Building and home automation technology will be a key component in the built environment’s move to reduce carbon emissions, according to KNX Association, a body that has developed international open standards for the technology. And with tech giants like Apple and Google joining the home automation bandwagon, the technology is now set to make the leap from the realm of high tech homes and science fiction into the mainstream.
Smart buildings and homes involve a network where users can hook up different devices and applications that can communicate among one another and be controlled centrally and even remotely, including lighting, shutter control, HVAC, monitoring devices, water control, energy management, metering, household appliances and security.
Chief operating officer of KNX Association Joost Demarest, who spoke at last week’s Integrate expo in Sydney, told The Fifth Estate there were huge sustainability gains to be made from building automation technology, and it was a personal frustration that there hasn’t been more take-up.
KNX university partners, he said, had done research showing there was the potential to save up to 50 per cent in energy costs for applications like lighting and HVAC when automation systems were used.
“A simple example is you look at most office buildings – and I’m not only referring to Australia here – most office buildings are kept lit during the night, but not only during the night but during the day,”Demarest says.
With building automation, offices would only be lit, heated or cooled when in use and when necessary, he says.
“The energy savings are enormous, and the return on investment is very, very quick.”
Building automation also allows for disparate systems to talk to one another smartly, so, for example, shading, lighting, window sensors and HVAC systems could all be integrated and optimised for energy efficient operation.
Savings from building automation, of course, is predicated on systems being set correctly. With sensors, processors and controls all consuming energy, careful planning, installation and tuning is needed to ensure savings made outweigh the energy used by smart devices.
The Smart City
Savings could be magnified by smart homes and buildings being integrated into smart grids and smart cities in the future through the Internet of Things, the term used for devices –some 26 billion by 2020 it is predicted –that are connected to and accessible through the internet.
“I think where a smart home or smart building would be a standalone element today, in future a smart city will allow interaction between smart homes and smart buildings,” Demarest says.
“Today we are looking at the possibility to network things in a home, but in a smart city these houses and buildings will be interlinked.”
Demarest says it is likely we could soon be dealing with decentralised energy networks, where it will be crucial to do more with less energy.
When a building is connected to a smart grid, the cost of energy supply will be known to the building, and it can respond accordingly. With storage technology, a building that is producing its own energy will be able to store or sell when prices are high and turn on additional loads when the energy prices are low.
In the home this could mean turning off or turning down airconditioning, lights and non-essential appliances during periods of peak demand, and putting on a load of washing or charging the electric car during times when energy demand is low.
While standalone building automation technologies will become more prevalent in the next few years, the move to whole interconnected smart cities is a while away, Demarest says.
“In the short term it will be more of a mixed set-up because we will not overnight change from fully centralised to a fully decentralised energy supply system.”
Europe leading the way with regulation
The move towards integrated buildings and cities is pushing ahead in Europe much faster than in Australia, mainly due to the regulatory environment.
Demarest says many countries in Europe will have no hope of meeting stringent new building efficiency guidelines without implementing automation technologies.
“Europe has set for 2020 some very specific goals,”he says. “For instance, it has energy performance guidelines or regulations regarding energy performance of buildings.
“Germany has translated this into country-specific regulations that from 2016 are so severe that without the element of building automation it would be very, very hard to meet these regulations. This is a driving factor, of course, for more automation in buildings.”
Europe’s strategic goal also commits it to reducing carbon emissions by 20 per cent compared with 1990 levels as well as 20 per cent renewables.
“I don’t think everything in 2020 will be smart but all these elements together will help accelerate the pace towards more and more realisations that are smart,” Demarest says.
“I would like to take Europe as an example and I would recommend countries that may be lagging behind to look at these initiatives and to take out the best elements for local initiatives.”
Google and Apple take aim at the market
The tech giants have been in the news recently regarding their push into the home automation market, with Google’s high profile purchase of Nest Labs home automation technology and Apple’s upcoming HomeKit software, which promises to bring integrated home automation to the masses.
Nest is an automation device centred on a smart thermostat that can connect with other products, such as cars, garages, locks, fans and washing machines to automate a range of tasks.
Just last week, manufacturer Big Ass Fans announced its smart ceiling fan would work with Nest’s thermostat to reduce airconditioning costs by up to 30 per cent.
The two systems working together meant that the thermostat temperature could be raised and occupants would still feel comfortable due to the circulating air from the fan.
“The thermostat and the ceiling fan are two of the home’s most vital comfort controllers,” Maxime Veron, head of Nest product marketing, said. “Now through the Works with Nest integration, the two products can work together to help homes be more energy efficient.”
Apple is also gearing up to take a stake in the market with HomeKit, which will be a feature of the next iteration of the iPhone software – iOS8 – and potentially even able to be used with Apple’s newest innovation, the iWatch.
Apple says the product will bring “some rationality” to home automation by having products all operable through one interface on an Apple device, and able to be controlled by its Siri voice recognition software.
Tech giants, an indication the market is about to explode
For Demarest, the tech giants aren’t seen as a threat, but as an indication the market is about to explode.
“I see that more of an opportunity rather than as a fracture,” he says. “I think Apple in the past has already helped the idea of smart homes because the concept of a smart phone has actually helped furthering the idea of home automation. Because everybody wants to use his smartphone as an element of control or an element of visualisation in his home.
“What the future has in store for any of these initiatives and what it has in store for us –of course I don’t have a crystal ball so it’s hard to predict –but I think the fact that Google and Apple have interest in this domain shows that there’s huge potential.”
Privacy and security concerns
However, one thing worrying people about the tech giants’ move into the space and the concomitant increase in uptake, is around issues of privacy and security. With hacking and privacy breaches almost a daily occurrence, how user data is protected, or indeed used by the tech giants, is a key concern.
And with the Internet of Things meaning more of the devices in our homes are connected to the net – including our locks, lighting and alarm systems – cyber attacks could become much more personal, and increasingly physical.
A recent Wall Street Journal article noted that the more appliances linked via the Internet of Things, the greater the possibility hackers could attack.
“If the wireless subwoofers are linked to the voice-activated oven, which is linked to the Lexus, which is linked to the PC’s external drive, then hackers from Moscow could easily break in through your kid’s Playstation and clean out your [retirement savings],” the article reads.
“The same is true if the snowblower is linked to the smoke detector, which is linked to the laptop, which is linked to your cash-strapped grandma’s bank account.”
Interoperability a battleground
A major problem in the world of home automation is the massive amount of fragmentation, with many devices using competing standards, and many not able to communicate between one another.
“There are three types of buildings or homes,” Demarest says. “Either you have a home that is completely installed with conventional technologies, so nothing smart about it. There are solutions that are linked to a specific manufacturer – all of equipment comes from one single manufacturer, and if you want to add a product that is smart from another manufacturer you can’t, or you can only do it with great effort. And then you have systems like KNX that emphasise or ensure through certification that products from different manufacturers can work together in an installation.
Demarest says KNX is an open standard – an ISO/IEC standard – so every manufacturer can develop KNX compatible products on the basis of this standard.
“But there are many smart home solutions out there that unfortunately do not comply with the open standard, that are manufacturer specific, so where the user is unable, or the building owner is unable to combine products of different manufacturer to a working installation, or only with great effort can do so.”
Apple and Google have both said they want to allow for more interoperability, though this may still be under their terms, as with third-party software for their iPhone and Android phones, respectively.
Real intelligence lies in interconnectivity, communication and data exchange
Website KNX Today says Apple’s HomeKit is “embracing KNX’s approach in that real intelligence lies in interconnectivity, communication and data exchange”.
Nest, meanwhile, has teamed up Samsung and other manufacturers to create a new home automation protocol called Thread, which Chris Boross from Nest told website VentureBeat was designed to overcome issues of interoperability and high power requirements of some protocols.
However, this protocol joins the litany of protocols already developed by KNX along with Zigbee, Insteon, C-Bus, Z-Wave, X10 and UPB, among others.
If anything is certain, there is a lot of money at stake, especially in the home automation field, where it is clear the tech companies are making moves to ensure market dominance.