Is Home Automation Key to a Low Carbon Lifestyle?

August 5, 2008

Home automation systems (such as Colorado vNet and Control4) are becoming a necessary amenity in any high-end home, but are they also a new tool in our fight to reduce energy use and global warming? After all, these systems are designed so that you can control your high-end AV components, home security system, lighting and HVAC from one device (or via the web from somewhere else), so why not add energy conservation to the mix, right?

The idea is that these high tech systems will minimize or eliminate the wasted energy from lights left on by accident, vampire loads from home equipment in the “off” state, thermostats set too high or low for usage patterns or climate conditions, etc – the automation systems themselves will set things right even if you forget. We’ve certainly written about how important it is to kill of these wasteful elements, but are they big enough to warrant buying one of these systems just to reduce them?

There are some reasons to be skeptical. Above all, they’re expensive. The New York Times, in an article on these systems, said:

“Good home automation networks, which run all of the electronic and technologic gizmos in a home, have traditionally cost more than $30,000. Now, thanks in part to companies like Control4 and Colorado vNet, these systems can be had for as little as $5,000, says Sam Lucero, an ABI analyst.”

I don’t know about you, but to me $5,000 is quite a bit of money. You could argue that the electrical controls are only a small portion of the functionality and thus the effective investment is much less than $5K, but that’s not really true. You HAVE to install most of the components of such systems to get the energy-saving functionality to work (the central controller, a new thermostat, and special switches / outlets (costing $75+) at EVERY outlet of switch that is to be controlled), so you don’t really have an option of buying a $500 energy-only module.

In researching this post, I found quotes for $1,400 for a three-switch / one-outlet package ($350 per end use) and $3,600 for a ten-switch / one-outlet package ($330 per end use). At these prices, you’d have to save around 330 kilowatt-hours a year for each switch or outlet for the system to pay for itself in less than ten years. Just for comparison, that means if you had a 100-watt bulb on that circuit you’d have to SAVE 10 hrs of use every day of the year – impossible unless you regularly leave your lights on 24/7. Ouch! Why not get motion-sensing or timed switches and outlets for less than $50 apiece?

Also, these systems only really measure your electricity use, and in most homes electricity is less than 50% of the overall energy use and carbon footprint – the balance comes from other fuels used for heating, hot water and appliances such as heating oil, natural gas and propane.

Last, what about the many other simpler ways to save energy? We’ve cut our energy bills by 50% by installing LED and fluorescent lighting, buying energy-efficient appliances, improving insulation and using low-flow water fixtures (and we’ve spent far less than $2,500 so far). This quote also comes from the NY Times piece:

“Even energy-conscious people can go only so far in managing their home energy use. Sure, we can fiddle with our thermostats, shun incandescent light bulbs and bring in Energy Star appliances. Watching that new L.C.D. TV, however, might wipe out all those gains. But we just don’t know.”

Actually, we do know. If you’re serious about understanding and reducing your energy use, you can easily get 40-50% savings using pretty inexpensive techniques and gadgets. Unless you live in a 500 square foot apartment, a new LCD TV is not going to undo your energy conservation efforts!

So, don’t wait until you can afford a home automation system or solar panels to begin lowering your impact (although if our utilities ever kick in with rebates that make smart metering systems much more affordable, jump on them!). And don’t throw in the towel if you happen to have one or more large TVs. Install some fluorescent light bulbs and a programmable thermostat, and seal up leaks and cracks. Buy those low-flow water fixtures and replace dead appliances with high-efficiency Energy Star versions. Use light-sensing, power-sensing or timer-based switches or outlets. And measure it all using one of these simple devices. You’ll be amazed at the savings.

On the other hand, if you want to stream John Coltrane throughout your house but Jack Johnson out by the pool, and if you want to turn your lights on and open the garage door when you’re still five minutes from home, then by all means invest in home automation! And please invite us over to enjoy it …