Smart living room
Credit: iStock

The connected home is becoming a reality

by Bryan Borzykowski

Greg Stanway has always considered himself a bit of a technology geek, so when he heard that he could buy a security system with automated door locks and lights–both of which could be turned on and off via a control panel in his room–he knew he had to have it.

As cool as it was, it was also incredibly convenient. As soon as he’d approach his house his doors would unlock and he could shut off his lights without leaving his bedroom.

Stanway bought the system a decade ago, long before smartphones controlled thermostats and smoke alarms, but he knew back then that, one day, we’d all be using automated devices in our homes. “These may have been gimmicky at first, but I got used to them really fast,” says BC Hydro’s manager of customer service.

“Technology is supposed to make your life easier and more convenient and this did exactly that. I knew it would catch on.”

Now, millions of people have those same locks and lights that he has, but they also own much more than that. Televisions, doorbells, fridges and even baby cradles can now connect to the Internet. Stanway has window blinds, a thermostat, cameras and a washing machine that can be controlled with his smartphone. His sound system, his favorite “smart” device, automatically turns speakers on and off depending on what room he’s in.

While he was an early adopter of smart devices, the connected home is quickly becoming commonplace. According to consulting firm PwC, the connected home market could be worth $190 billion by 2020, while a 2015 survey conducted by Primus and Ryerson University found that 63% of Canadians will adopt a connected device within five years.

The connected home, once a Jetsons-like fantasy, has finally arrived, says Mike Agerbo, a Vancouver-based tech expert and host of GetConnected, a tech-focused television and radio show. “It’s real and it’s finally happening,” he says. “These devices are becoming easier to use, especially now that everyone has smartphones.”

More Affordable
While it’s true that smartphones are making it easier to control these devices and ease-of-use is helping with adoption, the main reasons as to why more people are now using connected devices is that they’re relatively cheap and consumers better understand their value.

When this kind of technology first came into being it was manufacturing plants, hospitals and other large entities that were the earliest adopters. They realized how the Internet of Things (IoT), the term given to machines that can communicate with other machines through Internet-enabled sensors, was able to save them money and time.

Modern hospitals, for instance, have sensors on beds that can detect when a patient is getting up, which then makes it easier for nurses and doctors to know if someone needs help. Manufacturers with sensor-enabled equipment can tell in real time when a machine might break down or when a material or chemical is about to be depleted.

Corporate demand has caused billions of dollars to be invested in IoT-related research and development. That’s helped everyone innovate and, ultimately, bring costs down, says Jamie Sawchuk, the B.C. lead on Deloitte’s innovation, disruption and exponential technologies council.

“All of a sudden things that used to cost thousands and millions of dollars cost hundreds of dollars,” he says. “We’re going to see billions of IoT devices and that’s helping attract investment and drive down the cost of innovation.”

While people can get connected devices for under $100, some of the more robust gadgets cost more. The Nest Thermostat will run Canadians about $329. Still, people are buying, in part because they understand the value of owning one.

Nest’s thermostat, for example, allows people to control the temperature of their homes from their smartphones. It also learns patterns. In the winter when you leave the house it automatically reduces the temperature in your home. Before you arrive at home, the temperature rises to where it was before.

As neat as that is, it’s not just a party trick–turning off the heat or the air conditioner when no one’s home uses less energy and it can save people money over the long-term. According to Nest, consumers save between 10% and 12% on their heating bills.

There’s also something to be said about feeling safer in your home. While a price tag can’t be put on peace of mind, more people see the value in having automated locks, lights and cameras in the house. In fact, security is a big reason why the industry is seeing more adoption.

According to the Smart Home Report from iControl Networks, a connected home technology company that surveyed Canadians and Americans, 71% of people want doors that can be locked remotely, while 65% want cameras that can be monitored on a smartphone. Connected thermostats do lead the pack with 72% saying that they want one.

Stanway is a big believer in both security and cost savings. His smart security system makes him feel safer, he says, and his thermostat and window blinds–they go down in the summer when he’s not at home, keeping the house cool–have lowered his bills. He’s not heating his house as much as he otherwise would. “I’m using a lot less energy,” he says.

Life automaticiStockGet Smart

Those looking to create a connected home might want to start with lighting, which is one of the hottest-selling products at Best Buy, says Zayn Jaffer, the company’s director of emerging business. These lights, which can be turned on and off with a smartphone app, can help people save money on their energy bills, increase security–lights can go on even when the house is empty–and with the ability to set moods or even change colours, it’s fun, too.

He’s also seeing growing demand for smart locks, motion detectors, cameras and other security devices, while thermostats, smart fans, connected vents and other energy-saving tools are picking up steam as well, says Jaffer. Even smart gardening equipment, such as plant pots that tell you when to water your flowers, are starting to sell.

While Best Buy is seeing sales of smart devices increase across the country, Jaffer does say that B.C. is one of the fastest-growing markets.

“People are buying everything,” he says. “They understand what’s happening in the market and many live in rural areas where they can really benefit from these devices. They’ve realized that things like security and lighting will make their lives easier.”

When deciding what to buy, ask yourself a few questions first, says Agerbo. “How is this device helping me? Is it making me happier? Will it give me peace of mind? Is there a security aspect?”

If you can say yes to at least some of these questions, then it may be worth the investment.

Life automaticiStock

A More Connected Future
As quickly as the connected home industry is growing, Agerbo thinks we’re still about five to 10 years away before everyone has a house full of smart gadgets. Many people still need to get comfortable with having so much technology at home, while some of the technology itself needs to mature.

For instance, many users would like to see one app that can control everything instead of having to use a different app for each product. Apple has already taken steps to unify smart devices through its HomeKit app. With the recent launch of iOS 10, functionality is now built into HomeKit’s control panel, giving consumers more ways to control smart-home gadgets no matter who makes them.

More things need to be connected before the promise of the smart home can truly be fulfilled. A fridge, for instance, might one day be able to tell that there’s no milk on the shelf and then order a new container on its own. The store would then drop it off. It’s an exciting idea, says Agerbo, but for that to happen homes and businesses alike need to become smarter.

You have to be connected to the supermarket chain and a lot of standards have to come into play,” he says.

All of this will work itself out, he says, but in the meantime more and more smart devices will come to market. The next big thing? Voice-activated controls, he says. Amazon already has its Echo device, which lets users turn on music, lights and even get weather updates just by asking. Apple’s HomeKit, which includes locks, shades, plugs, lighting and more, allows you to control numerous devices just by talking to Siri. “Some of these things are still in the early adopter stage, but we’re going to learn how to better interact with them,” he says.

If anyone’s excited about the future of the connected home it’s Stanway, who plans to keep buying more products. He’d love it if his fridge would order groceries on its own–“that would save me an enormous amount of time,” he says–but he’ll try anything that makes life more convenient.

“It’s about trying to do things that make your life easier,” he says. “Anything that saves time is attractive.”

Make the Switch

Use task lighting. Turn off the ceiling lights and use table lamps, track lighting and under-counter lights in work and hobby areas as well as kitchens. These small changes can save you $6 a year.

We don't know when you're home

Cyber lockiStock

While there has been no widespread news about smart-home devices being hacked you may still have concerns about the security of those devices. The good news is that BC Hydro’s digital meters don’t provide us, or anybody, with information about whether you’re home or what appliance you are using. The meters provide you with data about your whole home electricity use, daily or right down to the hour, that you can access securely online. Real-time data is not available unless you opt to access it on an approved home energy monitor in your home or on your mobile device. BC Hydro doesn’t see that information.

Powered up for the future

Hydro linesBC HydroDespite British Columbia’s size, it’s still hard to imagine driving 18,000 kilometres around the province. That vast distance would take you from Vancouver to the Yukon border and back nine times. It’s also equivalent to the kilometres of high-voltage power lines that crisscross B.C., delivering electricity to communities from Atlin to Zeballos.

Even as we get more more energy efficient, the sheer number of devices in our homes will demand that there’s even more electricity zipping through those lines. Thanks to B.C.’s abundance of water, BC Hydro is able to lean on hydro-electricity to provide customers with clean and reliable power. But our system is aging, so we require upgrades and maintenance to ensure continued reliability and safety in the future. In the next 20 years, the demand for electricity is expected to increase by 40–45%, especially in Metro Vancouver and Vancouver Island, putting more pressure on the grid. The new 247-kilometre, 500-kilovolt Interior to Lower Mainland (ILM) Transmission Project completed last December is helping meet that demand. It’s bringing reliable and renewable electricity from the Columbia and Peace River generating facilities to these regions.

The average age of our generating facilities is 45 years. Upgrades to heritage assets such as the 1968 W.A.C. Bennett Dam (it still generates about 23% of the province’s electricity) help keep the lights on while ensuring our investments last well into the future.

Make the Switch

Be efficient with refrigeration. Keep your fridge and freezer at their ideal temperature. For your fridge this is between 2 C and 3 C and your freezer should be at -18 C. By making these adjustments you can save $25 a year. Another idea: Unplug your second fridge and save up to $90 a year. Freeze plastic jugs of water in your cooler and use them when you need them.