Smart appliances have been a long-promised feature of the "home of the future," held up as a way for homeowners to program their home's systems to operate automatically—with dinner ready the moment you arrive home, laundry done only during the most inexpensive operating times, and computers and TVs in sleep mode whenever not in use. The reality of smart appliances is different from this ideal, but major advances have been made both in terms of how smart appliances can communicate with other systems and devices in the home, and how they send and receive information to the electrical grid and power companies.
Housing: What the Future Holds
Flash forward 50 years: The “millennial generation” is reaching retirement age (which is now 78, thanks to ever-increasing life expectancy). That’s right, they are the mature members of society, no doubt complaining about the slacker youth of the day and living in a technologically advanced world we can only imagine. As we begin coverage of the HGTV Smart Home 2014 construction project, let’s take a look at how our children, grandchildren and great grandchildren will live.
Let’s start with the big picture: What neighborhoods will look like. “Over the past 50 years, the biggest trend has been out of compact urban dwellings into sprawling suburban ones,” says Roger Platt, senior vice president at the US Green Building Council. “Over the next 50, the opposite is likely going to happen.” People will want a walkable lifestyle with an urban cool vibe. That means parks, bodegas and entertainment venues nearby and — thanks to population growth — extremely compact houses with multifunction rooms; for example, a single space might triple as living room, dining room and kitchen.
Rising water levels and massive coastal storms may change our methods of building along the shore, says architect Maureen Guttman of the Alliance to Save Energy. Instead of buttressing homes on ever higher, deeper and beefier pilings in the sand, she envisions houses being built on floating barges that can simply be relocated out of harm’s way when hurricanes or nor’easters approach.
Forget 2x4s and wallboard, the house of the future may be built of a material that’s something like concrete but could be manufactured on site using a giant 3D computer printer, says physicist Max Sherman, who leads the Energy Performance in Buildings Group at the Lawrence Berkley National Laboratory. He predicts that this substance will be able to literally change itself from a super-insulating and draft-blocking barrier one minute into a breathable and free-flowing one the next, all depending on the conditions inside and outside.
Heating and Cooling
Thanks to this efficient building material, houses may need only tiny heating systems. Just a bit of added warmth will maintain comfortable indoor temperatures. Large-scale cooling, on the other hand, will still be needed because on hot days, no amount of insulation will keep the ambient temperature down. But air conditioners and even geothermal heat pumps will be things of the past. Physicist Max Sherman predicts that both cooling and heating will be provided by the walls themselves — possibly that newfangled concrete-like material or the paint on its surface — which will contain electronic devices that simply warm or cool on demand, in much the same way that an LED (light emitting diode) bulb produces illumination today.
The roofs and exterior walls of houses will also double as solar energy collectors, using far more effective technologies than today’s photovoltaic cells. “The solar energy that hits the earth in one hour is enough to power all of humanity's energy needs for a year,” says Mark LaLiberte of Construction Instruction, a building efficiency and technology consultancy. “We just don’t know how best to capture it yet.” In the world’s increasingly urban settings 50 years from now, houses will likely be interconnected in “micro-grids” so that those that get the most sun, and therefore create more power than they need, will help to supply nearby units that can’t generate all of their own power. New technologies — and global food shortages — may also make backyard and rooftop gardening feasible as a significant food source for feeding the family, though busy homeowners will likely hire help to tend their mini-farms.
Bob Martin, director of industrial design at Electrolux Major Appliance, predicts the end of dishwashers. “New surface technologies will mean dishes and cookware hardly need any cleaning at all,” he says. Meanwhile, tiny robots could keep houses clean, not by randomly circling the floors to vacuum and mop, but by identifying the moment soil appears on any surface of the house and dispatching a team of smartphone-sized machines to clean it. Rather than a gas or electric cooktop, kitchen countertops themselves may heat pots on command, using induction technology that boils water in seconds yet won’t cause a burn when touched. Ovens will cook to perfect doneness automatically without probe thermometers or human intervention.
Many major manufacturers have begun offering smart appliances in recent years, with varying degrees of success. Two major factors influence the effectiveness of any particularly smart appliance. First, the homeowner must be able to configure the home's computer network to communicate with the smart appliance—likely including setup to connect the appliance to the home's wireless network, and the use of a mobile device as a "controller" for the appliance. Secondly, in order for a smart device to communicate with the power company, the home must be located in an area where smart grid technology has been deployed—this enables the power company to send information to individual homes and receive information back from those homes. This information enables the power company to determine a home's usage patterns and recommend steps homeowners can take to reduce consumption and save energy and money.
One of the chief benefits of the latest smart appliances is the ability for the homeowner to remotely program the appliance to operate on a consistent schedule. For example, washing machines can be set to operate in the middle of the night during the summer, when the electrical grid is the least stressed. Additionally, appliances may be able to provide important information to the homeowner about energy usage during peaks times, as well as things like maintenance requirements or the need for more supplies or certain grocery items—there are refrigerators that can now tell you if you need milk, based on when you purchased your last gallon, for example. For appliances that are part of a larger network, manufacturers have begun to roll out smart devices that can communicate inside the network—ovens and microwaves that communicate with each other and start cooking meals at the same time are now available.
The bells and whistles offered by smart appliances may be convenient and impressive, but for many homeowners the greatest benefit of these devices will be cost and energy savings. To fully realize the benefits of smart appliance usage patterns, these appliances need to be part of a sophisticated smart grid that can provide information to consumers about their energy usage, and to power companies about those usage patterns. The smart grid infrastructure is in various stages of development throughout the world, so if you're contemplating smart appliances, it's important to check with your municipality to determine whether your home is smart grid eligible.
See Also: How to Plan a Home Control System
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