Fast Company posted an article about WiFi lighting. It’s part of a trend towards the “Smarthome” – or, Smart House Devices – in which every electronic device is networked, monitored and entirely controllable.
Why would you want this?
For starters, it gives you control over every fixture and fitting imaginable and a great deal of flexibility in how you operate your appliances to suit changes in your environment. Ultimately, it can lead to far more eco-friendly housing.
For example, think about lighting in most people’s homes. There’s usually one switch per light. This means remembering to switch them off when you leave the room, otherwise you’re running all over the place (or leaving lights on and wasting electricity). If you want to change the position of the switch – say, move it somewhere else – or, you want to change which switch corresponds to which light, it’s a lot of hassle in a traditional system.
By contrast, Smarthome installations are totally flexible. Switches can be reprogrammed to correspond to different lights. A switch might even cause a series of lighting changes with a single press. And wireless switches are easier to move around the room without rewiring.
My experience with DALI Lighting
I recently renovated my home. At the time, I wanted to go all the way and have a complete smarthome system with integrated lighting, heating, electricity (solar thermal), automatic drapes, sound system… the works. Unfortunately, at the time, I found it difficult to justify the costs. Pricing a smarthome system is like asking how long is a piece of string. As a rule of thumb, however, I would expect that in most cases where you are swapping out a traditional appliance, or utility, for a smart-enable one, you would expect to find a 15-30% increase in the cost. Of course, if you designing a luxury apartment, then the costs will be much higher – as you will be selecting equipment that is not only super flexible but must look the business.
Because of the complexity of such a system, you are advised to hire a designer who is familiar with these systems to draw up a wiring diagram, equipment manifest, project management skills to coordinate all the different suppliers and fitters, and to be able to program the end result. These people are not cheap, either.
When you add up that extra cost of the smarthome, it seems very unattractive. Since then, however, I have come t realise that this is short-term thinking, because the running costs of a smarthome system are dramatically less than normal.
In my case, I opted to go for lighting. I figured this would give me the most impact in terms of an improvement in the quality of life. I liked the fact that I could program endless lighting combinations and, also, do such things as press a single button and have all the lights in the house go off (for instance, when I was locking up to go out).
I researched a number of different protocols for my lighting system. Lutron, DALI and KNX were the most prevalent here in Europe. In terms of the level of proprietary – from most proprietary to least – I’d say they could be ranked in this order: Lutron, DALI and KNX.
KNX building control systems are particularly impressive in that there are thousands of vendors offering compatible equipment, so you can mix and match equipment from different suppliers. Unfortunately, it is also one of the most expensive systems, mainly because it’s favoured by commercial users who value functionality (and robustness) over price. Lutron has nice kit but it doesn’t interface that well to other vendors’ equipment. I felt that my options were limited.
In the end, I went with a DALI system and a particular vendor who offered a wide range of lighting equipment in my area. They also offered wiring diagram services. The light fixtures I chose were a mix of halogen downlighters and fluorescent tubes that had a warmer, daylight colour temperature. For the halogens, I used special bulbs that used up half the electricity of a traditional bulb, yet offered the same amount of light.
Significant Energy Savings
The amount of money I saved on my electricity bill was staggering – roughly half of what I had been spending in the past for twice as many fixtures as I used to have.
There were three basic reasons for this.
First of all, I was able to easily turn off lots of lights in different rooms that were unoccupied.
Secondly, the fixtures themselves were using lower wattage bulbs.
And, finally, I found that I didn’t need the lights to be set at 100% all the time. In many cases, I was perfectly happy with them to be on at 10-40% illumination. I only turned them on at 100% when rooms were being cleaned, or when I absolutely needed to. In a traditional system this would have been more difficult to do, especially if the dimmers were analogue. But, in a digital networked world, each light could be told to switch on at a specific percentage, thus allowing me to create the precise mood and setting that I wanted at the press of a button.
In retrospect, I wished that I had incorporated the heating and other components into the system. Perhaps, I will be able to do this next time. But it opened my eyes to new ways in which to conserve and/or recycle energy.
What I did only scratched the surface. There is a tremendous amount of clever things that can be done when all of your household equipment is on the same network and controlled by a master system. Of course, this does open up the possibility of hacking and abuse. This is one of the reasons why I am less of a fan of wireless equipment. It’s far easier to tap into someone’s home wireless network and wreak havoc than it is on a system that is hardwired. At least in the latter case, they must gain access to your premises in order to jack in.
Misplaced Municipal Priorities
One thing that I fail to understand is why government subsidies in Europe often target only the more exotic energy efficient systems – like solar energy – and ignore the possibility of giving homeowners rebates to renovate their houses with smarthome systems. Solar is more complicated to explain – and, often, to justify – for individual homeowners, whereas smarthome systems would yield tremendous energy saving, while offering a better quality of life at the same time. This isn’t difficult to justify. Solar is, also, not applicable in every renovation, whereas smarthome devices are. I think that the priorities should be reversed.
For instance, instead of offering me a rebate on a solar system, I would have prefered a rebate on a lighting and heating smarthome system.
If you are interested in Smarthome DIY, why not check out the USA retailer – SmartHome – which has a variety of interesting pieces of kit that you can cobble together.