FutureStructure

What Might a Smart Home Look Like?

The Detroit-based NextHome has built a prototype smart home that generates its own energy and distributes the power to interconnected devices.

by Frank Witsil, Detroit Free Press / October 26, 2015

(TNS) -- Jim Saber stood in the space between the kitchen and living room and cradled a computer tablet that showed how everything using power in the 399-square-foot residence was interconnected.

Americans have been imagining what the home of the future looks like for decades, exploring how they will look and work, and building exhibits for World's Fairs and theme parks.

But here in this small house, sitting on the NextEnergy campus in Detroit, Saber and others are focused on energy — its generation, storage, management, current conversion and conservation.

They're looking for ways to save energy and money, such as converting household electricity so it can be more easily stored in special batteries, or maximizing the efficiency of rooftop solar panels, or using your plug-in electric vehicle to help power your home.

"It's a compilation of things that could be in your house in the next 5 to 10 years," Saber said. "These are the things that are going to be in the market, and we're trying to help industry figure out how quickly they can get there and ... the value proposition."

Saber, NextEnergy's vice president of business and technology development, has been developing and then giving tours of the home — dubbed the NextHome — to various groups for two years as scientists and entrepreneurs test ideas and tinker with products, many of them with a Michigan connection, in it that they hope to become ubiquitous in homes throughout the nation.

NextEnergy, a nonprofit organization founded in 2002, works with companies and policy makers to study, develop and commercialize advanced technology to create jobs and spur innovation.

The house — which is about a fifth the size of the average-size home and cost about $125,000 to build and outfit — is hardly glamorous. It's more like a cabin, with essentially two rooms -- a living room/dining room/kitchen, and a bedroom/office — and a tiny bathroom.

No one lives in it. But someone could.

It's part lab, part exhibit and shows what is possible.

"It's not as far away as we think, and it's not going to be as complicated as we think," Saber said of the various technologies on display. At the same time, he said, there has to be changes in the industry and in consumer behaviors: "If this were easy, it already would have been done by now."

Here are five technologies you'll find in the NextHome:

DC connected

This technology is the biggest innovation for the home, and a key to the future of how homes are built and operate in the future.

To understand it, you have to go back to the 1880s when Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla were debating whether direct current — current that runs in a single direction — or alternating current — current that reverses direction a certain number of times per second —- should be the standard.

Edison argued for DC, which tends to be more stable and can be stored in batteries; and Tesla, AC, which is more easily converted to higher and lower voltages.

AC won.

But many devices such as computers, solar cells and electric vehicles still run on DC. So now, in most homes power comes into the home as AC, but is converted to DC (this is why computer power cords have that block connected to it that often gets hot) to power each device.

With each conversion, energy is wasted. Another problem is that AC power is difficult to store.

What if, Saber's team wanted to know, AC was converted just once before it came into your house, so everything in the home was run by DC power?

Homeowners could save energy — and money — and they could store energy for the home in a battery.

Let your plug-in car power your home

Right now, when you charge an electric car, the power flows from the house to the car. It's a one-way street.

But, in the NextHome — since the house runs on DC — it has been set up so energy also can flow from a car back to the home. Doing so helps homeowners conserve power, makes better uses of the car batteries — and opens a variety of possibilities in how homeowners manage power and how cars and homes connect.

So, for example, when demand on grid power is highest — and most expensive — in this home, you can power your home from the energy stored in the home or car batteries. When the power demand is lower — and less expensive — you can recharge your car, saving money and putting less pressure on the grid.

Roof-top solar cells

Solar cells are not new technology.

But one of the problems with it is while homeowners need power at all hours, solar cells only generate electricity when the sun is out.

To get around this, many homes with solar cells sell energy to the utility company grid — which has much greater demand than a single home. When power is not being generated by the solar cells, the homeowner draws power from the grid.

In addition, power generated by the cells is in DC, but has to be converted to AC to power the home, and then is converted back to DC to run electronic devices such as a computer.

In this home, solar cells power the home directly with DC and can be stored in a Bosch energy unit, or battery. This eliminates wasted energy and hardware needed to convert currents. It also gives homeowners a way to use power generated in electric car batteries in their homes.

Internet of things

The Internet of Things refers to a network in your home of devices embedded with microchips that can communicate, collect data and make money and energy-saving decisions, such as cycling your heat pump or refrigerator on and off.

As the devices in your home collect data about usage patterns, they can be programmed to automate decisions.

In the NextHome, sensors are constantly operating, and feeding information into a network that can be programmed with the tablet. It helps manage energy and make decisions.

Saber expects this sort of automation, which is already happening in some homes, to continue to advance.

Energy-efficient systems

The NextHome is outfitted with DC appliances, which operate more efficiently compared to AC counterparts, including the furnace, water heater and radiant heating. In addition, if produced on a large scale, they'd be cheaper to manufacture because they'd require fewer parts.

The home has ceiling fans to help with cooling and heating. The floor heating can be powered directly by solar cells and a home battery.

In addition, the home has super efficient windows, that self-tint as the sun gets brighter — to help cut cooling costs.

And it uses low-energy LED lights that last longer and run off DC power, which eliminates the AC/DC conversion waste.

What's plugged in?

Here's a snapshot of the average household in Michigan, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration:

  • Size: 1,954 square feet, a little smaller than the national average of 1,971 square feet.
  • Energy usage: 123 million BTUs of energy, about 38% more than the national average.
  • Windows: 70% have double or triple-pane windows, 2% more than the national average.
  • Car: Half of all households could park a car within 20 feet of an electric outlet, 40% could not, and the remaining households did not have a car.
  • Refrigeration: 23% have more than one refrigerator, 37% also had a separate freezer.
  • Washing machines: 69% have top-loaders, 12% have energy-efficient front loaders, 18% have no washer.
  • TVs: 19% of households had just one, 35% have two, 24% had three, and 22% had four or more. In addition, 41% also have a DVR.
  • Solar cells: Utility companies estimate only a few thousand homes are outfitted with solar panels.

Where does your money go?

Here's a breakdown of the for an average household nationally, according to Energy Star:

  • Heating: 29%
  • Cooling: 17%
  • Water heater: 14%
  • Appliances: 13%
  • Lighting: 12%
  • Electronics: 4%
  • Other: 11%

How much do you spend?

Here's how much Michiganders spend on energy per person compiled by the Energy department:

  • Residential cost: $875
  • Transportation cost: $1,974
  • Combined cost: $2,849

©2015 the Detroit Free Press Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.