Creating a Safer Home with the Internet of Things

Creating a Safer Home with the Internet of Things

This piece was originally published in the May 2016 issue of ei, the magazine of the electroindustry.

By Steve Montgomery, Chief Operating Officer of 2D2C, Inc, and Chairman, NEMA Internet of Things Council

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The Internet of Things (IoT) is a development of the worldwide web in which everyday objects have network connectivity, allowing them to send and receive data. The IoT becomes a network of devices, vehicles, buildings, and even people embedded with electronics, software, sensors/actuators, and network connectivity to enable these objects to collect and exchange data.

Each thing is uniquely identifiable through its embedded computing system and interoperable within the existing internet infrastructure. The IoT is expected to expand to 30 billion objects by 2020. For homes, smart systems can deliver significant benefits, including improved security, safety, convenience, efficiency, and financial savings.

Connecting Home to Health

For security, a connected system can detect and prevent break-ins by simulating occupancy with pre-programmed or random light-switching sequences or sounds, such as a simulated barking dog that moves from room to room when the system detects motion on the property. A plug-load controller can even detect when an expensive appliance is unplugged and report it to the owner through the internet.

Networked receptacles and circuit breakers can provide accurate electrical fault coverage and predict—and prevent—fires. Monitoring furnace fan motor and pool pump current can detect clogged filters to help keep air and water quality high.

This same network can prevent fires and shocks, monitor health, provide early warnings, deliver better and faster healthcare (especially in remote areas), monitor family activities when homeowners are away, and monitor senior relatives for health emergencies. In all these areas, the IoT can predict problems, rather than just detect them.

By monitoring and logging health indicators such as blood pressure and quality, heart rate, sleep patterns, and diet, major health degradation can be predicted to enable prevention. Monitoring can reveal aberrations from normal behavior of senior evening activities such as TV viewing, night-time activities such as lights, and morning activities such as using a coffeemaker.

Efficiency

In many cases, a smart residential system can pay for itself. A homeowner can save money on insurance premiums for homes equipped with water-leak detection, fire prevention, and unattended stove shut-off systems. Home energy management can minimize energy consumption by appliances and environmental control systems by adjusting or shutting them off when not needed. Owners of rental properties can remotely give door access to new tenants and automatically turn off air conditioning, entertainment systems, and spa pumps.

The IoT can extend the life of appliances through power quality monitoring and protection. For example, it can use lightning forecasts to switch off power feeds to appliances before electrical surges cause damage. Modern home systems can control lights, shut off appliances, set music, or even do research by cellphone apps, from an internet browser, or by voice commands.

Networked light switches and receptacles enable remote control of lights in a dark house. Excess current in appliance motors can indicate bad motor bearings while they are still repairable. Appliances can be scheduled to shorten the time needed to get ready for work or to prepare a meal. Smart appliances or smart receptacles can provide predictive maintenance and energy comparisons of fan motors, pumps, white appliances, and home theatre systems, and they can even estimate the payback from purchasing new energy-efficient appliances.

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Balancing Efficiency with Practicality

Some manufacturers are embedding internet connectivity into high-end models of white appliances to achieve some of these benefits. Smart devices may consume more energy to operate because of the communication port. Since networked models cost substantially more than traditional ones, and considering the extraordinarily low-cost design requirements of smaller appliances, we may never see smart controls on desk lamps, portable kitchen appliances, space heaters, or electric tools.

The connected approach has risks. Cloud data storage and communication portals depend on the reliability of the internet connection. In some locations, the internet may be getting faster but less reliable due to cost-cutting measures such as wireless line sharing. A connected system should store decision criteria and load control schedules in a gateway inside the home and should have alternative communication access to the internet.

Network access security is important too. Quick smart product development requirements often sideline system security and longevity issues. For example, if you use the same network for your personal computing and your automated monitoring and control system, then a hacker can potentially gather passwords to your bank accounts by sneaking onto your network. Some smart home area networks, such as ZigBee’s Smart Energy Profile, use military-grade encryption and will only allow communication between pre-registered network node addresses to create high security.

Trading Benefits and Weaknesses

Sensors provide data about motion, occupancy, glass breakage, door and window openings, water leaks, light intensity, temperature, energy consumption, camera, and even appliance plug insertion or removal. Controllers turn power on and off or adjust settings on appliances, furnaces, air conditioners, space heaters, fans, pool pumps, water heaters, lighting, home theatres, music, motorized blinds, door locks, and plug loads.

To be deemed intelligent, an appliance’s sensors and controllers should use internet protocol communication. Most computers use internet protocol version 4 (IPv4), but IPv4 has run out of addresses. Its 32-bit address field only allowed four billion nodes. The new IPv6 uses 128 bit addressing, which can support many more addresses (1038, or more than a billion times a billion times a billion more addresses than IPv4). Ethernet and ZigBee now support IPv6.

Most smart home systems currently connect to the internet through an existing Ethernet network and a router. Nevertheless, inside the home, the system may use many different communication hardware and protocols, including WiFi, ZigBee, Zwave, Bluetooth Low Energy, EnOcean, RFID, Near Field Communication, and proprietary communications. These different sub-networks each trade off benefits versus weaknesses, such as low energy in exchange for low bandwidth.

The best intelligent home systems choose the best communication method for each application.

Mr. Montgomery dedicates much of his work to improving electrical safety and has helped write several electrical safety standards for UL and CSA, serves on the Canadian Board of Directors for the International Association of Electrical Inspectors, and was one of the inventors of Out-of-Parameter Circuit Interrupters.

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