Smartifying your home

 

We are certainly living at the dawn of the age of the “internet of things”. A dizzying slew of products for smartifying your home have appeared on the market in the past few years, and it is just the beginning of the smartification of every-day life! Some of these smart products are just frilly nonsense (“oh look at me, I can open the garage door with my phone!”), but some have great potential to help you lower your carbon footprint.

So how can you ride the home smartification wave in such a way as to limit your carbon footprint?

smarthome

Before continuing, it is important to realize that any product already has its own carbon footprint embodied within it: It took energy and resources to manufacture it and it will take more energy and resources to dispose of it. So your purchase of one of these products is only likely to lower your carbon footprint if you use it fully over its lifetime, or if it substitutes a “dumber” product you needed to buy anyway (Read: need to replace your thermostat? then buy a smartostat instead of a dumbostat). Also, to limit the smart hardware you have to end up buying (and the embodied energy it carries with it), try to identify products that are compatible with as many other systems as possible (unfortunately, in some cases this might involve sticking to one brand of smart things).

The universe of smart things is vast, and so we can only really touch on some of the options (we will go into more depth in future posts). That being said, here we present you with a list of some of the gadgets, apps and systems that will help reduce the carbon footprint of your home!

thermostat

1) Smart Thermostats:

Probably the first thing that occurs to people when they think of home smartification. Smart thermostats are relatively easy to install, and quickly learn your habits from the temperatures you set. They can adjust temperatures to the seasons, or your absences; the ecohack is pretty simple: you don’t waste energy heating your home at 3:00 am when aren’t awake to feel it, or when you are skiing in a blizzard in the rockies and could only wish you were home to feel it… They have other features as well, such as humidity sensors that turn off your air conditioning when humidity levels in your home drop below a certain level.

Of course there is a plethora of options to choose from; the Nest Learning Thermostat and the Ecobee are some of the best reviewed ones. Also, for those of you who are looking to avoid breaking the bank, the Honeywell WiFi-Enabled Thermostat
and the PEQ Thermostat
 are some more inexpensive options. Of course, keep in mind that it is an investment that will pay for itself. Energy Star estimates that proper use of a programmable thermostat can save $180 in a typical home, meaning it would pay for itself in about a year! Also, if you are living in the US, your utility company may offer rebates for smart thermostat upgrades. Nest has partnerships with a network of utilities companies across the US that sometimes offer a Nest thermostat and installation for free.

2) Smart Water Heaters:

An innovation that has garnered much less public attention, smart hot water heaters present sizable energy (and cost) savings. People don’t realize how much energy it takes to heat water (think how long you have to watch that pot before it boils!). The US Energy Information Administration estimates that heating water represents about 18% of household energy consumption (to put that in perspective, it is almost half of the energy it takes to heat your ENTIRE home). The main reason for this is that conventional hot water heaters function by constantly keeping their water hot, even when no one is using it. Enter the smart water heater, which measures hot water consumption patterns and adjusts the timing of its heating cycles to a household’s water consumption habits.

Because the issue is less visible, the market has fewer products on offer. The only smart water heater currently available is sold by Whirlpool. There are other ways to make water heating more efficient; Ecosmart offers modular tanks of variable sizes that are connected directly to sources of how water demand (bathtubs, sinks, hot-tubs, etc) and quickly heat water to the right temperature as it is needed, thus eliminating the need for a large tank of constantly heated water.

There are even better options on the way. Last year, Sunnovations launched a successful kickstarter campaign for a new device, the Aquanta, which can make conventional water heaters smart too. The Aquanta can be installed on any water heater; its sensors measure the heater’s temperature, and outgoing water flows and, much like a smart thermostat, adjusts the timing of its heating cycles to a household’s water consumption habits. The benefit of this device is that you don’t need to buy a whole new water heater to get the energy savings.

Unfortunately this product is not available yet, but its commercial launch is set for this year so stay tuned!

3) Smart Lighting:

Smart lighting is another dimension of the home smartification front that has gotten a fair amount of publicity. Of course, you could get much of the energy saving from smart lighting by remembering to turn off the lights when you leave a room, but no person is perfect, and smart lighting systems technically are. Also, they can offer additional energy savings.

A smart lighting system consists of smart light-bulbs (usually LED) that communicate wirelessly with a wireless hub in your home and can be automated and controlled remotely through associated smartphone apps. A few examples of these systems are the GE Link Smart LEDthe Philips Hue and the cheaper Belkin Wemo light bulbs. The smart light bulbs manufactured by Stack Alba have an additional energy-saving feature through light sensors that allows the user to automate light bulbs to reduce their intensity when they detect other light sources.

If you don’t want to have to buy a wireless hub, bluetooth-connected Samsung Light Bulbs or Flux LED Light Bulb; smart bulbs (among others) can be controlled directly from your phone. You lose the extra functionality of connected wireless bulbs (such as turning off the lights when you are out of the house), but otherwise they are a great option.

4) Smart Appliances:

There are so many ways of using connectivity to enhance energy efficiency, it is hardly a surprise that appliance manufacturers have caught on and are starting to smartify their products. LG’s SMART THINQ appliances adjust their power consumption downwards during peak hours (when rates are high), and back up during off-peak hours. Whirlpool’s smart appliances can be synced to the Nest system, and their auto-delay feature will keep them from running during peak hours. Aside from saving you money, this reduces peak loads on the grid, when extra fossil-fuel-driven (and considerable less efficient) “peaker plant” generation capacity is fired up to meet demand.

One thing to note: smart appliances have a large price tag, and it maybe unlikely that you will be needing one soon. it is probably best to make the best of what you have. Here are tips for increasing dishwasher efficiency, and here are tips for laundry washing and drying efficiency. Also, check out the Department of Energy’s Energy Saver website if you are in the market for a new appliance and want good advice on what are the most energy efficient units you can buy.

5) Bringing it all together: Smart Systems

When it comes to smartifying your home, the possibilities really are virtually endless. Many producers market entire ecosystems of compatible devices, such as GE, LG, Rheem, or Belkin’s Wemo. With a wireless hub and your smartphone, you can put together an integrated system of smart appliances, sensors, light bulbs, thermostats, even smart power outlets that record and regulate electricity consumption of anything plugged into them

An important thing to note about the coverage of the “internet of things” in your home is that all of these products get their intelligence by being able to talk to some sort of a wireless hub, but not all of them speak the same language. To avoid buying unnecessary hardware, check that the various devices you buy are all compatible with each other and/or the system you already have in place. Unfortunately, because the market for home smartification is so new, there isn’t yet a single standard for network connectivity (here is a good summary of the technologies that currently dominate the market and their relative virtues).

One of the best options for choosing a system is the Wink Hub, which is compatible with both of the widely used network standards and works with a wide variety of products, including the GE Link Smart LED and Phillips Hue lighting systems, and many of the smart thermostats like Nest or Ecobee (click here for a full list). Another great option, and an interesting outlier in the field is the Wemo system, which uses conventional wifi and eliminates the need for a wireless hub (any wemo-compatible device can be controlled from your home’s wifi router). This is great since you minimize the need to buy more hardware, but there is a tradeoff in energy efficiency as wifi is much more power intensive. Wemo also sells the WeMo Maker wireless hub which is designed to be able to connect to any electronic device in your home. You could wire your old sprinkler system to a Wemo Maker and program it to stop running when rain is forecast (how’s THAT for an ecohack!).

Hopefully this summary was a good introduction to home smartification for the uninitiated. If you are looking to smartify your home, you should carefully consider what system to go with. Given that the market for this technology is so new, it might be best to hold off on buying and installing an entire system lest you should find that it loses out to a better system a couple years down the road.

And of course we will conclude by saying, lest we should forget it: there are many great ways of living an eco-friendly lifestyle without any electronics at all! If you want to know more ways to cut your emissions, follow us on Facebook and Twitter!

 

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