A tangled web of interconnectivity and opportunity

2nd Aug 2017


By Stewart Clements, Director, HHIC

It all began with a toaster.

In the 1990’s an internet connected toaster was unveiled at a tech conference in San Jose, California. The device comprised of a small robotic crane connected to the internet, which picked up bread and dropped it in the toaster. This fully automated system marked the birth of the Internet of Things.

The Internet of Things (IoT) refers to the ever expanding network of devices, communicating throughout our entire environment, made up of a wide range of things - from hot tubs or home entertainment centres to heating systems. Some of these technologies have become engrained in our everyday life - for instance, so widespread is the popularity of fitness monitoring devices that there were 22.3 million Fitbits sold in 2016 alone.

In Japan, technology has gone one step further. The Intelligence Toilet II, can record and analyse important data like blood sugar levels, weight and blood pressure, all from a quick trip to the bathroom. Whilst we are still clearly a long a way from this level of technological assistance being commonplace, there is no doubting the fact that our lives are increasingly characterised by interconnectivity. But what impact does this innovative technology have on our industry? And how do such changes impact on heat engineers and consumers

For consumers, it is estimated that £40bn savings can be elicited by 2050 due to the Internet of Things allowing consumers to make smart changes to their energy consumption. This could serve as a means to somewhat tackle the issue of fuel poverty (with an estimated 10 – 12% of houses currently defined as fuel poor, this is very necessary), and also encourage more environmentally friendly energy usage.

For engineers, these advancements will mean that each visit to a UK home will provide the opportunity to encourage energy efficiency. As such, it is vital that heating engineers familiarise themselves with these technologies, helping customers to make the best use of them.

These devices empower engineers, providing them with intel on product performance. The diagnostic mechanism on smart boilers means that the installer can, with the permission of the end user, monitor performance, allowing them to pre-empt problems before they occur and even go so far as to make changes to the boiler without being physically present.

There is also weather compensation technology which uses external and internal temperatures, to adjusting the heating system accordingly. This serves to not only combat some of the issues associated with cold houses but also keep costs down by ensuring a house is not too cold or too hot, but just right.

Such ideas are also echoed in the government’s proposals surrounding the BEIS Future of Heat in Domestic Buildings consultation; Boiler Plus, which discusses the possibility of mandating smart heating controls to help heating systems save money and energy by instructing the boiler to turn off at any point when there is enough residual heat to bring it up to the desired temperature.

Smart energy devices will also help reduce demand on the grid, prevent blackouts and save consumers money. Increasingly, devices such as fridges, washers, and dishwashers are becoming central to helping balance energy demand. Some smart fridges do so by texting customers if energy demand is high, allowing the option to temporarily turn off their refrigeration, reducing the strain on the grid. The key to these smart fridges ‘intelligence’ is their ability to monitor second by second changes to demand on the national grid and if combined with Time of Use tariffs, this could also save the consumer a substantial amount of money.

Intrinsic to such systems is consumer choice, by allowing users to opt out if they wish, concerns about the individual being controlled by the device as opposed to vice versa are alleviated. What’s more, there is no danger to food safety, with fridges programmed so that their internal temperature remains within certain parameters.

Manufacturers have a role to play too. From here on in, all products created, will need to ‘talk to’ these systems, and be compatible with a range of other household appliances. Innovation and interconnectivity will be the key to not being left behind in the age of the Internet of Things.

We still have some way to go, IoT devices tend to be created, and championed by those whose lives are characterised by an assimilation with technology, those who might, for instance, chose an Uber over a black cab, an Air BnB over a conventional hotel. Many remain uneasy about technological advances and sceptical about the data harvesting abilities of smart technologies. Nevertheless, the future is here and the industry must embrace the transformative power of such interconnectivity.