SHC2015: The Challenge of Smart Heating

veral quickly receding waves of smart home hypes, the current trend to link devices in residential homes seems comparably stable. Drivers of the development are energy, security and comfort. Although new products and services for smart homes focus on electricity usage, Uwe Trenkner is convinced that modern communication technologies are another important factor for solar heating. The consultant from Brussels, Belgium, was co-author of the Technical Study Report on Measuring, Remote Monitoring and Remote Controlling for Solar Thermal Systems, which was published at the end of last year (see the attached document). Solarthermalworld.org interviewed the expert during the Solar Heating and Cooling Conference (SHC2015) in Istanbul, Turkey, in December 2015.
 
Together with Pedro Dias, Secretary General of the European Solar Thermal Industry Federation (ESTIF), Trenkner gave an overview of the latest trends in home automation and the opportunities and limitations of smart heating in the 27-page study financed by the United Nations Environment Programme. The first attempt by large consumer technology and telecommunication companies in the home automation market failed: Both Google and Microsoft had already offered energy management tools back in 2007, but discontinued them after two years because of how few users they had attracted. “They may have been too early on the market,” assume the authors of the study. “The whole wave of smart home devices and services took off only when smartphone usage skyrocketed and seemingly everyone had a ‘remote control’ in his or her pocket.” Another key requirement for a dramatic increase over the coming years will be the widespread and low-cost availability of wireless services (e.g., Wi-Fi, low-energy Bluetooth).
 
Smart home focusing on electricity
Energy is currently the biggest driver for home automation, and most of the residential energy management development is aimed at reducing or time-shifting electricity demand. The study lists the following power-focused applications and services:
  • Saving electricity at home: The monitoring of household electricity consumption linked to particular activities, such as washing machines, entertainment devices or lighting, is said to change usage patterns.
  • Saving energy costs in a household: Energy prices will be communicated to the end user, so as to run appliances during low-price periods. 
  • Utility demand-side management: A third-party service provider like a utility can control household appliances to shift energy consumption to times of low demand. 
Smart thermostats help reduce heating and cooling demand
Although power demand has so far been the focus of smart home devices, Trenkner has good reason to call for heating devices to be connected to a home automation system. “People tend to be lazy. They forget to switch off the heating or air conditioning when opening the windows. Or, they do not reduce heating or cooling in rooms that have not been used for some time,” explain the authors of the study. Smart, adaptive thermostats – for example, as offered by NEST, which was purchased by Google in 2014 – can take over this job, regulate temperature levels and save energy for the homeowner. Trenkner quotes market research published in July 2015 as having found that smart thermostats account for over 40 % of the nearly 10 million thermostats sold in the United States in 2015. 
 
The expert from Brussels also sees other advantages for the heating system to be linked to home automation, namely
  • Remote control: The data from a Web-connected controller of a solar thermal system can help the owner or the installer to check whether the system is working properly. This would allow for an early spotting of abnormal behaviour, which may require the attention of a technician. 
  • Increase solar yield: A smart home controller could even increase the amount of usable solar thermal energy. One way to do that could be to start the warm-water-connected dishwasher shortly before stagnation at noon, when the storage tank is full. 
  • Performance-based incentives: A smart home device could also help tie financial incentives to actually measured solar thermal yield. Most support schemes have so far only granted investment subsidies per square metre of collector area and have not even considered the thermal power of the collector type.
All three ideas are not new; they have been discussed among solar thermal professionals for years. Linking these services to the fast-growing smart home market could bring down the costs both of devices and data analyses, which would otherwise remain expensive in light of the relatively small size of the solar thermal sector. 
 
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