Smart home management software saves energy, costs

Smart home management software saves energy, costs

Technology News |
By Rich Pell

The “foresee” software first asks users to rank what’s most important to them about living in their home. Then it takes those preferences into account and automatically adjusts and aligns all the connected devices.

“Right now, if you had a smart dishwasher, a smart washer/dryer, and a smart water heater, you’d have to set up the schedule for everything yourself,” says Bethany Sparn, a mechanical engineer and researcher at NREL. “You’d have to think about how the appliances interact with each other, the occupants, the building, and the power grid. Deciding when you should turn on your lights seems reasonably intuitive, but how should you control your water heater to reduce your utility bill and use solar energy from your solar panels, without risking your hot shower?”

NREL partnered with Bosch and Colorado State University on the preference-driven building automation project. Bosch supplied a suite of appliances: an air conditioner, refrigerator, dishwasher, washing machine, and dryer. In addition, the researchers used an electric water heater and a connected thermostat, as well as a photovoltaic inverter and a battery to capture and store electricity generated from the sun.

“Having automation that’s built in, that has an understanding of what’s required to keep people happy, is definitely not something that’s on the market now,” said Sparn.

Users typically identify four goals for their house: comfortable air temperature and hot water, convenience, reduced costs, and a low environmental impact. But the order and importance of these goals are different for every household.

“These four categories are hard to trade off against each other,” says Dane Christensen, leader of NREL’s Residential Systems Performance team and principal investigator on the project. “At foresee’s core is a goal of running the home in a balanced way that best serves that family’s unique values and schedule. Your goals are going to be different from my family’s, just like a retiree on a fixed income is likely to have different goals than a millennial who just got her first job and is living large.”

Using connected appliances, foresee can achieve whole-home outcomes and energy savings that weren’t previously available. These savings can often be achieved by coordinating when and how a home’s appliances operate—regardless of their rated efficiency.

“We’re starting to see connected stuff entering our world, especially in the residential building category,” he says. “That’s happening very quickly.”

Some connected devices don’t directly target energy usage, such as a voice-activated speaker. Others, such as smart thermostats that can learn your schedule, do. “What we’re trying to do is take advantage of the energy opportunities that also accompany the connectedness,” he added.

The software also accounts for time-of-use rates, a growing trend in which utilities charge customers varying prices depending on electricity demand at different times of day. “Time-varying electricity costs can be confusing for homeowners to manage,” says Christensen. “Nobody wants to be sitting around making decisions for their appliances all the time. We’d really rather have it be automated and working for us in the background.”

The key to Foresee is that users can pick smart products from any manufacturer. “You can start with one or two appliances and then build on that over time,” Christensen says. “All of us live in existing homes that don’t have smart products.”

The researchers conducted a series of tests on foresee using one of the “homes” in NREL’s Energy Systems Integration Facility near Denver, Colorado. The amount of money foresee saved on energy in a single day ranged from 5-40%, but was mostly in the 10-15% range.

Foresee is available for licensing and could find its way into homes in myriad ways. A manufacturer might embed it as an application in its products. A utility could run the software on a smart meter or in the cloud.

“This type of solution is a few years from being commercially available,” says Christensen. “Our next goal is to find field test sites where we can go out and do some pilot demonstrations. That will give us a whole lot of data to make the software even more effective—so it can become a product and be available for people to use.”

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