The smart home will need continuing innovating


Christopher Rimmer

Interview with Christopher Rimmer, ENT Smart Programme Manager and speaker in the Smart Homes track during the upcoming European Utility Week at the Amsterdam RAI.

You are doing an update at EUW’s smart homes track on E.ON’s Thinking Energy project. Please can you give us a sneak preview on what the project is all about?

E.ON is always looking for ways to help its customers control their energy use.  E.ON’s Thinking Energy project is a program of investigation into the technical robustness, customer reactions and possible value drivers in the area of smart homes. In essence, we are tackling three tasks. 

  • Firstly, we are looking to increase our understanding of how energy is used and managed in people’s homes
  • Secondly, we are trialling and refining smart home products and services in real homes where real people have their lives to live and don’t have hours to spend tinkering with technology
  • And thirdly, we want to put power back in people’s hands to manage their energy consumption and maybe even make life a little bit better.

In practice, E.ON is looking at ways to connect devices together in interesting and innovative ways to improve how people interact with power, heating, hot water, lighting, transport and security. We have 75 enthusiastic and dedicated volunteers in the U.K. city of Milton Keynes who are constantly testing smart home products and services, and regularly give their feedback on their experiences. The data and insights gathered improve E.ON’s (and their) understanding of how their lifestyle impacts their energy bills, so they can make informed decisions to save money, increase comfort, improve convenience or reduce carbon footprint. The results inform E.ON’s European-wide approach as well as producing products and services which E.ON will sell.

How have customers responded to having smart meters in their homes?

About half our Thinking Energy participants have smart meters installed. They have responded very positively as their bills have become more accurate and the monthly or quarterly interaction with their supplier (not necessarily E.ON) has improved. Coupled with E.ON’s smart home technology, they now have an unprecedented level of information at their fingertips, to show how their day-to-day lives contribute to their energy bill.  

However, we are interested to go beyond smart meters and bring intelligence into heating systems, hot water control and even electric car transportation – and the customer response to these state-of-the-art innovations is extremely positive. In the end, the smart meter ends up as one of several possible entry points for the customer as they create their smart home, but this is only a driver of the smart home in some countries that E.ON operates in.  In others, it’s just customers crying out for a product or service that will improve their increasingly connected and busy lifestyles. This is what we’re investigating more in the Thinking Energy project.

What was the different feedback from customers regarding “being warm, lit or mobile”?
Overall, it has been no surprise that feedback has differed from customer to customer. E.ON’s smart home system is a facilitator for people to make informed decisions to get benefits in energy costs, comfort, convenience or carbon footprint. And since each of our customers lives in a unique situation, how they use the system and how it benefits them differs.  

To investigate this, we have installed intelligent heating, lighting and electric vehicle products in our participants’ homes. We quickly discovered that our focus should always be customer-centric. What people want is to be warm, lit or mobile. If their heating system doesn’t ensure they are comfortable, it doesn’t matter how smart it is – it hasn’t fulfilled its primary function. No matter how intelligent a light bulb, if it takes half an hour to warm up and is a horrible blue light, we’re onto a loser. So our first big piece of feedback is to focus on the functions of life which customers like you or I want.

That said, we have found that introducing intelligence into everyday products like cars or lighting has a dramatic impact. In our draughty U.K. homes, gone are the days when the house takes an hour to heat up after you arrive home in winter. Our participants are loving the simple E.ON web or app-based controls which make being comfortable much easier. As one said to me the other day: “It’s like my old heating was just never right” – and we’re seeing average ratings of 4.5/5 on the combination of a standard heating controller combined with a simple intuitive app.

With lighting and electric cars, we’re not as far down the line. But people approach both with a degree of scepticism, perhaps due to a previous experience. We have found they are absolutely delighted with top-of-the-range LED lighting; instant on, dimmable and just a simple case of removing the old bulb and putting the new one in – no rewiring needed! The newest breed of electric cars like the Nissan Leaf is a joy to drive, with good range and a sporty feel.

So overall, the feedback has been very positive on Thinking Energy and its products and services.

What was the most surprising of the feedback?
The most surprising piece of feedback was how personalized the feedback can be. Each person’s home is individual to them, so we’re finding our smart home technology is a great facilitator for people to do what they want to do. One participant commented: “I have worked it out that leaving my TV on standby costs me £5 per year. In the grand scheme of things, I’m not going to worry about that as I’d rather leave it on standby. Now, if it was £50, then that would be a different story”. Of course, we want to help our customers save energy. But there is a constant trade-off between cost (investment of time, effort, money) and benefit (improved cost, convenience, comfort or carbon footprint).  

What we are discovering is that our customers will use the information at their fingertips in the most interesting and innovative ways.  

Using E.ON’s smart home system, they can decide whether it’s worth taking action. They discover things about their home they didn’t know (one participant found out they had underfloor heating which was permanently on – a £300 instant saving!). It brings transparency to a very un-transparent area of life.

What is next for the smart home?
The smart home will need to continue innovating to take advantage of developments in smart phones, connectivity and customers’ lives. So the challenge is to enter the market smoothly whilst keeping up with the pace of change. This means applying the principles to areas such as healthcare, assisted living and safety/security as well as E.ON’s more traditional base of energy. We expect to see a continued shift away from hardware, gadgets and widgets, and towards services which bring value to customers’ lives. This is certainly the direction we have been promoting through the Thinking Energy project.

What would you like to see happen to the smart home market?

E.ON believes that this market could be very interesting for two reasons.  
Firstly, it’s a natural link to our traditional business. We have already started to move from being simply a commodity supplier to an energy partner. The smart homes market will be one of the ways we improve our relationship with our existing customers and offer new and interesting products or services.

As E.ON looks into the market, it seems that most suppliers are very technology focussed. There are few who seem to understand what customers want and how to deliver it to them. So the next big barrier to overcome is priming the market so that people on the street understand the benefits that smart homes can bring. We expect to see products and services which are launching in niche areas, start to move into more traditional ‘mass market’ positions.

What will be your main message at European Utility Week?
My main message will be that if smart homes are to deliver on its high potential, they will need to be packaged up as tangible products and services which customers understand and see quick benefits from.