Talk to your sockets, film your fridge, and save money at home

‘Smart home’ technology can save money and even cut down on household chores

 

The idea of a smart home has been a wellspring for sci-fi movies since the 1950s but it lately moving from concept to reality. Energy efficiency can save money and people are really starting to understand the value a smart home can add to their everyday lives, says Kelly Phillips, smart-home buyer at Argos. There is a range of gadgets you can avail of that offer everything from never missing a delivery – the Ring doorbell – to keeping an eye on the dog while away from home – the Nest Cam. Even small and affordable changes made to older homes can result in a welcome reduction in utilities bills.

However, when shopping you shouldn’t be afraid to inquire if you don’t understand how the technology works, says Eamonn Shaw, store manager at Michael Briscoe Electrics, an independent chain that also has a concession at Arnotts. “We can feel stupid asking questions but unless you understand the device you won’t get to enjoy its benefits.”

Good design should be beautifully simple, so if you need a PhD in engineering to make a gadget work then maybe, whisper it, it isn’t good design. So shop around to find the sales staff that speak your language – plain English rather than tech jargon. We all learn differently and many of us need to be shown how to use certain types of technology more than once to get it. If you encounter eye rolling and the drumming of fingers as you try to get your head around it then vote with your feet and go somewhere else.

Brilliantly simple lighting

Lighting can change the ambiance in your home but it can be costly. Put an end to shouting at the kids to turn the lights off when they leave a room by fitting some of Ikea’s easy to install options. The Tradfri kit (€29) is an LED bulb that you install instead of your usual bulb. It is operated via a simple device that allows three different levels of luminosity to be set, from night-time low to morning bright. A remote control (€17) means you don’t have to move to switch the light off.

Early LED lighting designs only offered blindingly bright and cold white light more suited to a dental surgery than a home but the technology has advanced to the point where you can now buy warm white light options. Philips Hue bulbs go one further by offering a simple way to change the ambiance in a room. In bedrooms you can, through an app, programme bedside bulbs to brighten gently to softly stir you from your slumber. At night these can also dim down slowly to coddle you to sleep. The range includes coloured bulbs and you can sync the lights to music, movies or your gaming experience. For kitchens, Rocky Wall, design team leader at Wink Lighting, recommends Dynamic White – LED strips that range in colour from cool white daylight to warm white for dark winter evenings, creating a simple plan that is also cost-effective.

Control centre

Nest is a clever way to manage your heating. Whereas the old-fashioned heating timers operated on an hour-by-hour basis, the thermometer in the Nest starts noting how long it takes for your house to heat up. If it takes, say, 40 minutes rather than 60 minutes, Nest switches off the moment it becomes warm saving you 20 minutes of energy that a more traditional timing device would have expended. All those 20-minutes add up to significant savings over the course of a year says Keith Gilmartin, assistant manager of the computer and tech departments at Harvey Norman, Blanchardstown. Once you download its apps you can also boost the heating on your commute home or from the office before you leave to ensure the house is toasty when you open the front door.

Cutting down on electricity usage

The amount of electricity devices on standby mode cost is surprising. Irons and kettles guzzle watts. Phone chargers, the TV, DVD players and home entertainment systems are chief among the culprits. Power meters cost from €22 upwards but once installed will keep a close eye on daily consumption and what might be the culprit device in your home – hair straighteners and the like can be the electrical equivalent of calling Australia.

One of the cheapest ways to curb electricity costs is to install smart plugs throughout, says Gilmartin of Harvey Norman. He has several in his bedroom, one for bedside lights, another for the electric blanket, so you don’t have to climb the stairs mid box-set binge, and a third for his wife’s hair straightener. More are installed in the lounge, one for the TV, the PlayStation and for table and floor lamps. He has more still in the kids playroom for the TV and lamps. These cost from €29 upwards per plug. They are slotted into existing sockets and can be controlled from your phone or with home automation platforms such as HomeKit, Amazon Echo or Google Home.

What white goods to buy?

The tumble drier is an energy guzzler says Mark Cullen, electrical department manager of the Harvey Norman branch on Kinsale Road, Cork. His advice is to switch from a vented model to a heat-pump model because some of these can cost less than €45 to run per year for the average family, based on four to five 8kg cycles per week. Ask which ones also minimise creasing.

One cool development in some washing machines is a dosing regulator, he explains. “You load up the detergent and fabric softener separately and the machine measures the dosage depending on how soiled the clothes are. So you need to rinse less and therefor use less water. You also use less product.”

The fridge revolution

Smarter.am is a start-up idea that will help your family minimise food wastage. The firm’s FridgeCam can be retrofitted to any model and any size fridge. The camera takes a picture of the main body of the fridge every time you close it and by syncing with your phone can tell you what you need to buy while you peruse the shelves in your local shop. If you shop online it can “talk” to your preferred supermarket and put together a list of things you need to buy.

“The aim is to cut down on the €720 of food wasted by the average family every year,” says Smarter.am’s head of sales Steven May. The device also boasts object recognition software that will, over time and use, learn to tell the difference between carrots and chicken breasts and remind you how long each purchase has been lingering in the fridge. It will even suggest recipes with the ingredients in a sort of Ready Steady Cook fashion. One camera costs €149 but you will need a second camera to read what is in the fridge door. German-fridge manufacturer Liebherr was so impressed that it bought a million units at the recent IFA technology conference in Berlin. The camera will shortly be available at Arnotts. Samsung’s family hub fridge also offers this technology and has the added benefit of being an A-rated appliance when it comes to energy efficiency but is a much bigger-ticket buy.

Cooking up new oven ready thinking

When shopping for a new kitchen consider that many companies, especially those targeting the first-time buyer market, offer an all-in package that includes appliances. But the appliances offered may, in the long run, cost more money to operate than more expensive models. Cullen of Harvey Norman in Cork explains that gas is only 62 per cent energy efficient, meaning 38 per cent of the money you’re spending on it is going up the sides of the pots. Standard electrical hobs are 65 per cent efficient, he says. However, induction cooking, which involves heating pots in a magnetisation process, is 96 per cent energy efficient. So, though more expensive to buy, the appliance will cost less to run making it a better value over the course of its lifetime.

The traditional double oven set-up in a kitchen is now defunct, Cullen says. So is the microwave. He suggests opting for one oven and a second combination steam oven that will do 95 per cent of the jobs your microwave used to do. A steam oven creates deliciously moist food and is better for reheating than a microwave, he says.

Cullen also suggests buying a Pyroclean oven because it incinerates grime, dispensing with the need to use chemicals in a place you cook food.

His last kitchen-related advice is to install an Insinkerator. It will reduce your bin charges and keep the bins from stinking – especially ideal if you live in a small house with little outside space.

Outsource your vacuuming

Under new legislation, vacuum cleaners now have to have a wattage of less than 900 which means that manufacturers have to get the same pressure with one quarter of the wattage. Cullen suggests opting instead for a vacuum robot as they are not affected by the same legislation and can be programmed remotely. He recommends the Miele, Dyson or Samsung models, the Dyson design being the most powerful. Set on caterpillar wheels, it can be programmed not to go into certain areas and has sensors to determine how soiled the flooring is.

Security

Nest security enables front doors to be opened remotely. It can also record activity. A notification that the device was activated is sent to your phone and users can pay an additional monthly subscription charge to download the recorded content and watch it.

Nest can also connect to certain smoke and carbon monoxide alarms. There’s an app that lets you arm and disarm remotely from the palm of your hand which lets you know when it was last switched off or on.

The PhoneWatch security system is similar and the completely monitored system with emergency services dispatch will call you if there is any activity registered on your alarm. It too has an app to download as well as a special offer of €499.00 to install which ends September 30th.

Smoke and carbon monoxide detectors

Smart smoke and carbon monoxide detectors can be factored into the same security system and can even detect when you’re in the house helping to keep bills down if, say, you decide to go out for the evening instead of coming straight home, it won’t turn on the heating. All Nest communication is via wifi so find out how well wifi operates in your home before installing it.

Water usage

The new generation of toilets use half as much water per flush as their old-fashioned counterparts so an upgrade is highly recommended.

A big trend in Japan is the shower toilet, which is a paperless design that sprays and dries, minimising both the amount of toilet paper and water used. Grohe’s Sensia Arena is one such device.

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