Wattbox: Habit-learning device to lower energy bills
By Jeff Salton
February 7, 2010
The adage “less is more” rings true when discussing energy usage - as energy costs rise, using less saves you more money each year. And studies have shown that householders who know how much energy they use on a daily basis tend to use significantly less. A new device called the Wattbox - a smart control unit that learns householders' energy habits relating to their central heating and hot water usage patterns and provides immediate feedback on consumption - could deliver home energy savings of up to 20 percent without compromising comfort, say UK researchers. A great feature of the Wattbox is that it is able to be retrofitted, meaning it’s suitable for all houses, not just new ones.
Though still in its design infancy, the Wattbox is part of an innovative approach to energy efficient home improvements supported by a £2.1 million (US$3.3 million approx) grant from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), The UK Government's leading funding agency for this type of research.
The Wattbox is designed to help people get the most out investments, too, such as solar panels, and to help capitalize on the recently-announced feed-in tariffs for small-scale renewable schemes.
In response to a recent project’s findings that existing home heating controls, such as timers and thermostats, often make it difficult for people to cut fuel costs because they are too complicated to set correctly, the Wattbox has an intelligent, automated system that takes the complexity out of the controls. The team working on the Wattbox project found that energy use on heating and hot water alone could be reduced by up to 14 percent just by making the thermostat/timer simpler to operate.
Removing the hassle
Reducing the amount of central heating in the home when it's not needed is nothing new, but many householders struggle with outdated thermostats and timers say the researchers. Rather than have a hot water storage unit bubbling away at the desired temperature all day whether or not it’s being used, the Wattbox's heating controller sets its own schedule by learning householders' habits according to the times they use hot water and switch on electrical appliances. From this, it sets the thermostat to suit the householder's lifestyle taking account of the outside temperature.
The device has a simple display with buttons for 'More Heat' or 'Less Heat' when the automatic decision doesn't meet the user's needs. It also shows how much more, or less, energy is being consumed as a result of their choice. Hot water is provided just before its normal time of use to save energy, with the display turning red to show that the water is ready.
"These devices work because we put people at the center of our research," says Peter Boait of De Montfort University, Leicester, England, who designed the intelligent heating controls as part of a multidisciplinary project investigating ways of reducing energy while maintaining comfort. De Montfort University's Institute of Energy & Sustainable Development is responsible for designing the energy-saving devices.
The team is now planning to work with householders to design stylish and intuitive controls that will tell them how their home is using energy at a particular time and what choices they can make to result in lower energy use. Currently, many LCD displays on the market only show the total electricity used in the home and make it hard for homeowners to make on-the-spot judgments about energy-savings.
Allowing people to save energy without needing to understand the science is one of the key benefits of the Wattbox, say the researchers. This makes it particularly useful for encouraging people to adopt green technologies, such as heat pumps and solar hot water heating, which can be alienating in their complexity.
"Influencing user behavior can be challenging," says Dr Boait, and he points to a decade of campaigns urging consumers to save energy. "Involving people in the design of technology and in developing energy reduction strategies offers a new opportunity to make real cuts without undermining comfort."
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