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Home Automation: Bad choices and poor experiences

My hydronic system failed this summer. Spare parts for the boiler, still more efficient than most on the market, are no longer available. It supported a hot water heater and two zones in my house. I am splitting out the water heater, moving to a tankless system. While the best boilers haven’t gotten any better, the price for an equivalent efficiency boiler has gone way down; the incentive to put everything on one boiler is gone.

I would like to add one or more zones to the house. The upstairs of this old house, with bedrooms and bathrooms, has never been conditioned. With the kids away, half of the bedrooms are only rarely occupied. I like keeping the rooms for a few more years, as long as kids show up for various holidays and vacations.

There are two frustrations with this process.

The first is the contractors. They arrive, already knowing which product they will install, based upon manufacturer incentives. The manufacturers seem to be responding to energy prices by offering dealers incentives on big systems, much as auto dealers are offering incentives on SUVs and Hummers. I tell them what I want over the phone, and warn them what the criteria will be; even so, they waste my time and their own. They decide the best fit based on incentives before they look at the space, they push the incentives, and they wonder why they leave without a contract. I cannot even imagine why they think I will accept fewer zones in twice as much space. Until the installers move beyond this attitude, home building system performance will remain abysmal. The worst part is that this must work, as these jokers stay in business.

The second issue is how little intelligence the control systems have. The home market appears to be dominated by systems that pretend to have taken the digital age into account. The thermostat is a nice flat screen. The time of day functions are easy to access. The actual control sequences are not as sophisticated as my last installation, which was constructed out of a complex nest of relays to squeeze extra energy out of each cycle. If this is what the American control companies are offering through their dealers, they deserve to lose to the Chinese.

The third issue is flexibility. I have been offered many controllers, but no flexibility in any of them. Single purpose systems are offered with different controllers than hybrid systems. Adding a third energy source is yet another decision. Each representative who comes by seems surprised when I ask for flexibility, and explain that it would be far too expensive. Based upon what their dealers, the home comfort system companies have not learned the essential lesson of the digital age, that simple product lines with large production runs are cheaper, and therefore multi-purpose re-programmable controllers will be cheaper. Every brand (and I have seen them all) is done a disservice by its local distribution.

So what do I think a standard, flexible controller would offer?

A home system should support hybrid systems, with enough abstraction so that multiple fuel sources are supported. A standard controller would balance the price and availability of each energy source installed to provide heating and cooling. It is common for systems to support an outside set-point to change from, for example, a heat pump to a gas pack. A proper system would tune itself, and be able to suggest what that outside set-point should be.

It should also be able to accept prices. For now, there is no live energy pricing in my area; I should be able to enter the price from my last electric bill, and the price from my last gas bill, and let it suggest another cutover point. If I add a thermal store, I should be able to include that in the same algorithm. It should not matter if the thermal store is driven by time of day prices and pre-heating (or cooling) or by a solar thermal unit. If I add photovoltaics, the system should be able to understand the availability and pricing of that as well. The system should be live pricing ready, ready to receive live price signals for any of the energy sources when they become available in my area. Clearly there should be a means to upgrade the system to support ADR (automated demand response signals) when they come to my area.

There is no reason for this to be more expensive. The controllers they are selling already have enough muscle power. The interface and system logic, while more extensive than today, would be less extensive than the multiple product lines I am being offered each evening.

Until the control vendors and home automation vendors offer products like this, than it is a sham they provide any sort of sustainability or energy control. If they are offering products like I want, than they should support hot lines to report the local dealers who besmirch their names with poor proposals. Like GM, sitting fat and happy on the no competitors assumption of generations ago, they will slow lose their customers and their companies.

And if you think the products are available, here in central Carolina, let me know. I will write that up later….

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Reader Comments (1)


This text has been automatically translated from Spanish by Google Traslator,
feel any inconvenience it may cause.

I am writing this from Spain (in Europe). About 5 years ago I started working in the areas of building automation and home automation, the first decision I had to take was to decide which system to use, the most obvious option was to use the "European standard" EIB (now expanded and renamed as Konnex), a quick comparison between the EIB and LonWorks I decided to use LonWorks (BacNet had, and have very little acceptance in Europe).

My initial idea was to use LonWorks both for building automation for home automation, but high prices for input / output of LonWorks technology made me desist, and I started working with LonWorks in building automation. I must admit that I came to find almost any kind of equipment with Lon communication, and although the task of integrating products from different vendors was not easy, whether it was possible, after a long fight LonMaker, and with the help of TAC products, although in many cases are proprietary solutions.

After some installations came to the conclusion that technology Lon is quite flexible and can do almost anything, but paying the price of having to "invent the wheel" in each facility, and with a heavy workload in manual and repetitive for each facility.
LonWorks, like EIB and many other technologies are a solution for automating buildings and homes, but engineering facilities is not anything automated.

And any solution to automate engineering supposed escape from Standard and turn it into a proprietary solution that uses a network technology standard.

With this situation does something more than a year I decided to develop my own solution, initially for home automation, and subsequently to the building and urbanization.

He was clear that networking technology would be TCP / IP over Ethernet, nobody could say that some technologies are not standard. And build on them at the same time a software engineering and installation, as I'd like to have, and a binary protocol based on distributed intelligence in intelligent nodes.

The goal is to have a pre-integrated architecture in which the engineer only have to select the items you need based on profiles already defined and place (for the moment with an interface through tables, but in the future with a graphical interface) areas previously defined.

The software engineering will generate all tables setup for intelligent nodes, which will only have a few small programs, agents, for each task. But the engineer will not have to schedule, and will be created, and may be updated to add more features.

At the time I studied the possibility of using Obix as protocol, but I think we will have to wait until Obix 2.0 and starting to be used to be truly useful.

But if I have one thing very clear, so that an automation system to be truly efficient need to be integrated, and that includes at least the following functions:

-- Comfort: lights, blinds, curtains,…
-- Climate
-- Security: intrusion, access control, video surveillance, fire, flood,…
-- Entertainment: audio, video, Internet,…
-- Other: plumbing, watering gardens, swimming pools,…

All fully integrated, for example with common system for detecting presence for safety and energy savings.

With a user interface simple and homogeneous, with programs affecting simultaneously to all systems, modes day / evening, weekends, holidays, etc..

With a common goal of saving energy and water.

July 16, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterAngel J. Garcia

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