The Coolest Smart Home Innovations In 2017

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There's an abundance of amazing home smart tech hitting the market. From Samsung's Family Hub 2.0 fridge to the Amazon Alexa and Google Home (hopefully) finally hitting our shores. But there's more to smart homes than gadgets.

Let's take a look at how home automation and new tech like Tesla battery storage, smart thermostats, grid credits and smart meters are revolutionising our power consumption. Which also has a positive impact on both the environment and our bank accounts.

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Smart Meters

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Approximately 70% of Australian homes and businesses utilise accumulation meters. They're outdated for a number of reasons - they can only be read manually from the premises, don't permit tariffs which can reward customer's for using less energy during peak times, and the only record the total electricity consumed since the last meter reading, which is usually three months.

The next step up are interval meters, which offer low level of use outside of large commercial and industrial consumption. They can also record consumption at half hour intervals, permit tariffs and can be read both manually and remotely.

The most modern offering in this space are smart meters, which are currently only significantly rolled out in Victoria and installed in limited numbers elsewhere. In fact, in 2006 the Victorian Government mandated smart meters for all households and small businesses across Victoria. Controversial and challenging at the time, the rollout of 2.8 million smart meters was completed in 2014. Outside Victoria all households and small businesses are scheduled to have their meters upgraded to smart meters over time.

In addition to having all of the capabilities of interval meters, smart meters also have remote energisation, de-energisation and appliance control. They can also link with household devices through a Home Area Network (HAN) and In Home display (IHD), which give customers instant access to their electricity usage.

Smart meters also improve network performance, the reliability of the supply and allow fault identification and network load management.

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Battery Storage

Image: Tesla

An estimated 15% of Australian households are currently using solar energy to power their homes. In addition to using sustainable energy, it also results in lower electricity bills.

But relying on solar panels alone is a wasted opportunity and isn't as beneficial or efficient as it could be. Excess sun-generated power can’t be utilised at night and can only feed back into the grid during the day - which is not always when it is needed most.

This is where home battery storage solutions come in. Excess solar-generated electricity can be stored to use in the evening, so you don’t have to tap into the grid when the powercan be at its most expensive. Alternatively, you can sell back excess power to the grid during these peak periods, that you can shave off your bill.

This also means that during the case of a blackout, you could still have power for a few hours. Joint CSIRO and Energy Networks Australian estimates analysis forecasts that grid operators could buy grid support from Australian households with yearly payments worth $1.1 billion within 10 years.

Batteries work by taking the electricity generated by the panels, which is a direct current (DC) and then converting it with an inverter it to alternating current (AC), which is the kind of electricity we use in our homes.

Battery storage can also be beneficial for people without solar panels. When connecting it to the grid, you can choose to store energy from it that has been collected during off-peak times, which costs less. And there will be a range of services in the future, like Powerledger in Western Australia, that let you buy excess solar straight from your neighbour.

The most high profile home battery is the Tesla Powerwall - the second generation of which will be rolling out in Australia from May 2017. At the time of writing, the cost of a 14 kwh Powerwall 2, as well as the supporting hardware hits around the $10,000 mark.

One Powerwall 2 system could be enough to support the basic needs of a three bedroom house. If you want to connect all of your devices, or if your home is bigger, you may need to get a second Powerwall. If you're unsure on what your households needs are, there is a calculator on the Tesla website.

If this is outside your price range, or you just want to shop around a bit, there are Australian-based competitors:

  • Magellan Power's HESS was one of the earliest Powerwall rivals, offering 9.9 kWh and 13.8 kWh capacity solutions back when Tesla only had 7 KwH. It continues to dominate on the capacity front, with 3.2 kWh -19.2 kWh options.
  • Redflow offers a point of difference with its Zcell battery. It claims the zinc-bromine system is safer than its lithium-ion competitors - there is no damage risk involved when it is fully discharged and the enclosure is designed to aid functionality. As an added bonus, Zcells are crafted from recycled materials. Slightly smaller than the Powerwall, these runs at 10 kWh.
  • Enphase offers one of the lowest upfront and running costs for battery storage. This may be because of its small capacity - just 1.2 kWh. One advantage here is that installing additional units will be more cost effective than adding a second Powerwall for example. But this kind of modular system may not be sustainable enough for a large household.
  • If you are looking for a healthy medium capacity unit, the LG Chem Resu has a 6.4 kWH offering, but you're looking at similar costs as a Powerwall.

What ever path you take, both for solar and batteries, make sure your installer is properly accredited so that you can be sure you are protected now and in the future.

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Grid Credits

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As discussed above, when you store excess power in a battery, you can sell it back to the grid. But this isn't always as lucrative as it may seem. For many solar users, their extra power is fed back into the grid during as soon as it's collected - when the sun is out.

The problem with this is that this is often in the middle of the day when demand is generally lower and so are the subsequent fiscal kickbacks.

Solar company Reposit Power is combating this issue with their GridCredits system. It allows their customers to store their excess energy and then sell it back to the grid when they can get the best price. Each GridCredit equates to a dollar off your power bill.

This is universally beneficial - people get the optimal price for their collected power, and the strain on grid is lessened. Reposit even has an app so you can keep an eye on your power consumption and GridCredits earned in real time.

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Smart Thermostats

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We're all familiar with thermostats - they regulate the temperature in a space for optimal comfort. Smart thermostats do this in more convenient and energy efficient ways over WiFi.

There are three primary smart thermostat types currently on the market:

  • Algorithm

    These allow you to set basic parameters to fit around your presence and schedule. The coolest part is that over time they can learn your patterns and schedule and adapt to any changes. For example, it may notice that you don't pass by one of its sensors at the same time every day - so it will auto adjust itself rather than wait for a manual change.

    The most well known smart thermostat is made by Nest - the home gadget company that was bought out by Google in 2014 for US$.3.2 billion. The sheer innovation behind their smart thermostat, as well as their other devices, is unsurprising if you consider that one of the founders is Apple alumnus Tony Fadell, who played a large role in the invention of the iPod. Fadell has now left the Nest, but his imprint remains.

    The 3rd generation Nest will also change with the seasons and can program a schedule itself after you use it for a week. This level of comfort may sound costly, but Nest has estimated that since 2011, its thermostats have saved 8 billion kWh of energy worldwide and that it has saved people roughly 10-12% on heating and 15% on cooling bills.

  • Remote Sensor

    As the name suggests, these rely on motion and proximity sensors in order to change modes and regulate temperatures within your home.

    Ecobee is a popular choice and arguably the closest rival to Nest. And its next generation may up the ante again. The Ecobee4 is rumoured to have built-in Amazon Alexa capabilities, whereas the Ecobee3 just had native integration.

    It may not be the first smart thermostat to incorporate voice integration - Honeywell introduced this to the market back in 2013 - but it may just be a game changer, giving Alexa a more prominent position in temperature-related home automation, rather than relying on third party hardware and ITTT.

  • Geofencing

    These rely on the geofencing feature on your phone to determine when you're home. You can set a range between 500 feet and 7 miles, which will trigger the thermostat to enter Away Mode once you're outside the radius. Once you enter into it again it will go into Home Mode, so the temperature is perfect when you walk in the door.

    This could of course be problematic and result in wasted energy and money if you have several family members with geofencing turned on -- or if you happen to go within the radius during work hours. But if this system does sound good to you, I have some bad news. The primary geofencing units are producedtheHoneywell Lyric and Lyric T5, which aren't currently available in Australia.

    Interestingly, the latest Nest Thermostat has also integrated a geofencing feature - if it detects that you're not home, it goes into Eco Temperature mode.

The biggest problem that we face here in Australia is that none of these systems are available here yet. But we are starting to catch up in the meantime. One of the most impressive systems, which was featured recently at the Sydney Home Show, was Advantage Air's MyAir System.

It utilises house zoning, allowing family members to set their individual comfort levels, as well as motion sensors to adjust the temperature when you're not around. Even just one degree difference can save energy usage in that area up to 20%.

The system also comes with a dedicated tablet to control the temperature from, and you can even download your other home automation apps onto it. You can also control the system remotely from your phone.

Telstra also has the Zen Smart Thermostat, which is part of the Telstra Smart Home product range. It's sleek and like Advantage Air, works with a wide range of heating and cooling systems. But it really is an entry level solution that feels like a placeholder until the higher end systems finally get introduced to Australia.

Home Automation

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Until the last few years, home smart tech has worked quite independently. Smart gadgets, solar systems, lighting and air conditioning are all great, but integration is the logical next step. Having all of your devices connected isn't only convenient, it can also save you cash in the long run.

Similar to home batteries working with the grid during periods of high and low demand, integrated home automation is also about timing. Connected smart appliances will be able to talk to each other in order to run at optimal times that minimises cost.

For example, it might determine the best time to use the solar power stored in your battery, and sequence it for when you use your dryer and your dishwasher, rather than running both at once.

Of course, not everybody has the means to completely rewire and kit out their homes with smart technology. And you don't have to. There are simpler home automation solutions that you can get right now, such as retrofitting your traditional air conditioner with smart thermostat you can control remotely with your phone.

Telstra Smart Home is a good place to start for entry level automation. One of its product offerings is an Automation and Energy Starter Kit that contains a Smart Home Hub, 2 door and window sensor, a wide beam motion sensor and 2 smart power plugs. Basically everything you need to get started with using home automation to save money. The sensors can be utilised to turn both lights and air conditioning off when you're no around and the smart plugs can be controlled remotely if you accidentally leave something on.

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Belkin's WeMo setup is similar - it also has a wide range of smart plugs, light bulbs, motion sensors and cameras that can be controlled from the WeMo app.

For tinkerers who want to personally take home automation to the next level, they also have the WeMo Maker - allowing control over almost any low voltage (24v at 1 amp or 24 watts max), DC electronic via your home WiFi. WeMo is designed to work with IFTTT so you can create automation rules and schedules for your connected devices. For example, you could program your sprinkler to turn on at 5pm everyday, unless the weather forecast shows that its raining.

Samsung's SmartThings setup is a little more fleshed out and allows an impressive range of third party smart tech to be connected via its hub.

Sadly, this isn't available in Australia yet, and we don't recommend trying to import it or non-Australian smart devices in the meantime.

The reason for this is that US and UK smart devices run on different z-wave (the wireless communication protocol used for automation) frequencies to Australian products. In fact, they're illegal due to the potential for infrastructure disruptor, as well as possible interference with your personal devices. Don't risk it.

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