Thursday, December 2, 2021

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Tech Talk

Halve heating bills with smart houses


If you’ve lived in Iowa for at least one winter, you’re probably well-trained on what the end of the calendar means: Persistent frigid temperatures are coming with mountains of snow. After a day or two of complaining, most Iowans accept this seasonal norm and go about their wintery lives — until the heating bill arrives. From November to March, eyes across the state bulge in their sockets at their winter heating bill. Just as most everyone forgets how to drive in the snow, we also forget how pricey it is to heat a freezing Midwestern home. The good news is those annual heating bill freak outs may soon become extinct as smart houses learn how to minimize our energy usage and lower the price of keeping us warm in winter. tech 1.7

In an increasingly digital world, thermostats are some of the most analog technology we use. While homeowners have been able to program specific temperatures to corresponding periods of the day for years, the general mechanics of thermostats have been the same for generations. A “modern” thermostat detects the temperature of a room, and if the temperature falls or rises to a predesignated point, it will kick on a furnace or air conditioning to regulate the climate. This would work great if it weren’t for the fact that placing a thermostat too close to a fireplace, the kitchen, near a vent, against an exterior wall or by a window can cause it to respond improperly and perform poorly. After all, they’re basically just thermometers on a wall with a baked in boolean test (i.e., if this happens, respond as such).

Smart houses make programmable thermostats look like clock radios. Tools such the Nest Thermometer, the Quirky Aros air conditioner and Leviton Humidity sensor go beyond programmable windows of “on/off.” These devices learn your habits and self-program responses to how the user would react to a cool or hot house, when to activate in time for an occupant’s return from work and even at what point to turn to activate or deactivate a bathroom fan due to humidity or odor.

This behavior learning technology is becoming available for practically every appliance in your house. Not only will your coffee pot learn what time you like to pour a cup of coffee in the morning and your dryer know when to de-wrinkle your pants for work, they are starting to learn to communicate with each other about their actions and modify responses based on outside stimuli.

For some, this might sound like the first step to an eventual war with sentient machines, but in reality it’s actually the most intelligent integration of our tools and the personal data we generate about our habits. These devices and capabilities are all part of the burgeoning “Internet of things,” whereby devices use web-available information and user-generated data to build a profile of how all electronics can work in harmony. The end result is lower electricity and gas bills, comfortably living to your personal desires, by connecting all the disparate information systems we interact with on a daily basis.

Of course, there are systems that already offer smartphone integration so users can access their heating and security systems while away, but the Internet will make those options nearly irrelevant. Instead of firing up an application to tell your house to warm up, a smart house will know its owner is headed up and have the preferred climate ready the moment he or she steps in the door. If this is the silver bullet for winter heating bills, we can only hope self-driving cars will do the same for winter driving. CV

Patrick Boberg is a central Iowa creative media specialist. Follow him on Twitter @PatBoBomb.

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