Houses are getting smarter — more energy-efficient, more connected and with better control for their residents. Soon, those trends could start showing up in apartments, too.
The idea behind IOTAS, an Oregon-based startup, is to bring the smart home concept to renters.
“If you look at early adopters of new technology, they’re not living in single-family homes,” said IOTAS co-founder Sce Pike. “They’re renting.”
To make the transition as smooth as possible for the tenant, IOTAS’s strategy is to come into the apartment before the renter moves in and install its tech everywhere — smart electrical outlets, motion sensors, light switches, etc.
“They move into the home and everything just works for them,” Pike said.
The utility of the system can be explained in a few different ways, but Pike boils it down to a thesis statement based on customer experience.
“A quick summary is that it allows [tenants] to be more efficient and it makes the home an ally,” she said.
The tenants get an app on their phones they can use to program their apartment. The system comes with 10 pre-programmed rules, or “stories,” as Pike calls them, that link together common functions like turning things on and off based on time of day and user behavior. By using the “if this then that” concept, users can write their own stories and have their apartment meet their unique needs given certain triggers.
An easy example is a tenant, running a little late to work, trying to quickly leave her apartment. Instead of running from room to room turning things off, or leaving them on for the day, she hits the light switch by the front door and it turns off all the lights in the apartment. Or, based on her stories, it might also turn off the heating and other devices she left on.
But it does more than that. It can start a sound machine as somebody is going to sleep, or turn lights on and off as the tenant moves from room to room, for example.
Plus, it can learn.
“If they always turn on the light at 7 a.m. and the radio as well, then we’ll say, ‘Hey, do you want us to add that to your good morning story, yes or no?’ And if they say yes, then we’ll start offering up more stories for them based on their routine and behavior, and if they say no, then we’ll roll it back a little,” she said.
There could be other possibilities in the future. Since the system gets to know the typical behaviors of tenants, it might one day be able to determine if there’s an intruder in the apartment — something it doesn’t do now.
The information from the system can also be useful to building owners or managers. They can get aggregated, anonymized information about tenant activity to see, for example, when most people are typically home. That might be the best time to plan a social function like a cookout.
Or a building owner could see when most people are out for the day.
“Maybe that’s the best time to schedule a fire alarm check,” Pike said.
It also allows for easy access to energy use statistics and tends to lower electricity demand overall because the system shuts off items when not in use. Pike said that so far, the system has appeared to cut power usage by about 15 percent.
Studies have shown that when buildings’ energy usage data is accessible, those buildings tend to use less electricity, and have lower vacancy rates and higher rents.
IOTAS has tested out its technology at the Grant Park Village Apartments in Portland, and has now outfitted a handful of units at The Fillmore Center apartments in San Francisco as well. Pike said the company plans to expand to San Diego “soon,” with a Denver project on next year’s calendar. IOTAS is also looking at Miami, Chicago and New York for possible expansions.
The Portland pilot taught the company a few valuable lessons about setting up learning apartments, Pike said. A big one was that America’s infrastructure is not yet readily equipped to handle clusters of devices all trying to connect at once.
The typical IOTAS apartment has about 40 sensors in it, she said. Getting all of those sensors connected and working together takes a lot of pairing and provisioning.
“So we do have a patent on something that will allow us to do mass scaling of IoT solutions in the multi-family home space,” Pike said.
Eventually, she said, it would be nice to make it so that renters moving from one apartment to another can have their new pad “recognize” them upon move-in and greet them with rules carried over from the previous dwelling.
“The notion of a home being applied to a physical space is something we’d like to change,” Pike said, adding that the system appeared to be popular among residents, and that at least one moved to an IOTAS-equipped apartment from an unequipped one. And during beta testing, the system ran into a few problems. Rikki Teeters, who helped test IOTAS in her apartment at Grant Park Village Apartments for about six months, said that instead of making things easier as Pike hoped, it made certain things more complicated. The system was slow at times and did things she didn’t want it to.
“It made simple things like getting up to go to the bathroom at night very frustrating,” Teeters wrote in an email to Government Technology. “I would get up and my lights would all come on.”
The technology was also a little intrusive, she said, because tweaks to the system involved IOTAS employees coming over to work with the devices, and because those devices were pervasive.
“The system needs to be seamless. The sensors need to be small enough to hide,” wrote Teeters, herself a user experience designer. “The ones in my apartment were large and easily noticeable.”
She did, however, find the company itself pleasant to work with and said they were attentive to her feedback. She spoke with leaders at IOTAS, as well as its sister company Citizen, about her issues, and said everybody was kind and helpful.
“They want to make IOTAS a helpful and useful system that can help people's lives,” she wrote. “I am confident that this system will continue to improve, and eventually it would be something I would want in my home.”
Ben Miller is the business beat staff writer for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.