Central Heating - is the future smart?

Is it time to smarten up the humble central heating in our homes and use the technology available to reduce the energy we need to stay warm?

Central Heating - is the future smart?

The humble domestic central heating system has hardly changed since my earliest recollections of the coal fired boiler I grew up with in the 70s. The basic system is still a boiler heating water which is sent to radiators (normally located under a window) and controlled by a master thermostat (normally located in the cold hallway). In 40 odd years nothing much has happened. 

Yes we now have condensing boilers which are much more efficient and thermostatic radiator valves (TRV) but most homes still have the master thermostat in the hall and the system is still quite rigid (read “dumb”) in operation. The controller I have on my current system allows me to turn the heating (and hot water) on and off twice during the day at the same times each and every day. I know there are some controllers that allow you to adjust the times for weekends but fundamentally it is still a rigid (dumb) operation.

We've all seen the “Hive” advert about “controlling your heating from your phone” and this got me thinking about my heating system. Can I make it more “user friendly” and “user controllable”? Can it be more flexible and more efficient? Hive got me looking into “smart” heating (I would like to note at this point that other “smart” systems are available eg Nest, Honeywell, Home Wizard/Smartwares). 

What do I mean by “smart”? I'm not talking about the full on automated systems that use the interweb, geolocation and other fancy stuff but systems that use modern technology to give the end user a more programmable, flexible system utilising sensors, switches and other devices that communicate to each other through some form of central control hub. Initially my research was based on finding a programmable, digital TRV that could be controlled manually by a remote control. This way I could programme the TRV in a guest bedroom but allow guests to manually adjust the temperature if they needed simply by using the remote. Easy you'd think but blimey it's taken some digging to find anything!

This has lead me into the world of digital control systems and the minefield of protocols, algae rhythms and even to Raspberry Pi's. The up shot of all this is though that I have found a system that could give me much better control of my central heating system for as little as £1000. I'm looking at a central hub, digital programmable TRVs, digital room thermostats and possibly an external temperature sensor. All this works off the Z-Wave protocol which means I can add other devices should I wish to and I am not limited to one particular company. 

If you believe the blurb, which I tend to take with a huge pinch of salt, just this simple change could save a potential 30% on my heating costs!! I'm going to be happy if we save 10% per year as that is 300 litres of heating oil (at 50p/litre = £150 plus associated reduction in emissions). This without any “smart” control on the 300 litre hot water tank (which accounts for about 35%-40% of my heating oil).

Before anyone says it, yes I have insulated my home fully (270-300mm in the roof), have lagged the pipes and the tank is fully insulated.

Given something like 60% of domestic energy demand is for staying warm it makes me ask the questions “why aren't these kinds of systems being promoted more?” Why, indeed, aren't new homes being built with programmable, smart, central heating? Why are we still putting the master thermostat in the hallway and radiators under windows? Perhaps the building industry can enlighten us. At circa £1000 for a 4 bed house it's not a huge expense and if it makes the end product a little more sellable (better EPC rating perhaps??) that's got to be a plus to a developer. If, as a nation, we can reduce our energy demand by as little as 10% by installing “smart” systems that would make a massive difference to our wallets as well as to our desire to reduce emissions. 

Add in commercial properties, some of which are horrendously wasteful of energy, and the cumulative reduction could be much higher. Think of all those lights left on all night for instance or my solicitors who use electric panel heating to try to stay warm in their office. Smart systems could save energy and money by automatically turning lights off, using location transponders so systems know when security guards are patrolling so turning lights on only when needed, keeping heating on low overnight then turning it up at 08:00 so the office is warm or using motion sensors adjusting the temperature based on if the office is occupied or not.

Regulations are changing so that energy efficiency of domestic and commercial properties has to improve. It will soon be illegal to rent both a private or commercial property that does not meet a minimum EPC rating. This has got to be good for both the people renting as it will save them money but also our energy demand. Smart systems could be an inexpensive, simple way to meet this goal.

I'd also like to open this up to the manufacturers of “smart” control units and ask why they can't come together and work to a common protocol. In the marine industry everyone works to a single communications protocol (NMEA2000) so it is eminently possible. Also what they are doing to improve reliability of some products? I've read many reviews where people have complained of TRVs failing after 6 months! At £30 to £60 a TRV one expects more than 6 months before failure. Are there any new products in development that might make home heating even “smarter” or efficient?

I hope to be purchasing and installing my new “smart” control system soon and am looking forward to a lively discussion on this topic.


Topics: Energy efficiency & low-carbon
Tags: coal | Communications | Energy Efficiency | heating water | technology | water
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