“If someone asked me today what they should buy for a home automation system, I’d be hard-pressed to recommend anything,” says Duncan Prahl. “Technology is moving so quickly that it’s tough to justify a major investment in something that might be obsolete in two years.”
The problem isn’t just the pace of technology, says the senior research manager for IBACOS, a Building America research leader in whole-house design and optimization, but that the players involved are so fragmented. “There’s no one company that spans the gamut of home energy use,” he says, and therefore no logical integrator or incentive to invest in a comprehensive solution.
That’s why Prahl sees utilities filling the void in the not-too-distant future. “The value chain of home energy savings is going to be tapped, and utilities will start driving smarter and more comprehensive home energy management systems,” he says. “They’re the only ones with a vested interest in lowering consumption at that point.”
While the result of that vision will certainly further reduce a homeowner’s energy bill by wrangling all energy-using products and systems—from lamps to laptops—under one control and conservation effort, “It will, more importantly, enable utilities to better manage loads and peak load costs,” says Prahl, to accommodate increasing energy demand without having to add capacity or boost rates.
To homeowners, he says, the extra savings will be seamless and almost undetectable—the perfect antidote for the modern consumer. “It’s my perception that Americans don’t want to have to do anything,” he says, especially when it comes to actively reducing their energy footprint at home. “They want to set it and forget it.”
They’re also chiefly concerned with their personal interests, not the whole. “Users find value only in the realm that’s of greatest interest to them,” he says, such as energy savings, comfort, or health … or even more specific to an end-use, such as lighting controls or thermostats.
As evidence, he points to a recent study in which consumers were told how much energy they were using as incentive to reduce that consumption. The result, however, was a mere 3% decline on average.
By contrast, Prahl believes that an intelligent and comprehensive energy management system could further reduce high-performance heating energy loads alone by up to 7%, and without any perceived difference in performance or comfort.
And there’s even more energy to be saved by reducing waste among a combination of lesser-demanding yet proliferating energy-use products, such as electronics and the electrical delivery system itself.
“It’s always occurred to me that there’s a lot of energy wasted even after you get really good thermal enclosures and address the efficiency of the space and water heating,” he says. “What’s left is all the little stuff.”
Problem is, there’s very little that builders can do about that stuff; most of it is bought or brought by the homeowner after closing, including some of the major appliances.
Within a decade or less, however, Prahl expects radio frequency identification (RFID) and Internet Protocol (IP) microchips to bridge the gap as manufacturers insert them into their products as a matter of course. “My guess is that anything you buy from an electronics manufacturer will have an IP-addressable chip that will work with an inter-communications system,” he says.
In turn, that as-yet developed system will collect, assess, and manage the energy-use data from those IP-equipped products to automatically regulate their consumption, in large part based on the lifestyle habits of the homeowners. “If no one’s using it, the system won’t deliver energy to it,” says Prahl. “The house will learn how we use it and adjust.”
Smatterings of this vision exist already, such as the NEST thermostat and LED lamps with embedded IP chips, among other spot examples. Meanwhile, a pilot project for E3 Greentech’s foray into the market, involving 600 new military base housing units managed by a wireless platform, will take the biggest step yet toward a large-scale application of comprehensive building systems management.
The transition won’t be easy, but Prahl is convinced it will be well on its way, and perhaps even market-ready, by 2020. “It requires a mindshift toward eliminating energy waste through better control,” he says. “It’s a huge opportunity for energy savings in high-performance buildings.”