Smart plugs will ease risk of blackouts from power surges
What if your home were smart? If it knew what room temperature you liked to wake up to, which lights you dimmed when you watched television, and told you how much power you consumed every day?
Technology has permeated our lives via our smartphones, but the buildings we inhabit still feel like relics from a pre-internet age.
At the Electronics Laboratory at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL), we are developing cost-effective and easy-to-implement technological solutions to make existing buildings smarter, making them both more comfortable and more energy efficient. And with renewable energy on the rise, smart buildings may soon become a necessity.
Compared with the latest generation of mobile phones, today's buildings are hardly smart. Appliances have to be manually switched on or off, and only a few have some form of rudimentary control to optimise their use.
Heating and air-conditioning systems at least are usually linked to a thermostat, to achieve an optimal temperature and avoid wasteful overheating or undercooling. Still, given the technological resources at hand, there is a lot of room for progress.
Our vision of smart buildings goes far beyond simply automating repetitive processes (such as switching lights on and off at particular times every day).
First, smart buildings should increase the user's comfort by ensuring that lighting, air quality, heating, and other factors are monitored and controlled in each room according to the time of day, whether the room is occupied, and how hot it is outside. Second, they should reduce wasteful consumption by finely controlling the use of appliances and services such as heating and air-conditioning.
But the most important consequences of smart buildings are not the most visible ones. With the rise of renewables, in particular solar power, buildings are no longer just consumers of power - they are producers, too.
This calls for a new type of "smart" power grid, capable of juggling diverse power sources that fluctuate with the weather.
With less predictable power sources to fall back on, power surges - due, for example, to switching on many appliances at the same time - can destabilise the entire power grid to the point of triggering a blackout.
One way to keep the strain on the grid to a minimum is by automatically switching off certain appliances, such as the AC or the fridge, for long enough to reduce the peak in power demand, but briefly enough for it to go unnoticed by the occupants.
Real-time monitoring and control of power consumption in smart buildings therefore becomes a prerequisite for their integration into smart power grids.
Rather than focusing on designing new buildings, where smart functionality is fully integrated from day one, students from EPFL Middle East are working with me to develop minimally invasive ways of retrofitting smart features into existing buildings.
Our approach is based on a new generation of affordable, zero-power sensors we have developed, which act as the building's nervous system.
These sensors measure environmental data in real time and transmit it wirelessly to a central computer, which controls appliances throughout the building via the power lines in the wall.
Our technology hinges on eSMART, an easy-to-install smart plug that fits discreetly between each appliance's power plug and the socket.
The building's brain is a computer that studies and then predicts the occupant's habits, processes the input from the sensors, and optimises the allocation of resources to maximize comfort.
It avoids imposing a rigid schedule on to the building's occupants - they remain in charge when it comes to fine-tuning the light intensity, room temperature and other variables to suit their personal needs.
At EPFL, we are set to test our solution on an extensive office and research building at the EPFL campus in Switzerland, for one- tenth of the price of competing solutions.
The experience we gain over the coming two years, setting it up and inhabiting it, will feed into its development and give us an opportunity to make sure that we, the users, stay in charge. Because in the end, we want to make our buildings smart, not stubborn.
Prof Maher Kayal is director of the electronics laboratory at EPFL in Lausanne, Switzerland, and director of the EPFL Middle East masters programme in energy management and sustainability
Updated: May 12, 2013 04:00 AM