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Home Automation is HOT

“We developed this product in response to requests from some forward-thinking utility customers,” comments Coactive Networks’ President and Co-Founder David Gaw. “We were busy connecting systems and devices to the Internet to solve a variety of other business problems. Meanwhile the energy companies had set up pilot projects that utilized our technology in ways we hadn’t even thought of yet. That was three years ago. It’s turned out to be a perfect fit. Home automation is hot. Deregulation is happening. We’re seeing the Internet become a vehicle for an amazing array of energy e-services.”

According to Gaw, the convergence of several technical and market factors has generated a new set of business opportunities centred around a multi-service telemetry connection to the home. As utilities realize they can no longer limit their business plans to what they did in the past, they have broadened their focus to include new ventures that leverage their position with their existing customer bases.

Enter the Coactive Networks gateway, a thermostat-sized, remotely programmable device that lets energy providers apply Internet connectivity resources to:

  • move into new markets with consumer-friendly new e-services
  • put an automated meter reading (AMR) system in place with no new wiring or RF infrastructure
  • manage loads to avoid crisis usage levels.

All that with a single gateway, available in deployment quantities for under $200.


Figure 1. Security and comfort through the Internet
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Home automation seems to have captured everyone’s imagination lately, although the folks at Coactive prefer to use the term ‘telemetry e-services’ with the emphasis on services. “Home automation sounds a bit cold and distant,” contends Gaw. “These e-services are available now, and they can make a positive difference in people’s everyday lives. What’s more, the energy provider is in a key position to offer them to consumers on a large scale basis.”

The most basic are conveniences such as lighting and temperature control. How would your life be different if you could heat up or cool down the house on your way home from work? Or monitor the children’s television usage when you are out? Mass deployments make these e-services affordable, particularly when they are bundled with a set of options.

Other e-services move beyond the category of ‘convenience’ and into the realm Coactive calls ‘peace of mind’ for safety and security. This category might include receiving notification of water leakage or unusual temperatures before home damage occurs, protecting your family with regular carbon monoxide-level scans, or being alerted to unusual activity patterns or high blood pressure readings for elderly relatives living alone.

More sophisticated e-services may involve third-party arrangements with security experts, insurance firms, home healthcare providers or medical teams. Home security, for example, when gateway-enabled and web-based, can add cost advantages as well as new levels of responsiveness. Perimeter sensors transmit intrusion information on a graphical web diagram, even as alarms are sent to both homeowners and law enforcement teams. A home security provider partner might include fee incentives based on ancillary preventive and deterrent capabilities, such as being able to remotely turn on lights or television, or open and close the blinds in patterns that mimic occupancy.

The possibilities for enterprise are enormous. Thus e-services are one answer to energy providers’ need to differentiate themselves in a deregulated market. The many flavours available to explore may be a welcome antidote to the ‘plain vanilla’ nature of a service, both critical and ubiquitous, that has led consumers to focus more on its absence than on its continued presence.

Automated meter reading

The more efficient energy service providers can collect, manage, analyse and leverage data from customer meters, the greater will be their competitive advantage. Utility providers have been increasingly investing in a variety of technology infrastructures, to satisfy both increased regulation and stepped up customer interest.

Figure 2. Energy utilities will have to pursue new services to retain their customers
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Here is the connection with home networking: plug a Coactive Networks’ gateway into the remotely readable meter, and the data can hitch a ride on existing Internet infrastructure channels. For customers with broadband connections such as DSL or cable, meter data can be transmitted in real-time. If the customer just has a telephone wire, the gateway goes to dialup mode and shares the phone line quite considerately. You can look at this as leveraging your meter reading technology to provide value-added services. Or you can look at it as leveraging your home automation investment to read meters.

An added benefit on the meter reads is the specificity of information, which can be device- or system-specific in many cases. With smart appliances in the picture you are armed with some great tools for gaining customer participation in the dance of load balancing.

Load management

Power delivery, without the expense and annoyance of frequent outages, requires some type of load management implementation. Otherwise you are left with a choice between continuously building plants to accommodate increasing peaks or mounting extensive campaigns to convince customers of the merits of moderation. Adding a technological safeguard to prevent disaster or abuse makes the greatest economic and practical sense.

To customers anxious for energy use information to facilitate lower energy costs, the ability to view actual activity online, not in aggregate or summary form but in real-time, broken out by device or system, is the perfect answer. Coactive has found ways to give this data a friendly graphical web interface too, so customers do not need an engineering degree to decipher and act on the information presented. Coupled with cost thresholds, this feedback becomes a key element of informed energy use and enhanced customer service.

Potentially the most revolutionary value of the gateway lies in its sophisticated delivery control capabilities. Instead of the blunt instrument of area brownouts, guaranteed to cause problems and inflame customer tempers, picture a refined and nearly imperceptible lowering of usage levels, centrally orchestrated by means of gateway software, to forestall the problems associated with peak demand. With access to precise monitoring and control capabilities, thresholds can be programmed to pinpoint thousands of residences and businesses for a two or three-degree change in air conditioning unit set-points and the cycling or output level adjustment of other non-critical equipment. The flexibility of the technology even provides room for creative customer service options. For example, pre-arranged fee incentives could dictate percentage or primary and secondary use reduction targets.

Technology framework

From a user perspective, the beauty of the technology is its ability to transform data from a variety of sourcesà‚–appliances, light switches, thermostats, security sensors, and utility metersà‚–into useful, easy-to-understand information. To do this, Coactive essentially turns the home into a network, which may include anything that can be plugged in. That network is then linked to the wide-area network, and finally to multiple head-end applications. That’s in contrast to a device-connectivity approach, such as the one that many AMR solutions employ, that links a single deviceà‚–the meterà‚–into the wide-area network.

Coactive’s framework for connecting networks and control systems to larger data networks and the Internet is its IOConnect Architecture. IOConnect Architecture is a patent-pending embedded distributed object technology that allows a single flexible, telemetry channel to provide the central capability needed to implement the full range of e-services, from AMR, to appliance automation, to load management. It also provides the reliability, scalability, and manageability required for large and complex systems, such as those linking a million or more homes to a service-provider head-end.

Coactive gateway inputs can be either powerline or twisted pair. PCs and information appliances are connected using HomePNA. IOConnect Architecture adheres to open protocol standards including LonWorks, CeBUS, and X-10. This protects the investment of the utility by allowing interoperable, multi-vendor solutions that promote competition, expand markets and ultimately lower costs.

Coative provides a transparent gateway between the IP and device network protocols, so that anything on the home network can be remotely monitored and controlled from anywhere with Internet access. It also offers the advantage of being able to create this connectivity without requiring an investment in new wiring or other infrastructureà‚–inside or outside the home. Outside the home, the gateway utilizes any of the standard IP connections, including existing phone lines, cable or cable modem, ISDN, xDSL, or wireless mediaà‚–whichever is available.

From the service provider standpoint, a big part of the technology’s appeal is that the network created can expand to support multiple services, those initially planned as well as future enhancements. As new home automation devices, smart appliances and upgrades to existing services become available, or as business strategies call for new offerings, the utility can simply download new software to the gatewayà‚–remotely of courseà‚–to all those devices already installed in customers’ homes.

The future of e-services

The uptake of such technological innovation by utility service providers has been predictably slow in the initial stages. Pilot tests of planned configurations are necessary. But adoption is rapidly gaining momentum.

Figure 3. The Coactive Connector 2000
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Within the last year Coactive announced two key customers with initial service rollouts, and both have plans for expansion. Sensel, a subsidiary of Sweden’s Vattenfall, has begun installation of the gateway in 500 000 homes. DTE Energy Technologies in the USA is using the gateway for two innovative web-based service bundles, one a combination of energy monitoring and data services that helps businesses reduce operating costs, the other an integration of temperature monitoring to ensure food safety.

Meanwhile, appliance manufacturers are moving forward with a plethora of ‘smart’ products ready to take advantage of web and home network connectivity. On the other side of the loop, wireless phone and hand-held device makers are realizing that, given the nature and size of required data transmissions as well as functional realities, e-services that involve monitoring and communicating with your household remotely may just be a perfect market primer.

“Within three to five years,” Gaw predicts, “all major utilitiesà‚–and other service providers such as telcos and cable companies tooà‚–will be offering some combination of home automation e-services to their customers.”

‘Smart homes’ in Europe from Sensel AB

Deregulation has provided a powerful incentive for energy utility companies to pursue new services, both to retain customers and to add new revenue streams.

Sensel AB is one example of this development. Sensel is a subsidiary of Vattenfall AB, Sweden’s largest electrical utility. In a move designed to build a sustainable competitive advantage in a changing market climate, Vattenfall established Sensel to be the access provider for a multitude of continuously evolving service options. Vattenfall, through the Sensel platform, became the world’s first utility to announce the rollout of a complete telemetry e-services programme to its customers. Over the next two years, Sensel plans to expand its smart home offerings to more than 500 000 homes in Sweden and throughout Northern Europe.

Informed by Vattenfall’s years of research and experience in the field of remote control of electrical appliances, Sensel looked to Coactive Networks, a leader in the development of residential gateways, to provide the Internet connectivity devices that would enable the range of smart home and telemetry e- services.

The sophisticated gateway technology of the Coactive Connector was tailored to deliver several key features required:

  • Multiple home network support: Connections to appliances and devices in the home are primarily accomplished using the existing electrical wiring, but certain home systems were best connected using a twisted pair connection. The gateway was required to support both of these media.
  • Dial-up and broadband access: The gateway supports communication outside the home by sharing the consumer’s telephone line, thereby enabling deployment to the entire territory, but it can also support customers with DSL or cable.
  • Security and privacy: A sophisticated system that includes user ID, PIN code, a special Sensel-key and 168-bit encryption creates an impenetrable wall between service providers and eliminates any possibility of home data being compromised.
  • Scalability and reliability: Millions of sites and large numbers of applications can be efficiently managed and maintained without a single bottleneck or point of failure due to the incorporation of standard network management protocols and the unique distributed object approach of Coactive’s IOConnect Architecture.
  • Customized enclosure: To build the Sensel brand, the gateway was delivered with a customized cover specifically designed for European homes.

Various service providers work in collaboration with Sensel, and can download software to the gateway to configure and upgrade communications with specific appliances and systems in the customer home. For example:

  • An appliance manufacturer might have a specific agreement to monitor refrigerator temperatures, perform service checks, log and transmit content data from bar code scans, and even suggest menus and recipes based on household buying preferences.
  • A home insurance provider might offer a lower rate based on the existence of certain safety measures, such as active leak and moisture detection monitors and security systems that pinpoint intrusions, trigger deterrent systems such as lights, and send alerts to homeowners as well as law enforcement.

Customers can communicate directly with appliances, devices, and systems in their homes by going to a private interactive web page where clicking on service icons allows them to monitor status and change settings. Customers can also use any touch tone telephone to access services, messages or alarms.