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February 08, 2009

Will Energy Costs Revive Home Automation?

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Home Automation System Once upon a time there was a geeky guy who loved computers and electronics. Alas, he was unmarried, sans children and a social life.  So, one day he decided it would be a good idea to connect up two disconnected things - his home computer and his X-10 based lighting modules he purchased from Radio Shack.  This required some embedded design, assembly code, printed circuit boards, several severe shocks and some application software.  At the end of his quest, he had effectively created a tiny home automation system capable of turning on and off lights at sunrise or sunset, detecting when he was home (which was very frequent) and setting the lighting mood.  When evening ended, the system made sure everything (including the always in-use coffee maker) was turned off.  That was me in 1994... needless to say I’m not so lonely anymore! I have a beautiful wife, two children, a house, a dog, car payments, etc... how things have changed!

But what ever happened to my dream of a completely automated home?  My thoughts in 1994 where that technology (namely the Internet) would reach into the last few feet of my house by the end of the century and every wall switch and appliance would have an IP address... this just never seemed to materialize - for the masses that is.  Yes, there are spectacularly expensive home automation systems available from several manufacturers along with application software that requires a PC in every room.  These "high end" technologies are only available to those who can drop $40,000 or more to control their homes.  I’m not one of those people... and I don’t know very many who are. 

So what happened?  Why didn’t the technology ever find its way into our new homes? I believe the answer is quite simple - there was no "need" for it.  Manual rocker switches or dimmers are fine for just about everyone and the cost is hard to beat.  You can buy a dimmer switch at Home Depot or other hardware supply stores for under $10.00 (a basic model) and install it yourself (if you’re careful).  There is simply no need to automate your washing machine or your refrigerator - that is until now.

In the late 20th century, electrical costs were around 6-10 cents per kilowatt-hour (in most areas in the U.S.).  A very reasonable amount for what you received considering the electrical grid and generation plant overhead.  An average home might use 800 to 900 kilowatt-hours per month, so the monthly bill would be under $90.  Everyone was happy...

Now, let’s look at a hypothetical world - maybe only 10 years away.  In the world of 2019, electrical power is sporadic due to an aging infrastructure and extremely costly at 35 cents per kilowatt hour.  Tariffs have now been added to cover "time of use" which not only includes the actual power used, but when it was used. This was extended to cover residential users in an attempt to keep the aging grid from collapsing during peak hours. Consuming energy during this period (7:00 AM until 7:00 PM), would add an additional 20 cents per kilowatt-hour (that’s the equivalent of 55 cents per kilowatt-hour). So the same home using 800 to 900 kilowatt-hours now has a monthly bill around $400 - everyone is not happy anymore...

In this future world, co-generation from solar and wind sources would help defer the costs of grid connected power. Government subsidies would help put these technologies on many of the roof tops and back yards of residential consumers. Competition as well as new developments would also reduce the cost, but not enough to offset the demand. 

With the cost of energy soaring in the world of 2019, new technologies could finally flourish that help reduce the consumption and improve overall efficiency.  A light switch that is monitored and controlled from a central computer could finally retail for $60 and people would buy it.  Appliances that communicate with the house metering system to know when to use power and have goals to reduce cost would now make sense - and every major white goods manufacturer would be scrambling to add those features to their latest products. Conservation and efficiency would become the mantra of the day since building new carbon based generation capability would have been outlawed - an interesting future it could be...

Economic pressure can move mountains.  As the cost of energy continues to increase - and it will continue - technologies will emerge to manage and conserve power.  Home automation systems may finally become as common as plumbing in an effort to conserve and manage energy. Industrial users have been closely watching their electrical meters for a very long time - now it’s time for residential users to start watching theirs.  See my previous blog, "Metering Your Power Consumption" for more ideas on monitoring where your energy is going.  Till next time...


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I'm jealous of your automated system.

Chris Gammell

Hi Rick,

You make a really good point about energy costs...we all pretty much ignore electricity usage now except for the "greenest" bananas in the bunch (OK, and the rest of us when it's A/C season). However, I would think those economic mountain-movers you mention wouldn't push the consumers quite as much as the suppliers. The $60 light switch would get driven down in cost as would all the supporting circuitry. Add in some "smart grid" tax breaks or something and enough of those switches would go into new home construction to drive down the price even faster. Now all we need is some kind of wireless standard to get all of our gadgets communicating and playing nice with one another!

~Chris Gammell

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