Interoperability and user engagement is key to Connected Home

Posted: 3rd February 2012

The Connected Home, with a networked energy management system, is achievable now. The UK government has mandated dual gas and electric smart meters for every home and business by 2020. In the near future homes will communicate through their power meter with the Smart Grid, allowing both utility companies and consumers to manage power usage.

The potential is huge for utility companies to engage their customers more through home energy management systems that will enable information sharing and messaging between homes and utilities. Electricity and gas could be sold with other services such as broadband and entertainment packages, giving utility companies unprecedented consumer engagement.

More than three quarters of UK homes have broadband access according to the ONS, while it looks likely that half the population will own a smartphone by the end of 2011. Consumers will have the technology in their hands to monitor and even control all their utilities throughout their home remotely via a graphical dashboard on their smartphone. And the possibilities for displaying data through a mobile app become even more compelling on the large form of a tablet device.

Smart metering does not stop at domestic fuel supplies. Smart water metering is reported to be growing rapidly as water suppliers look to address water shortages. Home energy management systems might also link to home security systems. Burglar alarm systems are already in homes connected to broadband that include plug adapters for device control, movement sensors, door contacts, IP cameras, smoke detector and flood detector, all monitored and controlled via an app.

Smart meters combined with home energy management systems will allow utilities to offer much more sophisticated tariffs, resulting in cost and energy savings. Tariffs might relate to usage over the day, week or year or might set a high price for usage during periods nominated by the supplier as critical peak periods such as when very cold weather is forecast, in exchange for lower prices the rest of the time.

Innovative utility companies could take payment in advance for quantities of energy at agreed prices, or provide real-time links to wholesale energy system pricing to enable consumers to have solar panels that feed back into the grid more efficiently.

New tariffs could be linked to increasing control of smart energy devices such as smart appliances and programmable communicating thermostats. Home energy management systems offer the potential to monitor the energy consumption of individual devices. Consumers can see the power consumption of each device and also monitor the energy consumption pattern of devices over time so that the system could alert the user to a fault with the device if it is becoming less efficient. Communication between utility companies and common household devices such as smart thermostats and appliances will even be possible.

Householders may need to upgrade to smart appliances to benefit fully and a number of device manufacturers are rising to the challenge. Samsung’s wifi enabled fridge, for example, provides access via a touchscreen embedded in the door to applications such as Google Calendar and recipes. LG’s intelligent fridge has a Smart Manager food management system. People can use the fridge’s LCD panel or their smartphones to check what food is inside, and when it will go past its use-by date.

Once utility companies begin offering Smart Grid-compatible, differentiated energy rate time slot tariffs, the refrigerator will automatically re-adjust its temperature and function settings to take advantage of optimum energy rates, working hardest when energy is at its cheapest. The company also supplies a similarly Smart Grid-ready washing machine.

Few intelligent devices have made it into the home yet, though, and manufacturers are generally producing fairly expensive devices on a relatively small scale.

The fragmentation of the market is partly down to the fact that there are several different communication protocols used in the development of interoperable devices, including Zigbee and Z-Wave. There is wide agreement that standards will probably need to converge before the Connected Home is realised.

That convergence is starting to happen. Towards the end of 2011 HomePlug Alliance, Wi-Fi Alliance and ZigBee Alliance set up the Consortium for SEP 2 Interoperability to boost confidence in application and device interoperability among smart system vendors.

SEP 2 is an Internet Protocol-based application selected by the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) as a standard for home energy management devices.

There are a number of potential technology models for a home energy management system. It is often assumed that this will be a wifi system, connected to a home energy network console or via the existing wifi router. In fact, a more reliable and appropriate means of connection might be through plug-in power line based network access. Bluetooth is another possibility as an increasing number of Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) chips are manufactured. BLE, part of Bluetooth 4.0 technology, is targeted at low power applications for wireless devices within a short range, ideal for home network use.

While there are a number of options for networking a home within its walls, services linking the Connected Home to the supplier depend on a reasonably fast broadband connection.

IT industry body Intellect has a vision of a Connected Home that integrates energy management with entertainment systems and even remote healthcare access. To be a truly Connected Home, Intellect believes, a property will need a broadband connection of at least 6Mbps and homes with multiple TVs, or PCs will need more bandwidth. As well as connecting the 30% of homes that do not currently have broadband the challenge Intellect identifies is to create home networks that the consumer is comfortable with using.

Intellect points out consumers face a mass of different technologies, which makes setting up a home network a challenge. Clearly there is concern that standardisation will be needed in order for the market to really take off. The problem however, is not the number of protocols, rather it is being able to receive information in various protocols and interpret it in a meaningful way, whilst still keeping the full functionality of the devices.

It is already possible to do that and this may represent a pragmatic alternative to the blue-sky vision of high-end, new-build house automation on a subscription model. Home energy display of real time consumption information for the whole house can be supplemented with adapter plugs that enable device specific energy monitoring and control. It is possible to connect this data and present in useful graphical form on a website or mobile app for users to log in to control and view the energy consumption at home via the web. Internet enabled TVs may also be used as a portal and consumers could go to a pre-set channel to control their heating.

In this pragmatic, web-based approach, the clever stuff is done over the Internet rather than the intelligence being held in expensive hardware and software. Utilities and telcos could get to the point where they could make home energy management free as part of a tariff that ties customers into long-term deals.

There are simple energy management solutions out there now but utilities suppliers have not yet achieved engagement with their consumers. The Connected Home of the future will provide real time electricity and gas data. The key will be presenting the granular detail of the data in a way that is easy to understand and will engage the consumer to reduce churn in a highly competitive market by offering something compelling.

Utility companies have not traditionally been strong in deciphering usage data for their consumers. It is likely that those who venture into this area successfully will do so through partnership with a specialist that can add value by enabling devices to be monitored and controlled in the home and by manipulating and presenting the data from these devices to offer the consumer relevant insight. The two-way flow of data between customers and utility companies that results will allow utility companies to provide targeted customer service, improve customer retention and cross-sell products and services.

A partnership that fosters innovation will take home energy management systems to the next level of engaging with customers. The Opower customer engagement platform for the utility industry is a good example of customer engagement done well. It benchmarks consumers’ power use against other people in their area. Users can compare their energy use against similar homes on Facebook, and compete against friends and neighbours to see who is the most energy efficient.

The idea is that the Opower league tables get people competing to change their consumption, achieving the holy grail of engaging consumers to the point that they change their behaviour.

Most current home energy monitors fail to achieve that level of engagement. People tend to check their consumption for a couple of weeks and then don’t look at the monitor again. Utility companies need to find new ways of making people come back to home energy management apps.

The number of Connected Homes is expected to grow rapidly in 2012. Consumers are showing an increasing interest in smart home devices and the time is ripe for utility companies to make strategic partnerships ready to address the Connected Home market.

IT giants such as Cisco and Microsoft are working on energy management solutions that integrate with the smart grid infrastructure. Intel recently released the Intel Home Dashboard design, while Apple is reporting to be readying a Smart Home Energy Management Dashboard System. The new generation of Cloud-based platforms, where the data and processing parts of the solution are hosted in the Internet ‘Cloud’, lowers the barrier to entry for competitors. Utilities look likely to face competition from entertainment, security and IT sectors in providing home energy management systems.

A Connected Home solution includes a mix of products and services from energy metering to mobile apps, software solutions to networking, that no single sector has addressed before. Utility companies that exploit the full potential of home energy systems are unlikely to do so alone.

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