Given that cities make up about 80% of the world’s energy consumption and are expected to harbor as much as 60% of the global population by 2025, the mission of environmental sustainability and improved energy practices weigh heavily on the shoulders of urban dwellers. We at PowerHouse Growers believe that one of the most crucial first steps to realizing smarter, more sustainable cities is to develop smarter homes.
If you’re a Millennial like myself, chances are the term “smart home” brings to mind fond childhood memories of watching Smart House, the Disney Channel Original Movie about a rather controlling, yet brilliantly designed, computerized home that unfortunately winds up locking one of the residents inside its doors for fear of the polluted atmosphere outside. This is not exactly the kind of “smart home” likely to be seen in the near future, but rather it’s a simplified, less personified version.
A smart home is basically a house, apartment, or other residential building that incorporates advanced technology to centrally monitor, automate, or customize home activities. These activities could include lighting, heating and air conditioning, laundry, security procedures, and even agriculture. Though surely there are several technological and ethical obstacles to overcome before reaching actual artificial intelligence in buildings, great strides have been made recently in the research and development of these smart home technologies.
Below are 5 key advantages of smart homes and their many fascinating components. While you read, keep in mind that the smart home concept is fluid, where each individual component is essentially separate, yet they coalesce to build, piece-by-piece, a constantly improving smart home.
1. Customization and Convenience Through Automation
One of the more apparent features of a smart home is that they can provide a variety of settings and customizations that greatly enhance the resident’s comfort and sense of convenience. Google’s Nest Thermostat has already debuted the technology markets as possibly the most versatile and convenient home temperature control device, which has the ability to learn your preferred temperatures and schedule them daily. Nest can also be controlled by your smartphone, or even your car, from anywhere in the world.
If that’s not enough, Google has plans to expand Nest’s technology to enable communication, through its “Works with Nest” developer program, with other devices and appliances in the house, such as televisions, lighting systems, and garage doors.
Imagine letting a cloud computer take control of your most important household functions so you don’t have to–opening the garage door when you arrive, setting the air conditioning to “away mode” so that you don’t waste electricity heating your cooling your home, and running a refresh cycle on the load of laundry you forgot to take out earlier in the day.
2. Maximizing Energy Efficiency by Advanced Monitoring
On the topic of wasting electricity, it’s estimated that about 50% of the average home’s electricity consumption is due to heating and air conditioning. With a figure like that, it seems pretty evident where energy efficient practices can come into play (hint: read point 1!). Beyond air conditioning, however, smart homes have much to offer in the way of monitoring, and even producing, home energy.
Companies like Solarfox Display Systems, which specialize in photovoltaic (solar power) monitors and large in-house control displays, have already begun to experiment in adapting their products for use in residential homes. There’s great potential for expansion of this technology to eventually cover multi-device communication, smartphone applications, and even cloud communication. In fact, SolarCity Corporation, the megalith solar installation company ranked the second largest in the U.S., have already developed a software that communicates through a transceiver on your solar panel array to give you real-time information about your energy production, as well as record the data into your production history so you can view past trends and analyze personal usage habits.
When taking future smart grid developments into account, smart home energy monitoring sees even more potential for sustainable urban growth. Smart homes can communicate energy usage not only with the occupant, but with neighbors, communities, and the power grid (smart grid) itself. More on this to come.
3. State-of-the-Art Safety and Security Systems
This is probably where the home automation industry has seen the most growth recently, alongside the smart thermostat. Rightly so, as home security is one of the most valued and crucial components to the average resident. The latest home security products and services seem to be arriving just in time with the swift advancements of smartphones and other personal devices, naturally lending themselves to real-time alerts and tight user communication. We’ve already seen instances of this modern method of home security with products like Piper, iSmartAlarm, and Canary, the freshly crowd-funded device designed by a New York City startup.
Another highly anticipated development is underway, and this one’s not to be overlooked. Google, which acquired Nest at the beginning of 2014, has also just acquired Dropcam this past June. Dropcam was a video monitoring technology startup company with its intended niche in home security. At this point, it’s quite clear how the dots connect.
With developer program “Works With Nest,” Google’s plan to conquer the next aspect of smart home living is already underway. It’s now possible for the Nest Thermostat to communicate with Nest-compatible Dropcam equipment and alarm systems (which all communicate with your smartphone or other device). It would only be a matter of time before other technologies fall onto Google’s plate, along with the startups that make them. But of course, that’s a great thing for the future of smart homes!
4. The Potential to Revolutionize Urban Agriculture
What if you could not only grow crops in a greenhouse in your own home, but have nearly every aspect of it be monitored, automated, and managed? This may sound like either a dream or a very costly extravagance, but in fact there are many emerging companies and organizations with a mind to make it happen on a practical scale.
Greenhouse automation is hardly a new concept. There are many players in the field of commercial hydroponics in the U.S., for example. One notable company is Climate Control Systems, Inc., which specializes in producing the equipment used in automated indoor hydroponic farming. Another is Solar Innovations, Inc., which is gradually making their presence known in the residential agriculture space. What’s great about this shift is that it’s occurring simultaneously with the surge in mobile technology, much like the previously mentioned developments.
Companies like Growtronix are working to incorporate real-time automation software that would sync seamlessly with smartphone and tablets. That way, not only could you monitor the status of soil, water, light, and other growing conditions–you could take control and manage them remotely. If watering your plants from the other side of the world by the use of robotics through your phone doesn’t excite you, I don’t know what else would.
5. Access to Vast Community Data via Cloud Networks
If you’ve ever wondered what something like iCloud would have to do with environmental sustainability, you may have been a bit disappointed to find very little. However, there seems to be a picture being painted, ever so slowly, of how all these technological advances can quite literally connect to our communities, our cities, and possibly our planet as a whole. In essence, all of these network-connected home optimization devices are equipped with the potential to communicate across the homes in which they’re installed, yielding information and data that might be relevant to the local community as a whole.
Imagine if an entire neighborhood employed the smart security systems mentioned earlier in point 3, and where able to connect to and alert neighboring homes of any threats. You could be busy at work during a breach into your home, unable to look at your phone’s security notification, when your next door neighbor’s system is also notified, allowing he or she to be aware of the situation and take appropriate action. This is the kind of development we’re beginning to see: technological progress that ultimately leads to safer and smarter cities.
Another avenue for implementing smart home cloud networks is in community energy benchmarking. As if producing solar power on your own roof and being able to monitor it on your smartphone isn’t enough, it’s now becoming possible to access solar power production on neighboring systems, and even compare their efficiency of energy usage to your own. If illustrated in the right way, this could be a powerful driving force for urban residents, house dwellers and apartment tenants alike, to both save money and use energy more wisely.
The establishment of a smart electrical grid could greatly facilitate the idea of community home networks. There are some great online resources from the U.S. Department of Energy that further illustrate the concept of smart grids, smart homes, and what they mean for the future of energy infrastructure and sustainable cities.Feature Image: The Paderborn Smart Home, a model prototype located in Paderborn, Germany. Image via Wikimedia Commons.