Smart Homes – The View from Berlin (And some answers to Life’s Enigmas)

This blog was written by BSRIA's Henry Lawson

This blog was written by BSRIA’s Henry Lawson

For decades, mankind has agonised over such worrying conundrums as whether the fridge light goes out when the door is closed, or whether I need to drive 20 miles home to check that I really did turn the iron off. (I plead guilty to the latter).

If the 2016 IFA Messe in Berlin, which finished on 7th September, is anything to go by, then these dilemmas will soon be a thing of the past. Not only will I be able to log into my iron from the other side of the world, but a web cam will allow me to check the contents of my fridge, and potentially even the status of the food.

For a long time the idea of smart appliances has seemed almost whimsical, the domain of the geek or the obsessive with surplus money on their hands. The more serious message from IFA is firstly that most of the major quality appliance manufacturers, in both Europe and Asia Pacific are starting to make serious investments in smart appliances. Of course this investment does not prove that the demand will grow to match it. This will depend just as much on a second clear trend, namely that smart appliances are starting to interact with wider home management systems in a way that can potentially change the whole way that households operate, and revolutionise day to day domestic life.

To take a simple example; in the UK there is a lot of talk about shifting tasks that are not time-critical to off-peak times when energy is cheaper. But this mostly hangs upon smart meters. In Germany there has been a lot of resistance to smart meters (especially on data protection grounds), but the country is a world leader in domestically generated solar power. Several of the leading ‘white goods’ manufacturers, including Siemens, Miele and Bosch have partnered with SMA, the country’s leading supplier of residential solar power and storage systems. Your wash can now be kicked off automatically when there is enough solar power to drive it thus saving both  money and CO2 emissions.

From intelligent fridges to robots to keep an eye on grandma; the smart future is emerging

From intelligent fridges to robots to keep an eye on grandma; the smart future is emerging

Specialised smart systems are also increasingly being integrated into wider smart home systems, with a combination of open standards and a “best of breed” approach. This allows you not just to invest in one of the market-leading smart lighting systems, but also, for example to use it to changing the light settings to suggest that the building is occupied.  Home security is a huge theme in Germany, where burglary rates have actually been rising over the past couple of years. Another smart home system can use top of the range entertainment sound systems to mimic sounds like hoovering – with the added bonus that you can now also annoy the neighbours even when you are on holiday.

One flip-side of this is a degree of potential complexity, and many vendors are aware that systems that are complex to install, program and to manage are incompatible with a true mass market. Accordingly many now offer voice-command systems most commonly using Apple Siri or Amazon Alexa. Some suppliers also offer a degree of “machine learning” based on the behaviour both of typical users and of the actual householder.

Another key trend that BSRIA has also picked up over recent years is that much of the higher-end smart home market overlaps with the light-commercial market. A luxury home and a small office may have many similar requirements in terms of lighting security and energy requirements, and the owners may be willing to make the investment. KNX has a huge presence in this market.

On the other hand, the mass market will only be conquered by systems that are relatively low cost, and simple to install, either by the owners themselves or by an ordinary non specialist electrician. One supplier, Datastrom, makes use of mains electricity wiring to connect and control devices, so can be installed by an electrician. Others deploy low- power devices which can be battery powered and can communicate wirelessly using a low energy protocol such as Z-wave. This also makes the smart home relatively portable, which is an attraction in a country like Germany  where far more people rent their homes than do in the UK or the USA.

Smart technology - light in the tunnel, not just at the end of it.

Smart technology – light in the tunnel, not just at the end of it.

I came away from IFA with a confirmation that a dynamic smart home market is taking shape as part of the massive expansion in smart technology and the Internet of Things. There remain huge question-marks. While there is almost universal awareness that cybersecurity is an issue, and much is being invested in it, it is not yet clear that there is an effective way of keeping all devices secure at all times. In fact this concern could drive the move towards complete smart homes, as it is probably easier to monitor a network of IoT devices for ‘suspicious behaviour’ than to try to protect and update each one individually on a continual basis.

BSRIA will be shortly be publishing a series of studies on each of the Smart Homes and Light Commercial markets in Germany, France, UK, the Netherlands  and on North America, which will explore all this, and much more.

For more information please feel free to contact me, – +44 (0)1344 465 590

Renewable Energy – The Vital Missing Link

This blog was written by BSRIA's Henry Lawson

This blog was written by BSRIA’s Henry Lawson

For years, renewable energy, especially solar power and wind, has offered the tantalising prospect of almost zero carbon energy; tantalising because, even as costs fall, solar and wind are inherently unreliable, especially in temperate climates such as those that we ‘enjoy ‘in regions like Western Europe, and much of North America not to mention most of the developed world.

While a lot of progress has been made in demand response, which manages the energy that we need to match that which is available at any given time, we need a cheap, safe and efficient way of storing electrical power. Up until now, storage of electrical power in particular has been expensive and inefficient, and sometimes a bit scary.

The electrical vehicle market of course already faces this problem in spades. Electric cars are never likely to become main-stream so long as they need to go through a lengthy recharge process every 200 miles or so. It is therefore no surprise that much of the running is being made by manufacturers of vehicle batteries.

Tesla’s announcement that it is moving into the home energy storage market could represent a significant step. Being able to store electrical power not only makes local wind and solar power generation more practicable, it could also be invaluable in the many areas of the world where the grid is unreliable or virtually non-existent.

The biggest barrier, at least initially,  is likely to be the price tag. The 7kW battery which could, for example power a laptop for two days, or run one full cycle of a washing machine, or boil 10 kettles, will cost $3,000 to buy: That’s a very pricey home laundry service, and a frighteningly expensive cup of coffee, especially if you only need to use it occasionally.  The 10kW version represents slightly better value.

At this stage this is surely going to appeal only to wealthier individuals living away from a reliable grid, or those willing to pay to make a green gesture.  However, as with other technology initially aimed at the ‘smart home’ we may well find that much of the demand is actually from businesses. If you are running a business, even a small one, then any loss of service can do you immense damage. If an investment of a few thousand pounds or dollars can help guarantee that you will keep running, then it may well seem like an attractive return on investment.”

A further significant sign is Tesla’s announcement of an alliance with the international Energy Intelligence software supplier EnerNOC, which already has a presence in the USA, Canada, Germany, the UK, Switzerland, Ireland, Brazil, Australia and New Zealand.

Ultimately, success for energy storage in buildings, as in vehicles is likely to hinge on the two Cs: cost and capacity. It is a familiar catch 22 situation with most new and emerging technologies, where the market is waiting for the price to fall, but, other things being equal, production costs will only fall once you have achieved  real economies of scale.  The other factors that could influence the market are regulation, requiring builders or building owners to make provision for storage, or someone willing to take a loss leading initiative.

Safety concerns will also need to be allayed, given problems that have occurred with various types of battery technology, whether in laptops or vehicles. Storing a lot of energy in a very small space, inside the home is always going to raise concerns. And while batteries may offer the most promising option at the moment, other forms of energy storage might prove more effective in the end.

Still, the paradox is that sometimes problems get solved precisely because they are so big. The whole direction that the world is moving in, the growing realisation that we need to slash CO2 emissions,  demands cheap, efficient, safe energy storage. It seems likely that companies like Tesla, along with the other major energy companies involved in energy storage  will continue to concentrate their fire power on this until a viable solution emerges. And for the first few who get this right, or even approximately right, the potential returns are huge.

For then we really will have found the missing link.

Should Building Managers worry about scary movies?

threatsBuilding managers thinking of films to see this winter may give some thought to a previously little known comedy largely set in North Korea.

The successful cyber-attacks on Sony, one of the world’s best known corporations, and which lives and breathes digital technology, resulted in the release of reams of sensitive information, and led  Sony to delay the opening of the film. All this may on the face of it have little to do with the nuts and bolts of building automation, but it does fire another warning shot across the industry’s bows.

We have known for some time that buildings are vulnerable to cyber-attack. Not only can they be major targets in themselves, but they often offer an easy “back” door” into an organisation’s wider IT network. The successful attack on Target stores in the USA gained access via the company’s HVAC system which in turn allowed them into the more lucrative customer data records. BSRIA research shows that, in the USA for example, over 90% of all larger buildings (i.e. those with more than half a million square feet of space – or c. 50,000 m2) have some kind of building automation and control system (BACS), and many are to some degree at risk.

What is striking is that in so many successful attacks on buildings or infrastructure the problem had less to do with the cyber-protection systems in place than with the way in which they were being maintained and operated. At Target, alerts were generated but not acted on until after much of the damage was done. The earlier attack on Google’s Australian offices in Sydney were linked to the fact that an older version of the Tridium platform was still in use.

Many organisations lack effective processes and procedures, which in turn is linked to the fact that, even within the same organisation, building services and IT tend still to work in separate, parallel worlds.

All of this is compounded by the fact that BACS systems increasingly have at least one foot in the Cloud, and often several. Almost all major suppliers of BACS and Building Energy Management Systems (BEMS) offer at least the option of cloud based analytics, and the ability to access and manage multiple buildings remotely is seen as almost a “must-have” – outside of industries which have traditionally been hypersensitive about security. The cloud brings huge technical, social and financial benefits, but also greatly increases risk, as does the general spread of IT based functionality through buildings and devices, a process that the ‘internet of things’ is set to expand exponentially.

Major suppliers of BACS systems are talking publically about ways of addressing the challenge, and companies like Lynxspring are establishing a reputation in this area. In the UK the Institute of Engineering and Technology (IET) issued a Code of Practice for Cyber Security in the Built Environment in November 2014.

This blog was written by BSRIA's Henry Lawson

This blog was written by BSRIA’s Henry Lawson

Cyber-attacks tend to be motivated by political, ideological, or financial motives, or by a combination of mischief and malice. On all these scores, major buildings remain vulnerable especially when they are associated with prominent organisations, whether private or public.

In the latest edition of BSRIA’s market briefing Threats / Opportunities for Building Automation Systems, we look further at the cyber threat and what is being done to counter it. The study also looks at other major trends that are changing the profile and prospects of building automation. These include the development of more intelligent HVAC systems, (whether Direct Expansion or VRF based), the growth of ‘smart homes’ solution which are also snapping at the heels of the BACS market at the “lower end” of commercial buildings, the growing importance of building analytics and big data, and the rise of potential new global players, especially in countries like China and India.

We will be following these and other emerging trends through the course of 2015. It should be as exciting anything that Hollywood has to offer, for rest assured: The cyber threat (and much else) is coming to a building near you soon.


Additional Sources:

The Institute of Engineering and Technology (IET) guidelines.

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