I was there to spend an evening experiencing life in a smart home, in order that I would be better placed to write a blog about it. From a (complete!) layman’s perspective, of course.   

After one that one evening, I can honestly say that Darren’s clear excitement for what he is delivering is very much warranted. I began this blog saying I had been ‘invited to visit the future’. I hope that as you read on you can see why.

‘Could my music follow me around the house and come on automatically if I walked from say, the bedroom into the bathroom?’

My brief for the evening was to witness and write about just how well a smart home can be designed to fit around its particular owners, but as Darren began to point out all sorts of the specific features he had installed in this house, I found it very hard not to interrupt him with the ideas for my own home which kept springing into my mind. Perhaps that is the very first thing to say about life in a smart home; whatever you can imagine would make your home life more comfortable, more efficient or more fun, Darren can translate into reality.

‘Could I have waterproof speakers in the bathroom ceiling?’

‘Of course! And they could – ‘

‘Could my music follow me around the house and come on automatically if I walked from say, the bedroom into the bathroom?’

‘Yes, that wouldn’t be a problem. They could come on when motion sensors see you enter the room, or when the shower is turned on.’

‘Would there be a way of being woken up by particular music at particular times?’

‘Well, the couple who will be living here have had the system set up so that they can be woken up by their favourite radio station, have the lights come on between their bedroom and the bathroom, and have the en suite bathroom already heated to a particular temperature, ready for them to move through for a shower.’

Waking up has never sounded so easy. To say I felt ‘like a child in a sweet shop’ is a bit of a cliché; really, I felt like an adult in a smart home.

Downstairs, Darren led me into an expansive, open plan kitchen-dining room-lounge. Here, fitted lights across the ceiling, hanging lights over the kitchen worktops and hidden strips of colour-adjustable LEDs all work together to create a myriad of settings and moods (called ‘Scenes’ in the system app). 

What these ‘Scenes’ enable you to do is tailor the ambience of a room to particular situations, arranging for the lights in each area to be ‘just so’ before saving your chosen settings on the app. Again my head began to fill with the possibilities. If I were cooking something fresh and summery, I could arrange for the actual colours and lighting of my room to help bring a sense of zest and brightness. In winter I could add a log-fire glow when serving up comfort food. I could easily illuminate the entire room for a large party but with a flick of a switch or a tap on the app instantly create the impression of being in a more intimate, cosy lounge if people wanted to stay later to watch a movie. The zonal lighting system and the adaptability of the ‘Scenes’ is able to create distinctive settings and what one might term ‘room identities’ in a way I have not seen before in open plan houses. Again, the home experience it is possible to create seems to be as expansive or particular as each owner’s imagination.

Thankfully however, not just my imagination. Darren, being so experienced with the system he uses, has an extensive knowledge of just how it can be used to look after aspects such as home security, safety and energy-efficiency. He has thought of ideas which would never have occurred to me, but once explained left me wondering why on earth such practical features are not being fitted to every home.

In a smart home, where all the electrics communicate through one server, smoke and security alarms become even safer. It is important to mention here that thanks to operating on a different circuit, the standard alarms will continue to work even if power to the main system is somehow lost. However, it is as part of this wider network that the alarm systems really come alive. I know that with the isolated smoke alarms in my own house, a fire in the kitchen would only trigger a single alarm; in a smart home isolated alarms become a thing of the past. Should a fire be detected in a smart home, not only do all the alarms sound but the lights come on around the house, and can be programmed to flash on and off if desired. Should the couple who own the house I visited happen to be deep sleepers, or hard of hearing, such a sensible feature could prove invaluable in catching (especially night-time) fires early.

'As funny as it is to imagine an intruder being hounded out of a house by Justin Bieber declaring to the world that ‘it’s too late to say sorry now’, the situation is unlikely to ever come to pass.'

The security alarm goes one better, however. If an intruder is detected, not only will the alarm sound, the alarm light be triggered on the outside of the house, and all the lights inside the house begin to flash, but all the audio systems in the house are programmed to come on at full volume and blast a burglar with whatever music or noise the owners choose.

Darren recommended Justin Bieber.

As funny as it is to imagine an intruder being hounded out of a house by Justin Bieber declaring to the world that ‘it’s too say sorry now’, the situation is unlikely to ever come to pass. A smart home is designed to reduce the chances of a burglary occurring in the first place, through utilising something Darren tells me is called ‘Presence Simulation’. Motion sensors (which are primarily used to automatically switch on lighting and heating) throughout the house I visited will ‘remember’ the owners’ movements throughout a normal week. Should they go away for any length of time, the system will mimic those exact movements by switching the lights on and off at the correct times. Short of borrowing a trick from Home Alone and placing full-sized shadow puppets in the windows, I think you would be hard-pressed to find a better deterrent.  

As we moved through the house, it became almost funny to hear how casually Darren would mention clever features he had programmed into this particular system. To him it may now seem the most obvious thing in the world to have nearby relatives automatically notified if the retired owners are known to be in but the fridge has not been opened in twelve hours, but to me the idea was new and frankly, genius. I think it was at this point that I began to see this particular smart house in a new light. Yes, the adjustable LEDs and the clever app are very, very cool, and the money-saving functions are enticing (more on that shortly), but here was a feature that was genuinely so sensible and potentially health and life-saving, that I began to wonder why it was not being fitted in every home. Of course, the idea did cross my mind that the one-in-a-million day might arise where nobody uses the fridge, but the system is so customisable that other triggers even more fool proof than that one could be fitted. I also think I would be happy to risk the occurrence of an accidental call out to my parents’ home as a trade off for such a smart way of tracking their safety.

'What this means in practice is having warm, dry towels whenever they are needed, and all for free. Which sounds rather nice really.'

What of the money-saving aspects of the house? Well, the property I visited had been fitted with solar panels which, against all the odds, appear to be quite effective in Cardiff. The amount of watts being generated by them can be seen easily on the app, and that electricity can be used (either through a moment-by-moment choice or automatically) to power any item in the house. The owners of this particular property may well use it to charge their electric car for free; dishwashers and washing machines also spring to mind as potential recipients of this costless power.

One place where the owners have specifically chosen for the power to be used is in the bathroom. The towel rails have been fitted with their own heating element and thus can come on without the main boiler having to warm up. What this means in practice is having warm, dry towels whenever they are needed, and all for free. Which sounds rather nice really.

As we walked around the house, Darren pointed out just what the system was working on to make sure we were exactly as warm or cool as we wanted. The temperature of each individual room was already set and on a timer, but the motion sensors were standing by to override those timers if we stayed in a room later than planned. Any temperature changes we wanted were just a flick away on the app. The temperature sensors were constantly noting down variables and learning how long it takes to heat each room; they more they learn, the more efficient the heating system becomes. Champions of multi-tasking, they were also figuring out if different parts of each room got warmer or cooler at different rates and were telling the radiators to adjust accordingly. This all added up to guaranteed temperature balance and cost-efficient use of heaters, without Darren or I having to do anything at all. The house was thinking for us, and about things I would never even have got round to considering.

‘The sensors will also automatically switch on the heating if the temperature drops dangerously close to freezing,’ Darren explained, ‘so no more risk of frozen and burst pipes.’

As a final touch, he handed the app over to me.

‘Have a look at this,’ he said, walking over to the door. As he opened it, an alert popped up on the screen. The system knew the door was open, and as well as notifying me so I could close it if needed, it was also adjusting the heating so it did not waste enormous amounts of energy and money trying to compensate.

I think that is one of biggest things I took away from my visit to the property; a smart house is not just a ‘set-up’ house. Where a ‘set-up’ house can have heating or appliances running on a timer schedule set days or months earlier, a smart house constantly learns and adapts, running what needs to be run at exactly the right time. It adjusts to situations as they develop without its owners having to think.

'If you are staggering into the kitchen with eighty-five bags of shopping then you can turn the lights on with your elbow, just like you always have.'

In my own home we have Bluetooth speakers in several rooms, and we have an app which controls them. There are heating and lighting systems on the market which can be operated from a phone. Were I to fit these products, I would create a brilliant ‘set-up’ house. But I would have to open three different apps to control them all. I would have to manually choose settings as I moved from room to room. I would have to remember to adjust the heating and change its schedules. In a smart home, there is just one app. If I wanted to I could set everything up once and then let the house run itself more efficiently than I ever would.

Of course, I would probably spend many a minute tinkering with lighting ‘Scenes’ and reviewing how much power the British sunshine had provided for us, but that is just me. The very best thing I can see about smart homes is this: they feel like the future but will work for everyone, now. If the efficiency and life benefits appeal to you but you would be happiest just flicking on a normal light switch when you get in then there’s more good news. There are no complicated multi-switches or touch screen panels in Darren’s system. Just a single, simple switch. Sure, it can cycle through all the fancy lighting arrangements you saved on the app, but if you are staggering into the kitchen with eighty-five bags of shopping then you can turn the lights on with your elbow, just like you always have. If like me you would like nothing better than to show everyone the huge array of customisations and futuristic tricks available on the app, then the stage is yours! And if, after a busy evening showing off all the ‘Scenes’ you have created, you are struck by the thought that you forgot to put on the dishwasher, then relax. The chances are the house will have remembered and done it anyway.

Before we left, Darren took me to the garage to show me the server which keeps everything ticking along. The server itself is just a small green box. I do not know what I was really expecting (a lot of flashing lights perhaps? A keypad from the set of Star Trek?), but I certainly was not expecting to see a perfectly normal circuit breaker alongside it. Even I know what to do with one of those.

‘So there’s no instruction manual or anything?’ I asked.

‘I’m the instruction manual,’ said Darren, ‘I go through everything with the customer, and then I set up the whole thing exactly how they want it.’

As we left I kept reaching to turn off the lights. I was sure we had left some on. As Darren set the alarm and we locked the door I saw that much of the upstairs was still lit.

‘Don’t we need to switch off the –‘

Of course we didn’t. Before we had even got in the van, everything unnecessary in the house had turned itself off.

So I’ve been able to visit the future. It’s quite a lot easier than I thought. 

Friday, 3 February 2017

What makes a smart home 'smart'?

We never had a satnav in the car when I was growing up. Instead, we pulled out the old ring-bound A to Z from behind the passenger seat and we found our way using MumMum, even after TomTom had been around for several years. My family was just not into all the latest gadgets.

But I remember witnessing how amazingly easy a drive could be when I sat in friends’ cars, as they or their parents plugged a little screen into their cigarette lighters, typed in a postcode and drove away. As long as they avoided incurring the wrath of the stern-voiced lady inside the screen it was all a doddle. Technology at its best.

Technology at its best right up until the moment some smart, no doubt effortlessly efficient car designer realised that incorporating at satnav screen into the car itself made things a lot simpler. Soon every manufacturer was placing screens in prime position on their dashboards, and we’ve not looked back since.

I’m certain this process has been repeated over many years as cars have evolved. The idea of what a ‘car’ is has been changed and changed again as new features have moved from being ‘add-ons’ to ‘add-ins’. An electric fan stuck on the windscreen will never be as good as in-built air conditioning. That windscreen (on which a fan is no longer stuck) is a lot more comfortable and (perhaps!) better looking than driving goggles. And I don’t know for sure if anybody in history carried a gramophone or oompah band into their car with them, but a built in sound system makes a lot more sense to me.

'With houses, and especially the way we wire them, nothing has really changed in forty or fifty years.'

Now perhaps opening a blog entitled ‘What is a smart home?’ with four paragraphs dedicated to the development of the car is a little unexpected, but please bear with me. All will become clear.

You see, cars were one of the first things Darren Richardson (owner of Intelligent Living Wales) spoke to me about when he was introducing me to the world of smart homes. I’m no electrician. He had to outline the benefits of smart wiring in a way that I would understand, and cars were the avenue of explanation he chose.

‘For years,’ he said, ‘we’ve been improving and redesigning the car to incorporate hundreds of new features, be they for comfort, safety or entertainment. The differences between a car from the Sixties and a car built yesterday are immense! But with houses, and especially the way we wire them, nothing has really changed in forty or fifty years.’

In essence, he said, every house constructed in the last half century has been built with plug sockets, lights and the occasional unique cable. Of course, the lights, appliances and technology we attach to the ends of our wires have changed and improved greatly. Nowadays all sorts of ‘smart’ products are appearing: thermostats which can be turned on before you get home and adjusted on your phone; plug adaptors which can be set to turn off automatically, or can be operated using another app; security systems which can be monitored at any time of day, again from your smart phone.

But the house itself has never been rethought. Its wiring has never been redesigned.

'The house knows when you have left and automatically shuts down any non-essential power sources.'

With a true smart home wired by Intelligent Living Wales, the house itself is upgraded. Thanks to the Loxone Miniserver Darren and his team install, each component using your electrical system speaks to all the others. Everything is simpler. Adaptability is inbuilt.

It’s one thing to have plugs which you can switch off from your smart phone when you leave the house. It’s another thing entirely to not have to remember to get out your phone because the house knows when you have left and automatically shuts down any non-essential power sources.

It’s great to be able to whip out your phone and tell your thermostat to keep heating the lounge because good friends have stayed later than you thought. But it’s greater still to have the house realise you are staying in the lounge longer than expected and to keep the heating on until your friends leave, freeing you up to carry on talking.

Getting an instant notification when there is a security issue at your house is a huge step in protecting your home and catching any intruders. But with a truly smart home your security equipment communicates with the rest of the house. So while a notification of a security breach is not what you would ever want to appear on your phone, at least if one does arrive you might get some comfort from knowing that your blinds will all have flown open, every light in the house will be flashing and every sound system will be playing whatever audio deterrent you choose at full volume. You can be sure that your intruder will have the attention of the whole street.

Best of all, with the Loxone system every smart feature of your home can be operated from one app. This makes everything simpler and leaves you with all the control you could ever want. So if like me you would like to be able to show your friends exactly what your new smart home is capable of, you can still pull out your phone for a grand demonstration, and everything will be in one place. Smooth as you like.

Now we must return to cars. As the basic wiring of a house has not changed for fifty years, perhaps it could be represented in my final analogy by a ‘seasoned’ old car. Perhaps a late edition Ford Anglia.

It works. For fifty years it has been kept in good condition and worn out parts have been replaced. But its owner wanted to be able to listen to music from his phone, so he had to break into the dashboard and do a bit of rewiring to fit an audio cable. He wanted central locking so had to cut replacement locks into the doors. A satnav is stuck to the windscreen and he’s somehow managed to add airbags and a sensor but they look a bit out of place. As he is stopped at some traffic lights he is very keen to show his friend that the car they are riding in has all the mod-cons.

Then a brand new Mercedes pulls up alongside them, and suddenly everyone gets a little distracted. The Ford and the Mercedes share many of the same features, and they both do what their owners want. But now, somehow the Anglia just doesn’t make sense.