Electronic Design

Is It Time For Home Automation To Go Mass Market?



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I love home automation. Since I bought my first house many years ago, I’ve been fascinated with the whole concept. From having the lights come on automatically every day at dusk so I never arrive home to a dark house to having scene lighting in my home theater at the touch of a button, I’m a fan.

I’ve lived through the technology improvements and generation changes. I worked with the X10 protocol, installing phase-bridging signal couplers on the power mains, used signal sniffers to figure out why the lights in my living room would turn on whenever the air conditioning cycled, and created a fairly automated home. It was hard, expensive, and ultimately not very reliable.

Nowadays, the improvements that can be achieved with the latest home automation products are impressive. Signal conditioning on power-line communication (PLC) is greatly improved. Wireless can be used to cover areas when there are issues with PLCs. And, full-blown custom systems from various vendors can achieve impressive applications (for example, integrating audio and video distribution and control into the system). However, home automation still seems relegated to the ranks of enthusiasts or high-end homes. Why?

Connecting The Home
While many previous home automation systems tended to be less reliable due to the limitations of the underlying communication mechanism, the raw communication links have greatly improved. The latest-generation PLC technology has achieved data rates that can reliably stream video and ensure quality of service bandwidth allocation to the most critical devices. Wireless technology using either sub-GHz for extreme range or meshing with 2.4-GHz radios to achieve whole house coverage also allows robust networking for automation. The underlying communication links seem ready to support a much wider market.

Interoperability has improved as there are several multi-vendor systems available with, for example, the likes of ZWave and Insteon. ZigBee, with its smart energy and home automation profiles, is another longer-term contender but has suffered from a lack of stability at the stack and network layer to allow a true interoperable ecosystem to develop. Other non-traditional home automation players are also showing an interest in the market via Wi-Fi or other standard networking links.

So why don’t we see the proliferation of home automation across a wider range of consumers? The technology is greatly improved, installation is easier, and there are interoperable standards. Unfortunately it seems that for most people, conveniences like never arriving home to a dark house and fancy lighting schemes don’t appear to be killer applications.

Perhaps most importantly, I believe these applications are perceived as just that—conveniences. Will smart energy and the push for energy conservation and cost savings be the spark to truly take home automation to the mass market?

The Role Of Smart Energy
The case for a smart energy catalyst for the automation market is currently in vogue. Consumers are expected to want to save energy and be smarter about their energy usage. In short, rather than being a convenience, has home automation morphed into a driver for environmental and cost savings?

Load shedding, the process by which a utility will turn off energy-hungry appliances in your home for brief periods of time during peak usage, seems compelling (at least for the utilities). Many utilities have already installed in homes thermostats that support the load shedding of air conditioners during peak usage times.

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Other high-energy usage devices such as water heaters, washing machines, and dish washers are anticipated to be included in the energy-saving schemes perhaps via a tariff-based pricing approach (only starting the dishwasher when the price for electricity dropped below a certain cost) or time of day control (not heating water during the evening when no one needs it). While load shedding perhaps isn’t the sexiest home automation application, it does appear to be headed to becoming one of the most common, and the economic incentives for electric utilities will be a driving force.

But while load shedding offers clear benefits for the utility, many consumers will need additional education and incentives before they sign up. When a load shedding thermostat was installed in my home, the utility gave me the thermostat for free in exchange for permission to turn off my air conditioning three times a year for 15 minutes each time.

However the incentives will likely need to be more attractive to entice most consumers to switch—perhaps a reduced electric rate or monthly credit when the load shedding is activated. This consumer credit would have the effect of turning the load shedding from being a utility infrastructure improvement (reducing the need for costly additional capacity during peak generation times) into a true end customer benefit (a reduced electric bill).

Government regulation and incentives also may spur additional demand for home automation applications. Energy usage displays that show a customer’s consumption by time of day have been shown to reduce overall power consumption. As customers learn which appliances draw the most energy, they become more likely to limit the usage of those appliances. Many governments have subsidized or required utilities to provide displays for their customers who request them. Perhaps this understanding of energy usage by device will spur more automation of those devices. Again, I believe the main incentives here are predominantly economic—if I control my appliance, I can lower my electric bills.

Breaking INto The Home Market
Lighting control has achieved traction in commercial real estate. Many new offices and commercial structures are required to include energy-saving lighting control features such as occupancy sensors to turn off the lights in an office when no one is present. Will these types of applications migrate into the home?

As customers become more educated about the energy consumption in their homes, there will be more traction for lighting control to reduce their energy usage. Instead of telling my kids to shut off the lights in the bathroom when they are finished brushing their teeth, an occupancy sensor could simply turn off the lights when they leave.

The improved robustness of the underlying technologies appears poised to enable home automation to break out to a wider market, though a few barriers remain. For example, no one standard has emerged as the clear winner in the networking technology. But the push for reduced energy consumption along with government mandates and incentives could be a final catalyst to truly catapult home automation over the hump.

At least I hope so. You see, I’m expecting to move next year, and I’m really itching to do another home automation project—one that saves me money on my energy bill and also allows me to do all the interesting automation projects that I still like to show off to people who come over to the house. Why, I might not need to fuss at my kids anymore about leaving on the bathroom lights.

TAGS: Lighting
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