IOTLondon Meetup 28th March ’12

First and very important after last time, the organisers had found an excellent venue in a convenient location and they even provided free beer. What’s not to like? This is really essential when you have great talks – which again we did.

First up was @andrewlindsay talking about the gateway software he’s created for Sukkin’s wireless hub device. This can handle arbitrary numbers of wireless sensors communicating at 433 or 868 Mhz. Thanks to an included socket it’s also amenable to Xbee or XRF ( wireless connections. It’s MBED based so there’s enough space to do the software properly, something that’s almost impossible on current Arduinos.

At 2 watts, the device is eminently suitable to being always on, something that many boxes are not. Being open source we’ll never be limited in the directions we could take the software that Andrew is creating.

Andrew has only tried a few sensors so far but, interestingly, these include air pressure and dust particles. He’s using Jeenodes at the remote end.  He plans all sorts of further enhancements, notablly a web-based configuration facility.  Excellent stuff!

@rollinson (Jeremy) then talked about “Open Telematics”, a mobile (currently Android) platform for telemetry that posts data to pachube. The first outing of this is a vehicle app that hooks up to the CAN and OBDII buses now legally required in all cars.

The platform uses the phone for GPRS, accelerometer, GPS and screen and hooks up to the CANBUS via a proprietary dongle. I want one. I’ve signed up for their beta programme.

At Jeremy pointed out, this is unique in that people will be able to get their own data, something not possible with commercial vehicle tracking systems. Datastreams will include, at least, fuel flow, rpm, speed etc. As well as offering the app for a reasonable price they have plans to make it social and add premium functionality. However, as we can access the data there’s nothing to stop others from innovating around this. Apparently Open Energy Monitor and already looking at how they might integrate this with their system.

So, I thought, good job I did not go to the trouble of building this. It does the job and the price is right.

Third session was from Cesar Garcia Saez and colleague from Medialab Prado Madrid. This sounds like a fabulous facility where people can come in and work together on interesting projects.

It’s open to all and inclusive in bring togther a wide range of disciplines from art to technology.  It’s also inclusive to people who are not Madrid-based through the use of Wikis, video streaming and regular open calls to bring people in from other places. Something like 50-100 collaborators are involved.

As this is government funded, one of the rules of play is that the results are open sourced. The projects they do at the Medialab tend to be pre-competitive, not products ready for market so this open policy is not a problem.

Their “Smart City” project was given as an example. In this they collected air quality data and displayed it on the side of a building. Following up on this they are getting involved in the Air Quality Egg project (now active on kickstarter).

All in all an excellent meetup. Many thanks to Ed and Alex. Keep up the good work.

EcoBuild 2012

Ecobuild came around again this week and I braved crowded tubes to make it down to ExCel. If you needed a solar panel look no further. I did not. Instead, I was there to see what was happening on the energy gadget front. In particular, I was looking for energy monitors and heating controls that I could recommend to friends and associates in our energy coop “Low Carbon Chilterns”.

In a much earlier blog I mentioned my fortunate chance to evaluate one of the first advanced heating controllers dubbed “Intuition”. This has now come to market under the OWL brand with numerous improvements and has become something that no home should be without.

We used to have a “state of the art” system with wireless thermostat and multi-period programmer – or so we thought. However, through careful monitoring of gas used I discovered that our system was far from optimised. With continually rising costs this was getting expensive. The main reasons is that most of the currently-available programmers are not designed for humans to use. Three buttons pressed in some hideous combination allow any setting of time period. Our programmer not being linked to the thermostats we only had one temperature setting for hot water and one for air. Moreover, this programmer is so tedious that most people do not set it optimally or change it as often as necessary (some don’t change it at all). This is especially the inefficient in Spring and Autumn when outside temperatures are volatile.

Management of an Intuition system is a breeze. You have a web-based User Interface (my preference) and controls on your smartphones. The fact that you can easily change any setting makes a huge difference. This is pretty fundamental to modern product design. Machines should make our life easier not try to enslave us (think last-generation video recorders).

You don’t want to keep the water shower-hot 24.7 just in case you might feel like a shower. Instead, have it hot when you know you will need it and any other time just punch one button to bring it up to temperature.

You may have heard of the “optimum start” feature of some modern boilers. Intuition’s version of this is based on your settings that say something like “give us 45 degrees for ours showers at 6am M-F and 8am on weekends”. The system looks at the outside temperature and calculates when to turn the boiler on and off.

The latest version of this system is also extremely easy to install, it simply replaces your existing thermostats so anyone with basic electrical skills can do it.

The net effect in our case has been a significant saving of energy. Since heating accounts for 80% of energy used domestically this is something that everyone should pay attention to. In our case the new heating controls are only one of many things we have done to effect a 30% saving in our energy bill. However, I would attribute at least half of this to accurate control of heating. This constitutes a sub-one-year payback with the current model.

BTW. A modern boiler is a pre-requisite that I sometimes take for granted. Old ones may be more reliable but they are rarely efficient. Make sure there’s a “diverter value” – not all systems have the ability to hear just the air or just the hot water. You need a plumber to install one of these, hopefully you have one already. With this in place you have separate control.

Back to Ecobuild and some other products that caught my eye as I rushed past all the panels.

Energy monitors are coming of age. I don’t subscribe to the idea that a little box on your windowsill will give you enough information to justify changes in energy-use behaviour. Put simply, you’ve got to have graphs of energy vs. time. CurrentCost were first to market with affordable web-based electricity monitoring and I’ve been using theirs for some time. What I always wanted first and foremost was gas so for that I had to build my own. However, electricity monitors are widely available and inexpensive considering the savings they can produce if properly used.

Now, a number of other suppliers are jumping into this, OWL and Energeco being two displaying their wares at the show. The OWL device, also dubbed “Intuition” is a neat little box that adds onto the familiar OWL monitor. This looks particularly interesting for installations with PV as well as grid power. I will evaluate this ASAP.

Another interesting type of gadget is one that diverts any excess energy from a PV array into heating hot water.  This is a relatively new category and I confess not to understand exactly how these work.  Something to watch out for.

As ever, watch this space for thoughts and developments on energy gadgets.