Tech Enthusiast’s Invention Raises Home IQ, Decreases Costs, and Increases Comfort

5 minute read

When Marty Winston talks about today’s smart homes, he puts quote around the word “smart”.

“If the house is truly smart, why do you have to push all those buttons?” he says, referring to the sea of smart gadgets that rely on home occupants to program them or initiate desired actions.

Winston’s vision of a truly smart home was inspired by a light bulb, specifically the LED bulbs, which decreased his electric bill, and could last more than 20 years before they needed to be replaced. When he learned that other LED fixtures could last twice as long as bulbs, he wondered how else he might decrease both energy costs and maintenance chores over the long haul.

Inspired, the tech journalist and former Radio Shack executive, approached various vendors whose technologies might be combined to create his concept of a truly autonomous house—that is, a house that’s smart enough to perceive the people’s presence and behavior, and respond to it with little need for human interaction and no major maintenance for 40 years.

“It’s disruptive,” says Winston, of the house in Aiken County, South Carolina, that’s scheduled to break ground later this fall. “I think we’re gonna show builders ways to deal with elements of the house that have always been there. I’m hoping to challenge the way builders think about smart homes.”

WHAT’S WRONG WITH TODAY’S SMART HOMES?  

Most home automation products are built to make the house or parts of them a fun peripheral for a smart phone, but the first problem, Winston says, is this assumes people are better at controlling things than automation.

Winston laughs at that.

“Today’s smart homes are highly dependent on battery-powered devices and controls, and people are terrible at babysitting batteries,” he says.

Additionally, there are privacy, safety, and security issues, which today are dominating discussions around the Internet of Things and are the most often cited concerns of would-be adopters of smart home technology or connected homes.

“With few exceptions, an intelligent house should never touch the outside,” says Winston. “Anytime you touch the Cloud, you are vulnerable to being tapped by hackers who can monitor your patterns of living. That may seem innocent, but it can make it easy for cronies in your neighborhood to pay a visit when you’re not home.”

A WATERSHED INVENTION

There are many smart home products on the market that let occupants control their lighting, thermostat, or even a crockpot from their smartphone. These days, you can pick and choose among favorite gadgets and assemble a smarter home on your own terms, but the degree is limited. Besides, who really wants to sift through pages of apps often necessary to control them?

What Winston’s after is a central system that integrates and control them all—an entire smart home ecosystem that does the work for you.

Enter the Ceiling Awareness Pod (CAP), a device Winston invented himself. At the heart of the CAP is a Panasonic Grid-EYE Sensor built atop a Raspberry Pi, a $35, credit card-sized computer. Together, 30 CAPs plus other sensors embedded in the walls control and collect measurements, such as temperature, humidity, and ambient light, which is then relayed to various subsystems in the home. In addition, more than 20 other controllers all participate in management.

What’s more, with a few tiny exceptions, the technologies deliver optimal HVAC control and state-of-the art security, all without the risking connections to networks outside the home.

INCREASING COMFORT, DECREASING COST

Working in conjunction with connected home devices, such as the Emerson Sensi™ thermostat, Winston combines the CAPs’ thermal mapping abilities with “vacancy statements” to determine various actions ranging from selecting a room’s temperature to turning on and off lights.

Winston says warm body mapping is an absolutely foolproof way to determine who—or what—may be present in a room. The CAPs make use of a thermal imager that takes 64 temperature measurements in every room, each about two feet square. An object warmer than 90 degrees is a warm body. Children are warmer than adults, infants are warmer than children, and pets are warmer still. A temperature reading of 250 degrees means there’s trouble in the room, as in an impending fire. (note: fires tend to be well over 400 degrees; the 250 setting is to try to detect abnormally high temperatures before something combusts).

From this information, the CAP can perceive activity that may set off particular actions. For example, a warm body near a door may mean a person is entering or leaving a room. Upon sensing a room with no warm bodies and a closed door, the CAP sends messages to the system that controls LED lighting fixtures to make sure lights are off and to the comfort control system, which can respond by relaxing thermostat awareness of temperatures in the room. 

“There’s no reason to pay to heat a room where people don’t go,” says Winston.

The temperature map is also monitored for variations. Say a room’s average temperature departs from its normal reading by, say, 10-degrees, that may indicate an imbalance in ventilation of the room. Perhaps a window is open, or it may be a flaw in the ventilation, says Winston. The sensor hub might respond by turning on a ceiling fan in an attempt to stir the air. If that doesn’t fix the problem, the system will email the homeowner—and the contractor, if the homeowner desires.

“The result is more comfort where people are with less energy usage overall,” says Winston. “Not bad for a dumb little thing in the ceiling, huh?”

 

Wilson has a website devoted to the concept and project he has named the 40 Year House, which he expects to be completed by May 2017. Visit the website to learn more about the project and follow along.

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