Skip to main content

Major Tom to Ground Control – Enough Already

By July 14, 2014November 7th, 2021Energy Efficiency, Energy Rant

I think the time when we pine for simpler days may be just around the corner.  The rage in recent years has been smart grid and more recently, smart home controllers and learning thermostats.  The problems with these things are multiple.

  • They are too complex.
  • Who wants to be tethered to their coffee pot, stereo, and porch light 24/7?
  • They may even result in greater peak demand and energy use than “back in the day”.

On a related note, everyone knows about the hazards of using a cell phone for talking, texting, checking email and the weather forecast while driving.  Drivers don’t need a cell phone to not pay attention while driving.  They could probably use a cell phone to stay awake, which is key to not crashing the car.  Studies have shown!

Our “new” car is a 2007 Honda Civic.  It still has knobs and buttons for radio, heating, and cooling, but an extremely stupid instrument panel with a digital speedometer four feet in front of the driver’s face.  It lights up the top of the dashboard and reflects on the windshield at night.  What genius dreamt that horrific arrangement?

Moving on, occasionally I ride in a new rental car and more rarely, I drive a new rental.  All the controls are on a monitor that resembles an iPad.  What do you do when you get in a car to go somewhere?  I engage the seatbelt and take off.  Once I start progressing toward my destination, I start looking for creature comforts – set the AC, tune the radio, set the cruise control, optimize the seat settings.  The problem is, doing these things in new cars is more dangerous than texting and slightly less dangerous than sleeping at the wheel.  Dude, where IS the radio control?  What do these ridiculous icons mean?  Why are hieroglyphics and Neanderthal cave-man cartoons used rather than words?  Drivers cannot feel their way to protruding controls that are much easier to locate and manipulate with a glance of the eye and peripheral vision.  Instead, drivers must focus both eyes, off the road, analyze the icons, and guess by process of elimination what to push to get the desired result.  Oops.  I just opened the trunk.  How do I undue that?

This is where home control is headed.  However, at least for home control there is a reason for touchscreen control – compact, lightweight devices.  But the controls are still confusing.

I have written several posts on my Nest thermostat:  The original one explained the features and benefits, particularly during the heating season.  The second explained why Google bought Nest to spy on consumers 24/7.  The most recent post explained why programmable and smart thermostats save no cooling energy.

For many users, including me, these smart controllers result in greater energy use.  I use mine to most efficiently provide the comfort conditions I want, when I want, but I am a total energy geek.  The usual consumer, many of whom manually control their thermostats to save energy, won’t waste time, or dig in, or even know how to minimize energy consumption for desired comfort conditions.

For example, I set the fan to circulate air all night when we use the AC, the use of which is limited to humid weather only.  Running the fan is needed to prevent stratification and uncomfortably warm air in sleeping digs upstairs.  Fan control is independent of temperature settings.  My wife or any typical user is never going to drill into the features like this.  In fact, I said if you want to change something – run the AC, schedule the fan and whatnot while I’m on travel (frequently), just call, and I’ll take care of it.  Great.  We have remote control of the home HVAC, but it’s so complicated, I prefer to do it from hundreds of miles away, lest we waste energy.

What really put me over the top recently was this article from The Wall Street Journal, regarding Nest’s competitors from Honeywell, GE, and a company called Quirky.  The apps for these devices track the user’s whereabouts and automatically turn on the AC once they pierce the perimeter shield, also known as the “geofence”.  I can imagine everyone who works in La Crosse and leaves work between 5:00 and 5:10 (90% of the workforce, I swear) having these things.  Xcel Energy would need to build new peaker plants to meet the surge of cooling requirements that were banked while (not) “saving energy” during the workday.

The more appliances that are controlled automatically with the use of the geofence, the greater the peak power demand is going to be.  Thanks for the help!

Moreover, who wants to be a control freak and manage every appliance and device in the house every hour of the day?  OMG!  I forgot to power down the DVR!  The alarm goes off during an interview for a major project.  Or, “Hmmm, I can save $2.39 if I wait till 7:30 to restart the air conditioning tonight.  Is that worth the howling I’ll get from the rest of the family?”

In this regard, energy will be just like the 6000 calorie custard-impregnated muffin.  Consumers would rather be blissfully ignorant and indulge in their cool comfort.  “I don’t care.  Just give it to me!”

Jeff Ihnen

Author Jeff Ihnen

More posts by Jeff Ihnen

Join the discussion One Comment

  • I fully appreciate the complexity of temperature and load controllers, especially for homes, and how they can minimize user value. Plus a poor control algorithm can waste more energy than it saves. Plug-load and wired-load controllers consume energy themselves and poorly designed controllers may consume more energy than they save.

    That being said, if you are old enough to remember the early days of the internet, we have a good analogy. Before AOL flooded the market with quick-set-up CDs for their ISP connection, many of us struggled and wasted hours getting our PCs connected to the new “internet”. It was a bad value proposition before AOL.

    Home energy management systems (HEMS), in similar fashion, have much value to offer, but that value is blocked from many users due to the technical knowledge and set-up time requirements to use them. In addition to energy savings, the same fundamental systems can make for a safer and more convenient home due to their home automation features. It was only a few years ago that a basic Control4 home automation system cost at least $5,000 to get started with, and actual systems often cost much more. Now we can buy basic home automation from our video cable company, telephone company, or even from our big-box hardware store at starting prices of a few hundred dollars. And the systems are rapidly improving in both function and ease of use.

    For example, before SafePlug smart receptacle products, plug load control did not track appliances if they were moved within a building. Old plug-load controllers, starting with X10 products 30 years ago, forced the user to re-program the system anytime he/she moved the appliance to a different receptacle. Even super-techies tire of such a high maintenance love affair with their home automation systems. Without the re-programming, such a system could erroneously turn off grandpa’s oxygen pump instead of his bedroom table lamp at 9 PM.

    SafePlug smart receptacles can read RightPlug Standard plug tags to uniquely identify each appliance that is plugged in. RightPlug RFID appliance plug tags contain a unique address. By combining the plug address with the SafePlug receptacle address, a HEMS or building management system knows exactly what appliances are plugged in and where. By reading the plug tag address, the SafePlug system automatically tracks appliance movement. If you program a lamp address to turn off at 9 PM and if the lamp has been unplugged, the SafePlug system will not execute the OFF command on a different plug-load. If the lamp has been moved to a different SafePlug receptacle within the controlled area, the software finds the lamp and turns it off at the assigned time. This type of system intelligence takes away the complexity. Accurate use becomes simple.

    I believe that we are still in the infancy of the home automation and energy management technology. We need to continue inventing tools like SafePlug to flush away the obstacles while keeping the energy savings, fire and shock safety, and security features.

Leave a Reply