Innovation awards: Hub Controls invents smart energy device
Finalist in the manufacturing category monitors home heating usage and cost
Ollie Hynes, chief executive, Hub Controls. Photograph: Conor McCabe
To the vast majority of people a kilowatt hour has about as much meaning as a kiwi fruit when it comes to their home energy usage. And cubic metres of gas aren’t a lot of help either. Most of us measure our home heating in terms of comfort and how much it costs. It’s the size of the bill that counts rather than the amount of energy consumed.
That probably explains why people still get unpleasant surprises when they get their bills despite thinking they have been quite frugal in their energy use. A new Irish invention from Hub Controls Ltd is set to solve this problem and allow consumers to control their home heating in accordance with what they can afford.
According to founder Ollie Hynes the company aims to become the market leader in home energy controls, providing a challenge for Nest in the process. Before setting up Hub Controls in 2014 Hynes had worked in the heating business for more than 25 years for companies such as Barlo, Quinn, and DeLonghi.
That experience combined with a postgraduate degree in software development brought about the creation of the Hub Controller.
“I had been living in the UK for 18 years and I came back to Ireland to do the software development degree,” Hynes recalls.
“A family member had experienced difficulties in paying their electricity bill and they were offered a prepaid meter. It worked out that the prepaid meter would have cost them €1,080 a year whereas the standard bill-paid supply would have been just €550. I thought that you can’t put a technology solution on the market that actually costs the consumer more money and that’s when I came up with the idea of the hub.”
Further research revealed that his relation wasn’t alone. He found that in the UK, the average consumer was paying as much as €530 more for energy each year than they needed to.
“But how can you save money when you don’t know how you’re spending it?” he asks.
“I decided that my product would allow people to control their energy spending. We started off with heating, as you can’t do everything at once.” He set about the development of the new device in collaboration with TCD, with testing on a prototype beginning in 2014. With support from Enterprise Ireland’s Competitive Start Fund and High Potential Start-ups unit, the company raised seed funding of €650,000 in 2015 and is now ready to go to market with the finished product.
Hynes explains that the Hub Controller enjoys significant advantages over other smart energy devices on the market. Not least of these is its ease of installation.
“It should take someone with very basic DIY skills to install the unit in their home,” he says. “All they have to do is take the existing timer or thermostat off the wall and replace it with the Hub Controller using the same wiring. Ours is the only smart thermostat in the world to use a common wire.”
No tech savvy neededBut the functionality is the main selling point. A user doesn’t require any technical skills or knowledge to get the best out of the unit. This is because the hub actually learns from the user and writes its own schedules within the budget set for it. It can do this as it measures not only the amount of energy consumed but also the cost of it.
“The hub will tell you what you are spending and the user can tell it that they want to spend less and it will write its own schedule to do that,” Hynes says.
“When the consumer first installs the hub they tell us what utility provider they are using and that will give us 80 per cent accuracy in terms of costs. After that they use the hub controller smartphone app to send us photographs of three meter readings and that will bring it up to 95 per cent accuracy on costs.
“After that, the system learns from the consumer. It knows when you turn the system on and off and learns from those patterns. It’s warm at this time of the year so you mightn’t use your heating at all but maybe one Wednesday is a bit cooler and you use the smartphone app to put the heating on for 20 minutes before you get home to take the chill out of the house. The hub will remember this but it won’t just turn the heating on next Wednesday, it will ask your permission via the smartphone before doing so.”
Over time it learns the usage patterns of the consumer at different times of the year and controls the heating accordingly.
“We are about to launch on the Irish market and the system will retail at €249 including VAT,” says Hynes. “We guarantee that you will save the price of the unit within a year or we’ll give you your money back. And if a consumer doesn’t feel confident enough to install the unit themselves we will send an installer out and this will cost just €20 or €30.”
He intends to achieve his ambition of market leadership one step at a time.
“I have always worked for market leaders and I know that there is no point in taking them on head on,” he says. “Our plan is to go out step by step, region by region in the UK. We will go from city to city signing up retailers and little by little we will build our share and eventually become the market leaders.”