You don’t need to be all that old to remember when getting off the couch and walking across the living room to change TV channels was one of life’s small ways of forcing us to take more exercise.
Flicking the buttons on the front of the set now seems positively quaint. The fact is, however, that for most people the TV remote handset, along with its cousins controlling the DVD and the set-top box, remains the apex of ‘smart home’ technology.
Smart home systems, or integrated home automation, will generally provoke two reactions. One is that smart homes are very much for the future rather than the here and now, along the lines of ‘we’ll all be living like that in 30 years’ time’ — an opinion that, interestingly, has been around since the 1970s. The second sees smart home technology as the preserve of the rich, the lifestyle option of a Premier League footballer or City banker with the odd £25,000 to burn.
Hugh Whalley of Siemens spends a lot of time attacking these preconceptions with a missionary’s zeal. That is because Whalley, as business manager for Siemens Smart Home Technology, is at the forefront of the German engineering giant’s ambitious plans to put home automation firmly in the UK mainstream. ‘This is not about toys for the boys,’ said Whalley. ‘At the top end of the market there might be justification for seeing it like that, but we’re interested in making this technology available to all types of households — executives, ordinary families, disabled and elderly people.’
This technology goes way beyond the TV remote. Applications include the ability to programme your home’s lights and curtains to carry on as normal when you are away, dial-in options to control functions such as central heating while out of the house, lighting control throughout a building and central locking of all doors and windows at the flick of a switch.
Purchasers of redeveloped luxury apartments within a huge former textile mill in Linthwaite, near Huddersfield, will be given the opportunity to buy into the home of the future. Lowry Renaissance, which is carrying out the conversion of Titanic Mill, is giving homebuyers the options of having Siemens Smart Home Technology installed.
Some of Siemens’ early UK installations of smart home systems seem to conform to the image of exclusivity and bespoke luxury. For example, a 1910 Dutch barge moored in Chelsea has been turned into a floating showcase for the technology.
However, Whalley can also point to an increasing number of ordinary family houses — built by mainstream developers such as Bellway Homes with selling prices from £150,000 — that are being fitted with the same capabilities.
Siemens is currently talking to an unnamed major developer about making the technology optional in a 10,000-home development. Whalley puts the cost of smart-enabling a typical three or four-bedroomed house at around £2,500, with the work carried out by one of the group’s third-party installation partners. Specific applications can then be bought in as required.
This move into the mass market of new-build homes is crucial to Siemens’ business plans, and the current highly publicised travails of the housing market could actually help its ambitions, Whalley believes. ‘Five years ago the residential market wasn’t enormously receptive,’ he said. ‘But we are reaching the point where every developer wants to talk about technology as a means of adding value to the homes they are putting on the market. ‘When the market is flat it tends to work in our favour because they are looking for differentiators, and technology is an attractive option in that respect.’
Siemens is also convinced that the demographic shift towards an ageing population will make smart home systems an imperative rather than a luxury in the not too distant future. The well-documented need to keep more elderly and infirm people in their own homes or be overwhelmed by sheer numbers will, said Whalley, move this type of technology up the agenda.
The network that can provide a state-of-the-art entertainment system for a footballer could, given the right third-party development, just as easily support an array of assistive devices for those with special domestic needs. ‘The whole area of medical care is one we know the government is keen to look at,’ said Whalley.
Then there is the area of domestic heating. Intelligent heating control of the type that is well established in many commercial premises can, according to Whalley, lead to huge savings in energy in our homes. ‘The basic domestic central heating system has been unchanged for so many years,’ he said. ‘In most cases it’s still about the single thermostat, often in a completely inappropriate part of the house, controlling the whole building.’
Involving energy utilities in the development of smart homes could also bring added benefits in terms of more accurate meter readings without the need to enter the home. Whalley hopes the government will eventually support the green credentials of the technology by considering tax breaks for new-build homes equipped with the systems.
Siemens’ confidence that smart home technology’s time has come is reflected in the considerable effort the multinational is putting into the sector. The German group can approach the new market from two directions. First, it is a major provider of automation and control technology to industry and the commercial buildings sector — Whalley’s UK Smart Homes division sits inside Siemens UK’s Automation & Drives division based in Manchester. Globally, the company is also a significant player in the domestic appliance market with an established white goods operation, opening the way for a union of the two areas inside the home.
The heart of Siemens smart home technology is a high-capacity Instabus network consisting of a 24v measurement and control cable running parallel to the standard domestic power supply. The network allows devices to be linked via a common protocol called EIB, a Europe-wide standard that allows various manufacturers to design devices that can communicate with the base system.
The smart home network is controlled by a programmable distribution board linking individual bus lines and infrared controllers. Interfaces for new devices snap on to a rail on the distribution board with no wiring needed.
Future developments likely for EIB include integration with a DECT phone system, widening the number of systems and devices that can be controlled from a single handset.
There are also moves to introduce EIB-enabled devices, allowing domestic appliances from the likes of Siemens to connect to the network.
Having the technology available is, as Whalley admitted, of no particular use if the people using it every day in their homes find it intrusive or a cause for concern. But the technology is designed to be low-key, controlled by wall-mounted plates or remote handsets that can carry out operations pre-configured to the users’ preferences.
Even so, it can take some getting used to. ‘Take the ability to central lock all the doors and windows in a house,’ said Whalley. ‘People are used to the idea of central locking their car and the added security benefits it brings. But when it comes to their homes, there is an initial instinctive desire to go round and check that the back door really is locked.
But, exactly as with their cars, people get used to the idea that it just works and they don’t need to worry.’