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.  

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