There has been talk about smart homes and home automation for a long time, and it’s been a key focus of product development among major manufacturers in the HVAC and electrical sectors, and even kitchen, bathroom and furniture sectors, for many years. But these are just individual pieces of the jigsaw, and the concept of the smart home has failed to take off in a big way – yet.
It’s true that sales of smart devices have increased strongly in recent years, if we look at tablet computers, smartphones, smart watches and other smart devices, such as Amazon’s Alexa and Echo, Google Assistant and others. There is also no shortage of smart devices for controlling various aspects in the home, from smart fridges and vacuum cleaners to full systems managing lighting, heating, air-conditioning and audio-visual systems.
Heating controls is a key sector which is displaying strong growth at the moment. The Nest thermostat, which is made my Google, is popular, but there are many brands on the market with companies such as Daikin and Honeywell offering ranges of smart thermostats. All of the ‘Big 6’ energy companies in the UK now offer smart thermostats, either under their own brand or in partnership with a technology company, as part of their energy management ranges. Centrica, for example, has sold over 1m of its Hive smart thermostat hubs to date. The adoption of smart heating controls is helped by the fact that UK householders are becoming more aware of the potential benefits of monitoring and controlling energy usage, specifically to save money and reduce the impact on the environment.
One of the key reasons there has not been a major uptake of smart products for the home (other than heating controls and smart speakers) or full home automation systems, has been low demand. While there is substantial interest among consumers – and to some extent businesses – the cost of smart devices and systems have so far outweighed the benefits for most people. It doesn’t take that much effort to walk over and shut the gate or the window blind, for example. Technology is coming down in price though, and as the older generation, for which this technology could be of great help, is starting to use mobile phones and tablets to a greater extent this situation could change quite rapidly.
The other major reason for the low uptake has been a lack of integration between different devices and systems. This can be illustrated by the smart meter installation programme in the UK. Smart meters have been installed in over 12.5 million homes so far and the government has a target to offer every home a smart meter by 2020. Currently, it is unclear whether this target will be met, as the rate of installation is slowing, and it has been reported in the media that some householders are refusing them for fear of being locked into expensive energy deals.
An investigation by the National Audit Office showed that around 70% of all installed meters lose their smart functionality if the householder switches to a different energy supplier, and are therefore unable to communicate with the new energy supplier. This problem was subsequently addressed in the 2nd generation meters, which are guaranteed to continue to send readings if you switch supplier, but so far, reportedly only 138,000 of the installed meters are of this type.
This highlights the problem, which up until very recently has hindered growth in this sector. But this is now changing, and although there is no system that can currently operate across all popular home automation protocols, there has been a trend towards manufacturers offering multiple compatibility and open designs that enable others to develop compatible products. It was even announced just before Christmas that Amazon Echo‘s speakers will be compatible with Apple Music going forward.
Perhaps 2019 will be the year when homes will start to become smart? The fact that integration between devices and systems is becoming easier will certainly help, and so will the falling cost of technology and smart devices, which are making devices and systems more affordable.
Get in touch with MRA Research if you’re interested in finding out more about home automation and what impact it is having in homes and on housebuilding. We specialise in construction and the built environment and can undertake a range of different surveys and studies.