Residential Energy Management Systems

Remote energy management systems have been used in industry for quite some time, but the field is rapidly expanding to accommodate commercial and residential real estate.  If you are a little uncertain about the viability of managing these systems on-line, an impressive example of a system mostly managed off-site is the 400kW fuel cell that powers 360 State Street. Although there are service personnel on-site who monitor the system for the mixed used development and residential tower in New Haven, most of the management is done at a remote location operated by UTC Power

As more apartment and single-family housing owners install systems to produce on-site energy - with the additional benefit of greater energy security from the standard grid – it is wise to remember that nothing in the energy world is really free.  We applaud these pioneers and residential commercial innovators like 360 State Street and Princeton Properties that invest in on-site energy production. Yet even clean and renewable energy systems have some embodied energy cost for the materials and labor required to build them. Add in the dwindling rare earth minerals used in many of these designs and the conservation end feels weightier. 

Obviously any energy efficiency strategy must be multi-faceted – including production, efficiency and conservation - as buildings use enormous amounts of energy to heat and cool occupants.  Anticipating increased demand, cable companies and several of the largest broadband providers have recently entered the remote energy management market. 

Broadband Service 

Across the country forward-thinking residential property managers have been providing broadband and wireless services for tenants. Broadband is the term generally used to describe high speed Internet service as opposed to a dial-up system used to get on-line. Compared to broadband, dial up is slow, cumbersome and connections can be unreliable. Some equate dial-up to sitting in rush-hour traffic where four lanes narrow to two. This is why our dial-up-service friends are notoriously lousy email correspondents. Hint: Never send them attachments. They will curse three generations of your family while your joke’s graphic loads. Suffice it to say that dial-up’s capacity will not accommodate these new services. 

As Internet broadband providers heavily compete for market share they are seeking new products that engage customers. Verizon has discussed offering its energy management and security services using touch-screen display devices, PCs or smart phones. AT&T’s recent acquisition of Xanboo indicates its interest in security services including remote management of security cameras, controllers and home energy systems. Many home automation systems already allow tracking of home energy use with remote and wireless features but all rely on a cable or broadband provider partner. 

iControl and uControl merged their products in November 2010. Industry experts anticipate that Comcast will be merging its services with its Xfinity home security service as well. Although home monitoring security and energy accounts number in the tens of thousands, it is expected this will climb to hundreds of thousands by the end of next year. In fact before the merger, iControl raised over $40 million in venture capital and uControl raised over $20 million. 

Motorola announced its purchase of 4Home last month, a company in which Verizon also has an investment. Most recently AT&T acquired another home automation company, Xanboo. The actions of these broadband providers telegraph that  their bundled wireless services should soon include home security and energy management. 

Courtesy photo 4Home.com

How It Works 

The concept of how these systems work is simple. Xanboo’s system fully automates a residence or business to create a ”smart” home or office. The service allows the user to monitor the alarm system  from any mobile device with a connection to the net.  Xanboo claims the system can let you: 

“… monitor and control lights, heat, water, temperature, thermostats, and even send you a text, or e-mail, along with a picture, when certain events occur.  Such as when a water tank or washing machine leaks, temperature drops below a certain degree, an alarm goes off or your child comes home from school.  You can have it take a video clip and send you a notice when it is ready to view.  If you are connected to a central station with a Xanboo connection, it can send a video clip when an alarm goes off to verify the event is happening at the location.” 

Xanboo’s platform can accommodate up to ten cameras.  A property manager could track the parking area, the building exterior from several angles, the leasing office, and the pool. Based on system set up, an alert and video are sent when there is an intruder. Users can then go on line and see clips from before and after or view the camera in real time (live). 

Using 4Home’s system as a technical example, the system is based on a platform that allows a user’s standard interface technologies to connect to it.  The owner then connects to these interfaces through on-line software like any other computer program. For the non-techies in the crowd, you use this same platform/interface/software technology everyday when you use the Internet. The difference is that your appliances, heating system, security system, lights and other electronics can also be networked for mobile or PC access as long as they have an Internet connection. The portal allows the user to control the equipment and anything using electricity remotely. If security cameras are hooked up as well, these are also networked into the system. 

Just as computer monitoring and safe chips have helped employers and parents control Internet access, this technology is another tool. For the parents whose young teens and middle schoolers are rebelling against after-school babysitters, these combined mobile monitoring capabilities are a godsend. Imagine the child with a propensity for independent thought but the judgment of a second-grader. The Big Brother aspect of home monitoring may keep the house from burning down or at least the brownies.  Personally I wish these devices were available when my children were adolescents. The adolescent who begs to stay up to finish geometry homework but is really just fooling around on Facebook? Smartphone monitoring and control from a late meeting or the bedroom would simply rock. 

Busy moms and dads can leave work, adjust home settings remotely, pick up the kids and by the time all arrive home, the temperature is sweet and comfortable.  I can also imagine an elderly grandparent out to brunch when she begins to fret she left a pie in the oven. She can discreetly pull out her smart phone and simply turn the oven off. Raising energy gremlins who turn lights and equipment on but the off concept completely escapes them? Turn on your mobile device and go to town. In fact, home energy management may be the miracle conservation tool everybody will actually enjoy using. 

To give you a more technical idea of the many applications of the technology offered by 4Home.com, here is an excerpt from their website: 

The Portal includes support for remote UIs, FCML routing, software management, messaging, diagnostics, troubleshooting, upgrades, media storage, account management, status tracking tools, the home ecosystem management database, media server, group management, CRM, sharing Control Point access, file management, backup and restore options, and much more. The Portal software enables partners to roll out a scalable Connected Home Services package that has low total cost of ownership

In spite of the tremendous amount of energy wasted lighting, heating and cooling empty buildings, we users seem to have a disconnect.  Programmable thermostats and lamp timers are inexpensive but they are dramatically under-used. People are busy and seem to under-appreciate these simple technologies, but we do love our smart phones and other mobile devices.  A new application that helps us save money on that downer of a utility bill is worth learning.  As energy prices rise – and they will – we are betting these services will become wildly popular. 

Of course when a sustainability activists’ buzzword was recently uttered by an AT&T rep, we all perked up. Any chatter about ’synergies’ within AT&T’s broadband services and anticipated coupling with residential energy management systems is pretty exciting talk. 

Market Potential

According to the FCC, as of December 2009, there were 133,148,000 users with an Internet connection in the United States. Of these about 76.6 million have a connection that has a downstream speed of less than 3 mbps, 40.4 million with a speed greater than 3 mbps but less than 6 mbps and 16.2 million with a speed over 6 mbps. In fact, with a minimum potential customer base of 56.6 million users if we don’t count the low downstream speed segment, the broadband industry is betting that home energy monitoring and energy management  services are a natural progression of video, voice, wireless and high speed Internet services. 

After ignoring what brought us to this very precarious climate position, creating these types of synergies will aid us in reversing or at least slowing current warming trends. Whether these broadband providers offer services directly or as pipe providers for local utilities, we need all the help we can get to lower home energy use. In fact, when I see my local provider’s name on my caller ID screen, I am going to eagerly take that call and hope you will too. 

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