The Pros and Cons of Smart Controls

In this article we will give an overview of how smart controls work, how they fit together, and look at the pros and cons of whether they are worth you paying out for at this time.

If you have been wondering about smart controls as they apply to heating your home you probably already know that there are lots of manufacturers now invested in making and selling this technology, which tells us which way they think things will be going in the near future in terms of uptake.

As part of our research for this article we read a booklet assembled by one of the large plumbing distributors, Wolseley, which  listed no less than twelve companies who are currently selling smart controls in the UK. We also looked at manufacturer’s websites, and tried asking them questions – with varying degrees of success – then we looked at user’s installation videos on YouTube where most of the best answers are to be found. Hive were abysmal for pre-sales enquiries. Drayton Wiser, on the other hand, were good.

In truth, the Wolseley booklet is not much more than a cut and paste of the advertising blurb from each manufacturer. However, it is still interesting to note some of the differences in jargon used between companies, as well as taking note of what their smart controls can offer you.

Even by reading and watching all of the information that is available from the various sources it still took a while to work things out – nothing is immediately very clear and obvious based on the jumble of marketing hype, slick web pages, and fractured product descriptions. However, it did soon become clear that not all smart control offerings are equal in terms of functionality or what each system is able to control.

Key Piece of Advice
So, when considering  what you would like to control from your app, tablet, or physically connected smart controller first go to the manufacturer’s websites and look to see their product lists. If they don’t mention the thing that you want remote control of – your lights, for instance – then move on to the next manufacturer. Once you have chosen your manufacturer go to YouTube and find a video on how to install that system, assuming you plan to install it yourself. Otherwise choose a tradesman.

Exactly what all of the manufacturer’s smart controls cater for is beyond this article, there are too many of them, but just to give three examples:

Hive: Heating controlled from a central thermostat, plus smart cameras, light dimmers, smart bulbs, door sensors, motion sensors, cameras, etc.

Nest: Heating controlled from a central thermostat, plus cameras, smoke and CO detectors (which can switch off the boiler if it detects carbon monoxide), alarm system, video doorbells, and some lighting.

Drayton – Wiser: Heating controlled from a central thermostat, but with smart radiator valves so that you can set different temperatures for each radiator that has a smart valve installed. Smart electrical mains sockets are also part of their offering. This is one of the systems that provides for zoning – that is, setting up time and temperature in zones of the house: parent’s bedroom; bathroom, living room, etc.

Before reaching any conclusions on whether you want to buy one of these systems or not you have to boil everything down and get to the nub of the most pertinent question of all, ‘What’s in it for me?’ The manufacturers say that what you are getting out of investing in smart controls is the following: Cost savings, efficiency, convenience, security (in some cases) and eco-friendliness.

Let’s take a look at that.

How Much Can You Save?

So, getting right down to the bottom-line, how much do you imagine you could save by installing these controls in your home? It’s definitely a bit of a ‘how long is a piece of string’ question, but four of the manufacturers that Wolseley listed were prepared to take a stab at it. One said around 20% of your current annual heating bill, another said 31%, another said around 40% of your current heating bills, and yet another put a monetary figure on it, £130 per year.

According to Ofgem, the average annual fuel bill for UK homes in 2018 was £1,138. This means that taking the percentage figures supplied by the manufacturers, above, you could be saving £227.60, £352.78, £455.20, or £130 per year. Quite some differences in opinion.

Our view, having received Smart Meters in our homes, and made efforts to turn down the Thermostatic Radiator Valves (TRVs) to see what difference it makes we tend to support the lower estimate of £130 per annum as a likely saving for most families.

That said, a single occupancy home where just one person comes and goes and where the heating system is trained to respond to that individual’s comings and goings (by sensing when his/her smart phone has left – or is returning to – the building) will most likely garner better percentage cost savings over a home where one person goes out and leaves others behind to continue consuming heating energy. More on this a bit later.

Is it Worth it For You?
Whether you go ahead with purchasing smart controls for your heating system and/or other equipment in your house may depend upon the calculation that you make as to when your investment might be recouped by annual energy bill saving.

If you plan to do the installation yourself and you expect to make big savings based upon more efficient use of energy then perhaps it’s right for you. If you think that you might only save £100 per year (or less) because there are always people at home using energy, and you need to pay a professional installer, it could take a couple of years or more to break even.

How Smart Heating Systems Work

They more or less all work in a similar way, though the equipment needed is not identical. For instance, the Hive system has an unit called a hub, which physically connects to your broadband router. The hub then talks to all of the devices that you decide to add to your system.

The Nest system has no hub, instead all of the devices on the system talk to the router independently. This means that during setup you must inform each device of your router’s identity and password. As well as talking to the router the devices on the Nest system can communicate with each other using Nest’s internal protocol, Weave.

The Drayton Wiser system, like that of Hive, directs operations from a hub (they call it the Heat Hub) which connects to the router (wirelessly, unlike the Hive hub) , and then sends and receives information to other devices using a protocol called Zigbee. Drayton don’t have a wide range of non-heating related devices like cameras and sensors at present, but they do have smart plugs that can be scheduled to switch things on and off.

Drayton Wiser Smart Heating Controls
We got this diagram from Drayton and captioned it

Remote Control
All of the systems that we looked at had both manual adjustment available and remote control as well. Remote control is of course the part that makes smart controllers irresistibly cool and desirable for gadget lovers.

Different manufacturers offer different ways to remotely make adjustments or receive information from your system. They all offer an app to load onto your smart phone or tablet to make changes or read performance reports from there, but additionally some manufacturers offer control from the Amazon Alexa device, the Google Assistant, the Apple Homekit, and the third-party connectivity website/app IFTTT , which stands for IF This Then That.

Remote connectivity means you can be sitting on your sofa and have the temperature adjusted by just ordering Alexa to do it for you: ‘Alexa set the temperature to nineteen degrees.’ This, needless to say, is novel to begin with, but a serious question is, how often do you need to do that? And to what extent does this slight extra convenience mitigate the cost of installation?

Answer: If you are elderly or infirm this may indeed be a giant leap forward provided that the person concerned is comfortable with the technology, but for the rest of us maybe not?

Let’s also remember that remote control means you can turn the heating off when you’ve landed in Sydney and just remembered that you left it switched on. On more comprehensive systems you can have motion detectors fitted to let you know that your house is currently being burgled. Possibly tough luck if you’re Down Under, though.

What Else Can Smart Controls Do?

With no extra investment in smart technology – other than the aforementioned smart controllers and your smartphone – you are already in a position to use Geo-fencing on some, but not all systems. Meaning you can setup the smart controller to detect when you have gone beyond a certain distance from your home (beyond an invisible fence) and have it switch the heating off for you, if you haven’t already done so. Then, when the system senses that you are coming back home again it can switch itself back on.

According to Which this is the feature that the manufacturers are basing their large cost savings on; including the somewhat fanciful ones listed above. They are assuming – in a high percentage of cases, wrongly – that most people forget to turn their heating off when they leave the house, or that their systems are not already set-up to turn off when they leave for work, and come back on in time for when they get home.

So, there’s another question. Are the manufacturer’s assumptions fair? Do some people really walk out of their houses and leave their heating on full-blast all day? As a company which deals with the general public and their plumbing issues on a regular basis we can honestly say, ‘Yep, they do!’

This means that the cost savings that you might enjoy by installing a smart system will absolutely depend on your present habits in respect to how assiduously you conserve fuel usage already, but also on how often the house is left empty.

You’d need to check/verify this for yourself, but currently Drayton, Hive, Honeywell T6, Netatmo, Salus iT500 and Tado all offer Geo-fencing.

System Learning
The next feature that is available from some manufacturers as part of a basic set-up is Auto-Adapt or Optimum Start, or whatever your chosen manufacturer has decided to call it. This is where you choose a time and temperature for your house to be at, and the smart controller arranges for this to happen as efficiently as possible.

For example, let’s say that you want the new smart thermostat in your hallway to sense 23 degrees Celsius at 07:00 on every weekday. To achieve this the smart controller will switch on the heating in good time to reach this temperature, but if it finds that it reached 23 degrees earlier than the required time, it will switch the heating on a bit later on subsequent days. Not only that , but if the system knows (because it’s connected to the internet) that external temperatures are set to drop drastically overnight it will alter the boiler’s on-time accordingly. So, what you get is your desired room temperature no sooner and no later than required. It’s efficient.

Financially, is system learning going to be saving you very much over your existing method of just having the boiler fire-up at a set time each day? Probably not a huge amount. Though, you may avoid waking up on a frosty morning and being disappointed at how cold your bedroom is.

Feedback From Your System
Smart controls are generally smart enough to give you feedback when things are not working correctly. This may be in the form of information stored in your app for the next time you consult it, or in other cases it can be alerts sent to your smartphone.

If you setup your smart controls properly you most likely will save at least some money, and possibly even quite a lot of money per annum. However, whether you personally save just a little or quite a lot, it is still better for the planet if we all make energy saving a priority.

Really it seems to us that governments should take the lead with environmental protection, and properly evaluate savings. Then, if they conclude that smart controls are worthwhile,  they should become mandatory in all new-builds, along with solar panels. However, rather like the issue of sugar being added to everything we eat, governments around the world appear not to have the stomach to take on big business if they can avoid doing it. Hence we all lose, unless we take these things on ourselves in sufficient numbers.

When you decide to add smart control to your home you are adding an extra layer of gadgetry to your home; leaving the simple switch-it-on/switch-it-off routine behind you. Therefore, you need to have somebody who is happy enough to re-programme and re-schedule if all of the settings somehow get lost. Adding more technology means there’s more to go wrong.

Many of the smart thermostats, smart radiator valves, smart cameras, etc. need batteries which will need to be replaced, probably yearly. So that’s a running expense and another annual household chore.

In addition, we contacted Drayton about their system and asked about connectivity failures between their thermostat and the smart radiator valves. We considered that since it happens between broadband routers and our home computers it was probably an issue with smart home management too?

Dayton agreed that it can happen under certain conditions, and that the solution is similar to the computer solution: you buy a little signal booster to plug-in and keep the signal higher. Also, even if signal strength is lost things will continue to operate using settings that were stored at the last set-up.

The bottom line on maintenance is this: More kit equals more maintenance.

Our Conclusions

  • If you like gadgets this stuff is irresistible, and you probably already have it.
  • If you’re doing it to save money be aware that financial savings may not happen quickly. They will happen more quickly if you can self-install, but the amount you save yearly might be quite small if you are already careful with your energy usage.
  • Remember that if you are saving money you are also being more eco-friendly.
  • Choose a smart control manufacturer by visiting their webpage and looking at their ‘Our Products’ list. That will at least give you an idea of what their system can do. Beyond that most of them have gorgeous web pages that are light on details, such as schematic diagrams, for instance. Some of them don’t really want to field pre-sales enquires either, preferring to send you off to customer forums which you may not even be able to get access to unless you have already bought their product – Hive.
  • A smart system requires some maintenance (battery changing), and a willingness to get in there and learn how to use the app. These systems may not be for you if you are not happy to engage with the user manual – though they are generally very intuitive.
  • Some smart systems can be expanded to accommodate lots of other equipment, and not just your heating. If you think that you want to do more than just control your heating, choose accordingly.
  • Watch YouTube videos to get a much better idea of what the systems are about than the manufacturers seem to be able to muster. For example, here’s a really good video we found by Andy Brown on how to install a Hive system:

A Good Hive Video by Andy Brown