Smart home My intelligent home

A smart home takes better care of you than any butler.

by Edith Arnold 19 May 2016

Welcome home: many smart ideas still exist only in the minds of inventors.

On the way to his holiday home in Tuscany, Stefan Arn, Head of IT at UBS Switzerland, sets the temperature in the house and the swimming pool. He also tells the coffee machine to switch on an hour before he arrives. “Smart homes are smart if they meet real needs like energy efficiency and security. These functions must simply be integrated into daily life,” says Arn, who has installed such systems in his over 600-year-old house.

The prefabricated building called “Am Wasser” (On the Water) in Zurich-Höngg looks like anything but a smart home. Yet this is the hub of ETH spin-off Smart Home Technology. What are the company’s goals? “Everyday efficiency!” says founder Felix Adamczyk. “All energy-consuming devices in our studio are switched off at night, with the exception of the motor for the blinds. These operate at weekends to stop birds nesting in the boxes. I can also switch on the lights in my three-room apartment via my smartphone and wall switches.”

Together with his team, the engineer develops modules to control lighting, heating, blinds, air conditioning and surveillance equipment. Bluetooth Switch, SOS Notruf and SMS Switch are all products developed in cooperation with intertechno that have been sold in DIY stores for the past year. Adamczyk is particularly proud of SMS Switch: “A SIM card makes the device accessible from anywhere – without the internet. If the electricity goes off at home because burglars have cut the power or a fuse has blown, the device detects it and has enough power to report the incident by text message.”

Will you let “smart spies” into your home?

What was once called building automation is now known as a “smart home” and tomorrow will be the Internet of Things. Building technology, household appliances, electronic entertainment – everything can be networked more intelligently. For places that can’t be reached with cables, Adamczyk recommends wireless solutions. Powerline systems are particularly practical: they use electrical wiring. “However, if you send communications via normal electricity cables, this can function like an antenna. You’re transmitting signals throughout the building,” says Adamczyk. 

An enormous market is emerging. Google has its Nest thermostats, Apple has HomeKit, and Amazon has its Echo voice-controlled speaker. Which tools will you let into your home? Some ceiling lights with WLAN look like spies. There are systems that locate a mobile phone and switch on the heating when the owner is close to home. Measurement systems known as smart meters visualize the energy consumption of individual devices. These figures can be useful. Perhaps soon we’ll be charging up electric cars at midday, because wind and sunlight make power cheaper then.

Always on

Electric car manufacturer Tesla has linked up with the digitalSTROM company to work on remote controls for their smart home systems. At digitalSTROM’s headquarters in Schlieren, a show apartment offers insights into the new world. A touch screen is the only sign of high-tech. Communication is via normal electricity cables; lights and switches have clips. In the bathroom, towels can be pre-warmed, and the flow and temperature of the shower adjusted to the user. In the kitchen, an Amazon Echo speaker awaits commands in English. 

When everything functions automatically, what will the occupants do? They can keep moving thanks to gesture-controlled devices, or even generate electricity themselves with a Free Electric home trainer. Always on? Freedom is having control of all our smart tools at all times.

Health tip

Edith Steiner of Doctors for the Environment says: “Wireless control devices that don’t use WLAN are often inefficient but low in emissions. By contrast, transmission via the power supply produces frequencies in the lower megahertz range.” She recommends bus systems with shielded cables or fiber glass.