How to keep your home energy efficient and well connected into the future
Make your home smarter by preparing for flexible demand power plans and looking for Matter-certified devices.
When you set out to modernise your property, you should do everything you can to keep up with the inevitable march of technology. Here are two ways to futureproof your smart home.
Our first tip is to take advantage of the coming revolution in time-conditional electricity management. Our second is to look out for smart devices that’ll work together seamlessly under the Matter badge.
Get ready for ‘flexible demand’ electricity
A smart home that’s been well set up can communicate with both the products in your home and the electricity grid itself. When combined with a time-conditional power plan (one with cheaper tariffs during hours of lower national demand), a smart home presents a unique opportunity to cut your power bills and reduce pressure on the grid.
The Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority (EECA) is excited about the promise of this technology. According to EECA technical lead Brian Fitzgerald, homeowners and tenants with smart homes will only draw the electricity they need, and at the best available price.
“Your electricity bills can be lowered by running your appliances more efficiently and shifting your energy use to periods of least-cost electricity.”
Smart devices are also capable of ‘learning’ when they tend to be used and saving energy outside those periods.
“Using a smart thermostat on your hot water system, for example, will map household patterns and respond to periods of low demand – like when householders are at work or at school,” Fitzgerald said.
An extra benefit is that, if enough households switch to smart homes, it’ll aid Aotearoa’s transition to renewable energy. Currently, about 10% of electricity used is generated from fossil fuels, which are more likely to be burned when demand is highest. By spreading power use more evenly throughout the day, we can reduce peaks so non-renewables are required less often.
Crucially, not every product sold as a smart home device will be capable of this kind of energy management. Manufacturers and retailers usually call anything with WiFi or Bluetooth connectivity ‘smart’, while EECA specifically defines ‘smart home’ through an energy lens.
There are, however, ways to hook any appliance into the system. The simplest option is to buy smart plugs that manage usage at the wall. Another is to get an electrician to install a home energy management system to link your appliances together into a network.
Fitzgerald says tenants and landlords can get in on smart homes too.
“Any home can be smart, regardless of whether you rent or own. The set-up largely focuses on technology, rather than the building.”
He’s also keen to point out that taking advantage of smart homes won’t require upgrading all your stuff.
“The transition to smart appliances has quietly been under way for some time, and you might be surprised by the capability of things you already own – like the majority of heat pumps purchased in the last decade.”
Suppliers will flick the switch later this year
The big caveat is that New Zealand consumers can’t make the most of their smart homes just yet, because electricity suppliers don’t yet offer flexible demand to residential customers.
However, the service has begun rolling out to businesses, and Fitzgerald expects it to become available to households in 2023.
All suppliers will use the same protocols for communicating with your smart home, making it easy to switch between providers. The advantages of flexible demand will be compounded if you have additional electric infrastructure at your house, such as solar panels or an electric vehicle.
In the meantime, here are the best steps you can take to reduce your bills and prepare for the future.
- Add a smart thermostat to your hot water cylinder. In future, these will likely replace the ‘ripple control’ method your lines company currently uses to regulate demand. For now, a thermostat can map your usage to decide when it’s safe to turn your cylinder down or off.
- Connect your heat pump to WiFi. Most units installed since 2010 are already ‘smart’ to some degree. If yours isn’t, the supplier may be able to modify it with a new part, or you could use an after-market WiFi controller.
- Retrofit other appliances using smart plugs. These nifty gizmos can make any plug-in product ‘smart’ by letting you control the energy that gets through. The best part is that they’re affordable, starting at about $25.
- Swap to a time-conditional power plan. Even without flexible demand electricity, many households can take advantage of off-peak discounts. Think about switching if you have someone at home during the day, or you often stay up late into the night. Not every retailer offers these plans, but Powerswitch can help you to find a good one.
When you buy new products, look for a Matter sticker
Imagine you’ve assembled a houseful of great connected devices over years of shopping – lights, thermostats, locks, appliances, speakers – but they don’t work with one another. They’re all from different brands, so they have separate apps and run in separate ecosystems. It’s hard to take full advantage of their connected functionality.
Matter aims to change all that. It’s a standard that carries the lofty goal of allowing all smart home devices to operate in tandem. Any two products that comply with Matter will connect and work together, regardless of brand.
Its beauty lies in consumers being free to choose the best products based on their needs and budget, rather than being constrained by what will be compatible with their existing products.
Matter is published by the Connectivity Standards Alliance (CSA), a consortium of tech companies including the owners of all the major smart home ecosystems – Amazon, Google, Apple and Samsung. Matter is also backed by hundreds of manufacturers, including Belkin, Haier, LG and Tesla.
Matter 1.0 launched in late 2022 with support for a few key product types such as smart plugs, light bulbs, door locks and heat pump controllers, as well as smart TVs and streaming boxes.
Every six months the CSA will update Matter to cover new device types, including home appliances, smart speakers and security cameras.
Matter runs on two wireless protocols – WiFi for streaming video and other high-bandwidth applications, and a low-power network called Thread for everything else.
To control your Matter devices, you can either use a dedicated device such as a Google Nest or Amazon Echo speaker, or an app on your smartphone.
A Matter network operates locally, cutting out the step of processing each request in the cloud. That means your devices will keep working when the internet goes down, and should also improve overall speed.
Despite its backing from all the VIPs in the smart home arena, there’s no guarantee that Matter will be successful in the market. Don’t immediately replace every device in your home with its Matter-friendly equivalent. But if you need to buy a product anyway, there’s certainly no harm in choosing one with “Matter certified” on the box.
More tips for building or renovating
There are plenty of other ways to future-proof your smart home while it’s being built or upgraded.
- Wire up as many rooms as possible. A smart home works best with a lot of wires carrying a lot of information. When you’re building a new home, you can futureproof it by filling the walls with extra cables such as fibreoptic lines. If you can, hook up every room in the house – you never know where you might want improved speeds in the future.
- Use a mesh WiFi system. Good WiFi coverage is essential for a functional smart home. Traditional WiFi routers have a single point of transmission, with pockets of strong and weak signal as you move through the house. In contrast, mesh systems have several access points spread throughout the home, to eliminate dead zones. Also make sure your system supports WiFi 6, the newest (and fastest) standard.
- Cut energy use in other ways. While you’re renovating, it’s a good time to swap old light bulbs for LEDs and either insulate your hot water cylinder or replace it if it’s very old. These one-time jobs can save a lot of electricity over time. While you’re at it, check Powerswitch to see if there’s a cheaper plan available.