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Editorial: The Body and Soul of Connected Devices

August 31, 2016
Fall 2016
A version of this article appears in the Fall 2016 issue of Home Energy Magazine.
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In a recent article by Chris Dorsi, he provides an excellent summary of the latest crop of Internet-connected devices for home energy applications. This year’s harvest is larger, more diverse, and often more complicated than ever. We all had better learn to live with the Internet of Things (IoT) because it is coming to a home near you and most likely a home that you will be building or upgrading.

Dorsi describes how connected devices will impact contractors, repair crews, and field technicians. The IoT features of furnaces, ACs, and PV inverters can assist specialists in identifying problems and then implementing the correct solutions. That certainly sounds promising, especially in the world of diminishing hands-on training and education of building performance crews. But we’re still a long way from wide-scale implementation.

Alan Meier (Yasushi Kato)

Dorsi’s article also reminds us of the many unsettled aspects of IoT products used in the home. When a connected device’s operating decisions are made in the cloud, many new and unresolved liability and legal questions arise. If an Internet-connected thermostat runs amok—and arguably there are already examples of this—who is responsible? I have described in an earlier editorial the internet of “annoying things”, but perhaps the internet of “insecure things” is more worrisome.

A connected device consist of two parts: its body and its soul. The occupants have physical possession of a connected device’s body, its sheet metal, fans, and lights. But the ownership of its soul—the analytics, data, software, and whatever the cloud does to manage it—is still up for grabs. How can a consumer “see into the soul” of a connected device? Each provider equips its products with algorithms and tricks, but whose are the cleverest at saving energy? And what about simply knowing how the device operates? To date, we haven’t a clue, though Energy Star, some utilities, and other groups are now tackling this problem through standards development.

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Figure 1. Connected devices can take several forms. Connections to consumers’ and manufacturers’ devices are often made through existing wireless networks that provide home Internet service. Professional test instruments are increasingly connected though cell-phone routers that allow for quick set up and give technicians a greater degree of portability. (Alan Meier)

Some connected devices will improve efficiency and reduce energy costs. Thermostats easily fit into this category, and perhaps so will some lighting systems. But let’s be clear, saving energy isn’t the primary goal of most of these products: the key value is to give the occupants new features and services. People want to use their smartphones to switch off lights or the AC without getting out of bed. I think the multiple functionality is a feature rather than a flaw because the best energy-saving technologies are often installed for other reasons. You can be sure that Home Energy will be covering this topic.

Meanwhile, Home Energy is gradually becoming a connected device, too. We are shifting content to the internet, while keeping other material in the familiar paper format. Some articles and ideas just work better in one medium than in another. While our paper issues will appear quarterly, you will be receiving more frequent, more topical material electronically. Our goal is to fulfill your diverse needs for information through your connected devices, that is, your smartphone, tablet, and mailbox. And rest assured, we will keep the body and soul in alignment!

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