The internet is abuzz with a smart home backlash, spearheaded by Lloyd Alter of Treehugger, who made a splash when he recently wrote in the Guardian that a smart thermostat would be “bored stupid” in a Passive House.
So is it true that a smart home “throws technology and electricity at a problem that is better solved by design?”
Reading the articles that oppose the smart home approach, many of the arguments break down under scrutiny – but who cares? This isn’t a carefully considered rejection of a technology, it’s more an emotional gag reflex. You could spare yourself quite a few column inches and take it as read that some people don’t like things with “smart” in the title.
An important flaw in the bored stupid argument is the assumption that smart thermostats have anything to do with saving energy. The people who spend £250 on a Nest or a Honeywell Lyric aren’t fuel poor – they can afford to waste energy. And so the Smart Thermostat War isn’t about energy savings. It’s about flogging shiny gadgets (and compiling a Big Data dossier on your living habits so third parties can flog you more gadgets).*
But while moneyed technophiles may buy a Nest just because it’s shiny, there’s no denying that smart thermostats are fundamentally heating controls. Sure, they’re super shiny and connected to the internet but they’re controls just the same.
And like it or not, every home with a heating system needs controls. They’re what keep the heating from running 24/7 and so save money and carbon. You could use a Lyric to do this job. Or you might use a stupid roomstat and thermostatic radiator valves. Or a cheap programmable thermostat and zone control valves.
The fact that homes need controls is equally true for Passive Houses. They’re low heat, not zero heat. That mechanical ventilation with heat recovery (MVHR) needs controlling. So does the heating system, no matter how good the design.
It turns out there are extra benefits to giving occupants control over environmental conditions. More than a decade ago Fergus Nicol found that if you regulate environmental conditions too tightly, people’s tolerance for variations in conditions drops. But if you give them more control and opportunities to adapt, their tolerance for variations increases. And the wider the range of conditions in which you feel comfortable, the less energy needed for heating and cooling.
More recently, a study by AECOM in an office building found that the more control people think they have, the less energy they consume.
Ok, so that means manual controls are great, and “smart” gadgets (like Lyric and Nest) that take away control and tightly regulate your environmental conditions are bad. Right? Well… not quite.
Unfortunately most manual controls suck. As retrofit programmes like Future Fit have discovered, controls are often left unused because residents find them too complicated or fiddly. The screens are too small. The menus are clunky. Instruction booklets get lost. In fact, as we’ve seen on a recent project, many tenants ask a resident liaison officer to configure their heating controls for them because they find them unworkable.
And here’s where smart technology comes in, not because of the snazzy algorithms that predict your usage patterns or calculate the optimum indoor temperature based on outdoor weather conditions or watch your movements by GPS. Smart technology is better because it’s connected to the internet. That gives you a user interface as big as your laptop screen, or at least as big as the LCD on your smartphone.
As Steven Harris put it on the EST blog, “…smartness is irrelevant; it’s the convenience that’s the benefit. Because I can programme everything from a well-designed, intuitive web dashboard via my laptop, it’s easy, so I do it.”
That’s the essential ingredient missing from most controls: usability. The user interface on most programmable thermostats looks like it’s been designed by a heating engineer (or maybe, as Steven says in that blog post, a Klingon). And they’ve got away with it because there’s no incentive to improve.
On the other hand, on the internet, user experience (UX) can mean the difference between life and death, particularly in e-commerce. Over the past decade and a half, good UX designers have honed their skills, ensuring interfaces are simple and intuitive, which is a lot harder than it sounds.
If forced to choose between an interface by a good UX designer and a heating engineer, I know which one I’d choose.
So is a smart thermostat a dumb response to a bad building? No, provided it makes the controls more usable. Contrary to the backlash, “smart” isn’t bad. Though I admit it can be too clever for its own good.
The real problem is that people who are least able to pay for heating, and might get use out of a smart thermostat, are unlikely to end up with one.
*Strangely Honeywell seem to have misunderstood their target demographic. While Nest pushes a lifestyle message and trades on its fetishistic desirability, Honeywell tell you to “think energy savings like you’ve never known.” Ooops.