Marketing hype for smart home devices implies they can help cut power consumption, but new research by RMIT’s Centre for Urban Research has cast doubt on these claims.

The research also raises questions around smart home devices’ user-friendliness and whether the required internet connectivity and smart phone ownership is accessible to those households most vulnerable to rising energy prices.

The study, funded by Energy Consumers Australia, involved 46 households being given the opportunity to try smart-phone controlled lightbulbs and plugs.

Lead author Dr Larissa Nicholls said the trial participants found it was not as simple as plugging the devices in and downloading an app.

“There was a range of usability issues which led to half the participants either not trying or failing to successfully install the devices,” she said.

Dr Yolande Strengers, RMIT’s Centre for Urban Research

“Failed installations were not just foiled by the devices themselves or lack of user persistence or knowledge.

“Smartphone compatibility issues, unreliable WiFi, forgotten passwords, app problems and concern over requests to supply personal information were all given as reasons why some householders gave up trying.”

Project lead investigator Dr Yolande Strengers said these issues were more significant than the researchers expected.

She said the team were surprised with how much difficulty people had using the products, despite ease of use claims from manufacturers.

Many of those participating in the study that did persist and successfully install the devices eventually stopped using them because they were not considered useful or convenient.

Seeking “pleasance” not energy savings

Dr Strengers said participants that continued to use smart home devices made either limited or no use of the devices to manage energy use.

The researchers found participants were often confused around time-of-use tariffs, but even those with an understanding of peak vs off-peak rates generally did not use the devices to shift energy use to cheaper times.

Reasons included their appliances, such as a dishwasher, not having an accessible plug, or the washing machine requiring manual interaction to turn off or on.

What participants using the devices mainly looked for was comfort, wellbeing and lifestyle benefits, such as turning heating on before arriving home, using extra lighting for personal and home security, or remotely turning on the radio to calm a baby.

Further research is being undertaken on this “vision of pleasance” through another three-year project on the smart home, funded by the Australian Research Council.

“Smart home marketing is promoting the lifestyle benefit rather than the energy management,” Dr Strengers said.

It is promoting an idea of “comfort, romance and peace of mind in the home” and a type of luxury that comes from having a home with a lot of smart technology in it.

It is important to consider the vision of pleasance and the vision of energy management together, she said.

That is because while energy savings may be part of the overall picture, functional automation benefits such as 24/7 thermal comfort, whole of home surround sound and increasing use of mood lighting could undermine energy savings.

Call for realistic marketing

Dr Strengers says the study, Smart Home Control: Exploring the potential for off-the-shelf enabling technologies in energy vulnerable and other householdsalso calls for more caution in how smart home control is promoted by the energy sector.

“Mainstream marketing of these devices could undermine the energy sector’s ambitions for home control devices,” she said.

“We need to be realistic about how smart home control products are marketed, how the media influences the way the products are used, and how the other benefits of smart home control may affect home energy consumption.”

Beyond the home, Dr Strengers said greater external energy use in the form of data centres managing all the device data flows needed to be factored in.

Internet reliability and low-income concerns

The fact many people experience internet connections that drop out or stop running is also not talked about enough in the smart home conversation, Dr Strengers said.

It’s an important issue, particularly if people are relying on their internet to keep appliances running.

There are also concerns for low-income households.

Dr Strengers said that a lot of households in this situation might not have internet connections, and it is unlikely every person in the house would have the latest smart phone.

Smart control built into appliances might provide a better solution. But low-income households are unlikely to have the latest smart washing machine, dryer or other appliance.

Even middle-income households are unlikely to be upgrading their appliances every year, so smart appliances are not a “quick fix solution” to energy management either.

“As a response to changes in energy prices, they are not necessarily an easy or affordable solution, especially for vulnerable households,” Dr Strengers said.

The researchers participants in apartments experienced issues with unreliable internet connectivity, even when the building had WiFi.

Not everyone wants to be plugged in 24/7

Another aspect raised in the study was whether people actually want to be constantly engaging with their phones.

Just because most people have a smart phone doesn’t mean everyone wants to use it constantly, Dr Strengers said.

“A lot of people are consciously trying to limit their use of technology,” she said.

This is particularly true of households with children, many of whom do not want to give their children access to a smart phone.

“There is a broader implication that not everybody wants more technology in their lives.”

Another concern that emerged was that relying on automation to switch things on and off undermined the ability to educate children and young people about power wastage, Dr Strengers said.

Growing “digital housekeeping”

The research team’s Australian Research Council-funded project on the smart home involves people that self-identify as living in a smart home.

Dr Strengers said one of the early findings was that this is an “incredibly gendered space”.

Interest in, purchase of and operation of smart home devices is “very male-dominated”. Writing about the devices is also a male-dominated space, she said.

This trend might result in the creation of a new form of domestic labour in the home – “digital housekeeping”.

That’s the ongoing effort needed to keep everything talking to each other, managing and upgrading apps and sorting out glitches.

An ordinary home already involves a certain amount, such as keeping the DVD player talking to the TV, Dr Strengers said. However, in a smart home digital housekeeping becomes “more pronounced”.

A lot of that labour is done by men, but it is not necessarily considered a legitimate form of household work, she said.

The growing digital housekeeping workload could also have some implications for the allocation of other household work, and result in the entrenchment of traditional domestic gender roles.

Why the female voice?

Another aspect of the smart home trend being put under the microscope is why users of automated home systems prefer them to have a female voice.

Dr Strengers said this suggested that this reflected a desire for the systems to be a replacement housekeeper or wife.

“Women are also interested in this [replacement wife]. If they are in work, there is no one available to pick up the slack at home.”

Dr Strengers said the marketing was “very clever” to have picked up on this, “but we are concerned it is reinforcing traditional gender roles and avoiding the conversation about men’s participation in the home and women’s participation in work”.

The research team are seeking more participants for the next stage of their research.

To join in, contact the research team.