“Computer, dim the lights”. Futurists have been promising for decades that automated, computer-controlled homes are just around the corner. In 1956, General Motors produced a short film demonstrating the “home of the future”, including a punch-card operated computer and an automatic whisk on a robotic arm.
It’s only now, however, that the technology finally exists to back up those promises. Smart homes are already a reality, allowing lighting, environmental controls (including heating, ventilation and air conditioning), and home appliances to all be monitored and controlled by a computer.
Our houses may never be able to whisk our cake mix for us, but maybe they can help us save energy? We had a comment sent in from Thomas, who thinks that “smart buildings” could help improve energy efficiency. But is this really a good way to cut down energy bills? Or is the old-fashioned way still best? Would public awareness campaigns reminding people to switch off unused appliances and to wear a jumper in the winter be a better investment?
To get a reaction, we put Thomas’ comment to Dr Lucelia Rodrigues, an Associate Professor in Architecture at the University of Nottingham whose research focuses on sustainable and resilient cities. Does she believe smart technology is the answer? Or is greater public awareness needed? Do we really need a computer to turn our lights off for us?
I believe we would need both options working together to make a real difference. Firstly, we need to collect more data through monitoring in order to better understand how energy is used in buildings. This could lead to better controls and more efficient energy management, and therefore lead to improved energy efficiency. However, building do not use energy on their own – the users do. And often the users can override mechanical controls and affect the expected performance. So it is also essential to engage people through public awareness campaigns and other means such as explaining how to efficiently use energy in the buildings they occupy in order to really improve energy efficiency.
To get another perspective, we also put the same comment to Sylvain Robert from DG Energy at the European Commission. What would he say?
Yes, smart building technologies (able to monitor and control energy automatically) can lead to significant energy savings. They also have low upfront costs, which make them particularly interesting for households. In recognition of this, the European Commission has proposed to expand the role of smart technologies in the Energy Performance Buildings Directive (EPBD) in the scope of the Clean Energy for All Europeans Package. Awareness of building users is also a key issue, to make sure they make the best use of smart technologies.
We also put the same question Verena Brennan, Energy Awareness Manager at Codema, an agency set up by Dublin City Council in 1997 to help the Irish capital meet its energy efficiency targets. What would she say?
It is a little bit of both. Yes we have seen that homes with smart meters have contributed to higher energy savings. They can control your heating in a way that is optimal for energy efficiency. However they also contribute to awareness raising. The householder becomes knowledgable about their usage and consequently tries to reduce it.
Public awareness campaigns are important in addition to those smart systems to show people in what other areas they can save energy. Hanging up your washing outdoors to dry will save energy in comparison to using the dryer every time. However this information needs to be communicated and choices need to be understood. Also, we need to ensure that the householder can actually use the smart system and does not find a way of overwriting original settings. Again this has also been recorded in case studies.
For another response, we also spoke to Doris Österreicher, Lecturer at the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences in Vienna. Did she think “smart houses” could help drive down Europe’s energy bill?
Finally, we had a comment from Dobromir, raising an important concern. He warns that connecting everything online poses a potential security risk. Does this also apply to smart homes?
In the future, could somebody hack into my home’s environmental controls to check when my next holiday is scheduled, or even to open my windows remotely? Will my house be collecting data about my lifestyle and habits? In other words, do smart homes potentially pose security or privacy risks? What would Doris Österreicher say?
Could ‘Smart Houses’ help drive down Europe’s energy bill? Or is more public awareness about the importance of saving energy needed? Do we need a computer to switch off the lights for us? And do smart homes potentially pose security or privacy risks? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!