We’re deaf and blind when it comes to the resources we use at home. We get a bill, pay it, and know little else about our water and electricity habits (although plenty of companies will analyze your utility bill for you).
Any home could soon become a "smart home," however, with a few sensors that attach plug directly into the current infrastructure, says Shwetak Patel, a professor of computer science and electrical engineering at the University of Washington, in Seattle, in MIT’s Technology Review.
Patel has developed a suite of devices that "listen" to the flow of electricity, gas and water coursing through your home to reveal exactly what is being consumed (or leaked). This new class of sensors, now being commercialized by Belkin as Echo Water and Echo Electricity, are part of the emerging "Internet of Things" that promise to link up the world’s devices into smart networks.
Trials have already began in five states, reports Kevin Ashton, head of cleantech initiatives at Belkin, and the Department of Defense is installing the technology on military bases. The sensors, by listening to the signature pattern of pressure or frequency in a home’s plumping and electrical system, can detect exactly what is consuming resources from a leaky faucet to a flipped switch. The sensor software can then pick out individual devices with 95% accuracy, says Ashton, and may soon start to recognize not just the device, but the make and model as well. Sensors essentially plug into wall outlets, or attach to existing infrastructure.
Rolling these home sensor networks out across the country, however, presents a massive challenge. The suite of sensors are likely to cost a few hundred dollars for home use which could deter many homeowners. Instead, Ashton believe, the economics incentives for utilities may prove more enticing.
"My hunch is that for a true mass market market where [these sensors] becomes truly effective from a sustainability perspective, it’s probably better if utilities roll it out," says Ashton. "We’re still figuring out what the market looks like."
Echo, and other technologies like it, are planned for roll out during the next few years with commercial and government applications, as well as residential. Companies such as Samsung are also starting to commercialize similar devices which first emerged at universities such as MIT and Carnegie Mellon during the 1990s.
Ultimately, it’s all leading to homes that can predict when appliances break, ferret out leaks and wasteful devices, and supply a flood of information giving you a live readout of everything happening at home even when you’re not there.