Twitter Helps My “Smart Home” Reduce Energy Usage and Trim Electricity Bills by One-Third
by Andy Stanford-Clark
The science of how things work has fascinated me for as long as I can remember. As a young lad, I developed a way for my Mum to dry her washing outside without it getting wet when it rained. I set up a simple buzzer that would go off when a sensor detected falling rain. When Mum heard the signal, it was time to grab the laundry off the line.
Today I’m still trying to “connect the dots” of how my family and I can pursue a lifestyle that reduces our use of natural resources.
Using the same “messaging” software I work on with my development team at IBM’s software lab in Hursley, UK, I’ve made my 16th Century cottage on the Isle of Wight into a modern-day “smart home,” so I know exactly how much electricity and water I’m using, and when I’m using them.
While some might scoff at this, having this knowledge has enabled my family to reduce our personal carbon footprint and slash energy bills by one-third.
Here’s how it works: About a dozen wireless sensors are hooked up to the electricity and water systems and other things in the house. The sensors collect information, which is fed into an analytics system that makes “intelligent” decisions based upon that information. The updates are distributed to a display in my house, and as a stream of messages on Twitter, the social networking communications tool, which I can watch on the web, or on my mobile.
The “tweets,” or brief status messages, talk about how much electricity or water is being used, or even if a mouse has been caught in a trap in the attic. I can see unusual activity: if I’ve left on a heater, my home “talks to me,” via Twitter, and I can go find what’s causing the spike in electricity use.
The information on display has become part of the home’s ambient background, like having a light on in the kitchen. You know it’s there: but unless the light starts flickering, you don’t pay much attention to it. Unless my home “tweets” me that something unusual is happening, such as a window left open on a cold day, the messages blend into the household’s background.
Feeling good about helping the environment can be contagious. What if all of us got involved? According to the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change, 47 percent of the country’s carbon emissions come from the way the nation generates heat. The DECC has set a goal of having “smart meters” in all homes in the UK by 2020 to monitor gas and electricity usage.
If you don’t want to wait until 2020, you don’t need a Ph.D. to install and use the relatively inexpensive gadgets available to monitor your energy use and to begin conserving energy immediately.
Sometimes what we do for ourselves can benefit many others.
Like many commuters, I want to spend the least amount of time on my commute.
Strong winds or fog can delay the ferries running between my home on the Isle of Wight and my workplace near Winchester.
By tapping into data available online about the location of the Red Jet ferries, I began timing my arrival at the dock to when a ferry would actually leave. I began sharing this information via Twitter to other passengers. To its credit, the Red Funnel line saw the value in this information, and now the company provides a constant stream of information about the ferry schedule to their passengers who follow the company on Twitter. This is not ferry personnel posting the information to Twitter manually, it’s a tweetject (an object that twitters!). That’s a tricky idea for some people, but it’s at the core of building a smarter planet.
These are examples of how all of us have the ability to make our entire planet “smarter.” We just need to use sensors that operate individually to instrument the world around us, link together the information streams the sensors provide in a network, and then apply intelligence in the form of an analytics system that can recommend appropriate actions.
I look at my “smart home” and use of social networking tools for commuting as steps that I can take as an individual.
If enough of us take steps at the micro level, momentum will build. Smarter buidlings are coming as we think about structures differently: seeing homes not just as living spaces, but as living systems; seeing offices not just as static structures where work is done, but as manifestations of all the ways the world works.