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.