The connected home: how technology is making our fridges, heating and washing machines smarter

Smart technology has already given us new ways to control our heating, with Hive and Nest. Michael Nutley looks at what else the internet of things will mean for our homes

The internet-connected fridge that automatically orders more milk when you run out has been a staple of future-gazing for so long that it’s become a cliché. But while we’ve been waiting for the computer-chipped milk cartons required to make such a fridge viable, a number of other devices have appeared on the market attempting to solve more complex and – possibly – more significant domestic problems.

Most of these products are part of what is known as the ‘connected home’. They offer smart ways to control your heating, lighting and security.

Much media attention has focused on the smart thermostat and smoke alarm produced by US company Nest, perhaps less because of the devices themselves and more because Google paid $3.2bn for the company back in January.

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You can programme your lights to give the impression there’s someone at home when you’re out

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The facts that the company was started by the former Apple exec behind the iPhone, and that its products share Apple’s emphasis on design, have helped Nest’s profile.

In addition, recently launched in the UK are Hive Active Heating, from British Gas, and the Tado smart thermostat from Germany.

Using your phone to manage your home’s heating

Smart thermostats won’t present a challenge to anyone who has used the Sky+ app. Instead of allowing you to programme your TV remotely using your mobile phone, they allow you to programme your boiler so that your heating and hot water come on when you want them to, that day, rather than being stuck with the same programme every day.

They can also track how your use of your heating changes and alter the schedule accordingly. They can monitor how long your house takes to heat up or cool down, and ensure that it reaches the temperature you want at the time you set. Some even can work out when you’ve left the house and turn the heating off for you.

These smart thermostats are available through energy suppliers (Hive from British Gas, Nest via nPower) and as standalone products from electrical suppliers, including online, and from the manufacturers’ websites.

The Nest smart thermostat costs £249 including installation from the Nest website, but can be found for £179. The Hive equivalent costs £199 for the hardware, app and installation.

Different temperatures in different rooms

More sophisticated – and more expensive – systems such as Heat Genius and HeatMiser apply the same principle as smart thermostats, but allow you to set different temperatures for different parts of your house, in the same way as those thermostatic radiator valves you installed allowed you to have rooms at different temperatures, rather than relying on the one thermostat you had before.

Indeed, these systems work by linking smart radiator valves with a control hub, a hot water controller and sensors for the zones you want to create. A four-zone Heat Genius system will cost £799, and installation is £79.

Nest also makes a smart smoke and carbon monoxide detector. It can sense where the problem is and how serious it is, and warn you accordingly. It can also alert you via your phone if there’s a problem while you’re away from home. If you’ve got the Nest smart thermostat too, the detector will automatically turn off your boiler if it detected carbon monoxide.

Home security in the smart house

Security is another big area for connected home applications. Alarms, motion sensors and cameras can be monitored remotely, allowing you to see what’s going on in and around your house via your smartphone. You can also programme your lights to give the impression there’s someone at home when you’re out.

BT and Philips are among the big players in this space, but the smart plugs that can form part of the Heat Genius system can also be programmed to control lights.

For householders, the advantages of all this kit are increased convenience, peace of mind and, in the case of the heating controllers, reduced energy costs.

Use of our smart house data

But the real driving forces of the connected house boom are at the back-end of the installations. The principles of smart heating and lighting can be applied to bigger systems, such as the National Grid, making them more efficient. More importantly, all these devices collect and store data; data which can then be made available for other purposes.

As with much of the data that is being collected, and which is slowly being made available to software developers, it’s hard to know to what use data from smart homes will be put. Such data mash-ups rely on the creativity of the developers to spot opportunities to combine several sources of data to create useful information.

But it’s easy to imagine, for example, an app that links heating data with types of houses to show prospective buyers how much, on average, their new home should cost to heat.

Questions of data use of this sort can lead to privacy concerns, and certainly companies like Nest, which has developed an interface to allow other organisations to make use of anonymised versions of its data, have set out strict rules about how the data from their devices can be used, and by whom.

Imagining the connected house of the future

In the near future there’s likely to be a rush of products introducing smart functionality into household devices. Big names such as Apple and have announced their intention to get into the connected home market, while at the other end of the scale start-ups are looking at the same opportunities.

The real value of the connected home will be seen as more and more devices can be connected to the same network, and as more and more objects start to have computing power built in.

Some of the things that will become possible, such as the connected fridge, or the washing machine which senses from the clothes it’s washing which programme to use, will arrive as a result of innovation in other areas. In these two cases it will be because having computer chips in clothes or food packaging will help retailers with stock control.

Other innovations will be less important on a domestic scale. Misha Gopaul, founder of emerging business technology consultancy Workplace Fabric, says that using location technology to help you find your car keys in the morning is trivial, particularly as car keys themselves are on the way out. Using it to find the nearest defibrillator in a hospital, however, could save lives.

From smart house to smarter world

But what definitely will happen is that the world around us will continue to get smarter. Sensors at road junctions in Tokyo are already programmed to recognise the sound of a car crash and can re-route traffic when one occurs, for example.

It’s not quite 20 years since the internet stepped out of academia and started to become part of everyday life, and life has changed in dramatic and unpredictable ways since then. The era of smart objects, of the internet of things, has barely begun. And right now we can’t even imagine most of the changes it will bring.