02-11 integrated smart home

[Image above] Credit: Gerd Altmann, Pixabay

For the vast majority of us, our smartphones are a nearly indispensable part of our lives, allowing us to carry out most all aspects of our daily activities. Yet the Apple iPhone, perhaps one of the most notable examples of such multifaceted and multifunctional devices, did not debut unto the world until 2007.

My, how far we’ve come.

That’s thanks in part to rapid technological advances and penetration into the consumer market—as well as the role of ceramic and glass materials in nearly all aspects of smartphones, including the device themselves, their manufacturing, and their actual functionality.

“The past 10 years have witnessed a revolution in mobile communication that has swept us from the cellphone era into the amazing smartphone age,” Kyocera spokesperson Jay Scovie says in an interview published in the December 2018 ACerS Bulletin feature article. “But without advanced ceramics and high-tech glass, this revolution would never have happened.” 

Advanced ceramics and high-tech glass are not limited to smartphones, of course—so could a similar rapid technological evolution be on the verge in yet another aspect of our daily lives?

The annual Consumer Electronics Show, held in Las Vegas every January, is a forum for the debut of scores of new innovations in electronics, tech, gadgets, and more. The show debuts everything from the mundane to the innovative, profound, weird, wacky, and even completely unnecessary—and it’s the perfect place to track trending technologies and electronics evolutions.

There are many gadget highlights from the most recent CES 2020, including speakers with curved display screens, watches with optical blood oxygen sensorsAI-powered prosthetics, and foldable phones. But a prevalent theme at CES in recent years is further upgrades, new iterations, and continued integrations of smart tech for the home.

According to McKinsey & Company, the United States market for connected homes grew at a rather rapid compound annual growth rate of 31% since 2015. Homes now can have light switches controlled by voice commands, video doorbells that allow you to interact with someone on your doorstep even when you’re not home, and vast devices—from washers and dryers to toilets and trash cans—that are Bluetooth connected and wifi-enabled. And much, much more.

One of the most successful penetrations of these smart home technologies to date is that related to energy management. After all, residential and commercial buildings account for 40% of total energy use in the U.S. In my own abode, my furnace is equipped with a smart thermostat that not only allows me to control my home’s temperature via a control pad, app, or voice commands, but it also learns my daily habits and detects when my house is occupied or empty to maximize its energy efficiency.

And if CES is any preview (which, of course, it completely is), smart home energy management may soon be gaining the ability to graduate to advanced classes. For instance, Schneider Energy debuted its solution to makeover power management in buildings at CES 2020 with its Energy Center control panel, a modern, smart, and integrated upgrade of the fuse box.

According to a TechCrunch article, “The new product is part of a broader range of Square D home energy management devices that Schneider is aiming at homeowners. The company provides a broad suite of energy management services and technologies to commercial, industrial and residential customers, but is making a more concerted effort into the U.S. residential market beginning in 2020.” 

Although the available details are vague, the idea is to give consumers a better way to manage and control their electricity use. Data from Statista shows that energy management is a particular segment of the market that is increasing its penetration into smart homes, predicted to almost double from 23.5 million homes in 2020 to 45.1 million homes in 2024.

Schneider is not the first company to target energy management—Leviton already offers smart circuit breakers to provide granular energy usage data. And startup Span previously released its plan to upgrade the residential fuse box with solutions to better integrate and manage alternative energy sources in residential homes, such as electricity generated from rooftop-installed solar panels, which represent a growing sector of the residential energy market.

However, such technologies are the forefront, so most solutions to integrate smart and connected home tech cannot yet do so with these energy management solutions, “likely due to the fact that none of the major smart home services are designed to handle anything this complex,” according to an article on The Verge.

Offering a way to better integrate and manage more diverse energy sources seems poised to be the next chapter in smart homes, and a step toward not just integration but true home automation—allowing our buildings to work even more efficiently for us without requiring human commands and interventions.

This step is an important point and the next chapter for all types of “smart” devices in our lives and on display at CES 2020—much of what we think of as “smart” isn’t really smart but rather connected.

These devices are equipped with Bluetooth and have the capability to connect to the internet, but most still require considerable user input for their functionality. To be smart, devices must be more insightful, “with technology automatically learning patterns within a home to find and suggest ways to control devices and ultimately save energy,” according to that Smart Electric Power Alliance article.

This is what my smart thermostat attempts to do, and new developments like smart fuse boxes and circuit breakers will provide the data for this concept to progress even further.

The Smart Electric Power Alliance article continues: “Imagine a future where home energy management is fully automated and optimized—taking care of everything from adjusting the load of a house amid fluctuating temperatures and peak demand prices, to preventing a pipe from bursting and causing severe water damage as temperatures fall below freezing. Autonomous home energy management could fundamentally alter the way utilities manage the grid by creating a coordinated network between the smart grid and smart home.” 

That’s an exciting possibility for residential consumers, but it also undoubtedly means opportunity for ceramic and glass materials as well—because just like the smartphone market, the residential housing market is inexorably linked to ceramic and glass materials.

“As the complexity of these systems increases, so does the methodology, the science, the innovation—all that is able to come into these systems more and more,” Eastman Chemical Co.’s Julia Schimmelpenningh says in the December 2019 ACerS Bulletin feature article about homes. “So the opportunities for innovation increase with the complexity.” 

And luckily for the ceramic and glass industries, innovation is something these materials are quite good at.