Smart home technology needs smart energy users
Waterloo researcher is helping families adopt smart technology and smart practices for sustainable living
Waterloo researcher is helping families adopt smart technology and smart practices for sustainable livingBy Sam Toman University Relations
The key to any healthy relationship is communication. The same can be said about our relationship to home energy use.
That makes Bronwyn Lazowski a kind of therapist for our dysfunctional home energy patterns. She studies everyday energy consumer patterns and interactions with technology to help people understand that to live sustainably we not only need smart home technology, but also a smart energy culture.
“Saving money on home energy conjures images of sitting in a cold dark home, where convenience and comfort are sacrificed for sustainability,” says Lazowski, a University of Waterloo PhD candidate. “That’s a misconception. Many of the best energy saving technologies and home upgrades actually make our lives more comfortable, convenient and efficient.”
Lazowski is part of a national-leading community of sustainable energy leaders at the University of Waterloo. She’s also an Energy Council of Canada Energy Policy Research Fellow with the globally recognized, Waterloo Institute for Sustainable Energy (WISE).
With a holistic approach to reducing carbon emissions in our homes she identifies the three main technological advantages we have; smarter home design, a smart energy grid and smart home appliances.
Smarter home design goes beyond technology to also include the home’s environment. The design can be as straightforward as great insulation, good ventilation and well-placed windows for passive heating and cooling. It also can be as easy as sealing around windows and doors. That’s the first step.
The second step involves smart energy grids leveraging the latest in information technology. “The smart grid connects consumers to control rooms by allowing for two-way flows of both information and energy. Bringing information and communication technologies into our traditional energy grid enables this shift,” she says. “But the crucial part is effectively engaging consumers so they can become ‘smarter’ energy consumers.”
Lazowski notes that the smart grid has the potential to bring new roles for customers in the energy grid. For example, passive consumers can become active “pro-sumers,” where they can potentially generate, store and sell energy back to the grid.
Enabling the future energy system by getting consumers and businesses engaged with this transition is one of the main goals of WISE. Led by researcher Jatin Nathwani from the Faculties of Engineering and Environment, this interdisciplinary institute draws expertise from more than 100 experts from across all six Waterloo faculties. WISE’s research, partnerships and outreach encourage new opportunities for household energy management.
The third step includes digital and technological innovations in appliances that can be leveraged to reduce peak demand spikes.
“Switching to off-peak usage for appliances is easy,” Lazowski says. And you don’t need smart technologies to do it. However, smart appliances can add an additional convenience to our busy lives. For example, you can load the dishwasher after dinner and use your smart appliance settings to run the dishwasher during off-peak.” In Ontario, off-peak is typically between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m. on weekdays and all-day on weekends and statutory holidays.
Parents reading this may have spotted an issue with off-peak usage. What if you have more time in your busy schedule in the evening to put away dishes than in the morning? It’s a valid concern and addressing issues like these are where Lazowski focuses her scholarship.
Getting people to see how they can easily integrate smart and efficient home technologies as well as smarter home design into their lives is a mandate of the Reep House for Sustainable Living. The Reep House looks like any of the other lived-in homes located along its Kitchener street, but features nearly every sustainable home energy modification on the market.
Visitors can tour the house, try smart thermostats and efficient appliances and view the stylish-yet-sustainable home décor and building materials. Guests can converse with knowledgeable volunteers who explain the modifications and offer practical advice on which rebates are available for choosing sustainable home renovation choices.
Run by several Waterloo alumni, the Reep House is a living laboratory where Waterloo researchers, including Lazowski, gain experience on how the technologies they are studying apply to everyday life. It also allows researchers the opportunity to understand the behavioural barriers to adopting smart energy technology.
These everyday energy behavioural factors can include preferences in temperature and appliance use, the number of people in the home, work-life schedules and all the other things that make every family unique.
“Smart technology can help us customize our energy use, but they can only do so much without smarter energy practices,” Lazowski says. “It comes down to awareness and communication. So, save that laundry load for Saturday and get together as a family on Sunday for off-peak meal prep. Most importantly, talk to each other about saving energy. Little changes can go a long way on your bill and for the grid.”
Without these conversations, Lazowski fears there is the potential for a variety of smart home technologies to actually result in increased energy use because they promote comfort, convenience and potentially more consumption. The ability to make tweaks at the touch of a smartphone, for example, may tempt some people to abuse that technology, potentially overriding system efficiencies. Lazowski also notes that costly and connected technologies might not always be accessible to all consumers or off-grid communities. As a result, these customers may not be as able to utilize all of these smart technologies.
Caution aside, Lazowski thinks a shift to a smart energy culture is possible. “Consumer demand for smart home technology is proven,” she says. “We just also need some easy lifestyle changes that challenge our standards of comfort and convenience."