One of the biggest issues people have with saving energy is that it requires them to do something, like make a conscious effort to turn off the lights every time they leave the house. If you have a large house or a brood of kids, that can be a real drag, so much so that after a few weeks you stop doing it and go back to your old ways.
By automating those lights and other electronic systems, you’ll no longer feel like a slave to the green movement. Instead, you’ll be living exactly the way you normally live, while the automation system does all the switching for you—automatically at certain times of the day or when it receives a signal from a motion sensor, for example.
The homeowners profiled here prove what’s possible when you choose to automate. They’ve been able to save money on their utility bills, for sure. But on a grander scale, it’s inspired them to become more energy conscious in other areas of their lives. They’ve taken up walking to the store instead of driving, buying organic and choosing recycled products for their home. All it took was a little automation to set them on their path toward greener living.
CARBON NEUTRAL NEAR CAPITOL HILL
Dave Smith initially wanted a house smaller than the 2,800-square-foot Los Angeles home he and his family had lived in for 10 years. But what Dave, his wife Louise and daughter Bella found in their move to McLean, Va., was a 5,000-square-foot, green, solar- and geothermal-fueled, carbon neutral residence, fully equipped with a sophisticated home automation system. “The fact that the house was green wasn’t initially what attracted us to it,” says Smith. “We liked the size of it and its contemporary style. Also, although it was considerably larger than our Los Angeles home, it wasn’t the mansion-sized home that seemed to define most of what was available in McLean.”
The CharityWorks GreenHouse, as it is known nationally, was designed and constructed by GreenSpur in Falls Church, Va., to be the first carbon-neutral show house in the country. (GreenSpur defines a carbon neutral home as being 80 percent more efficient than a comparable home built to standard building codes. Consequently, the “carbon neutral” home emits 80 percent less carbon.)
Elements like solar panels; solar hot water, geothermal heating and cooling, structural insulated panels (SIPs), LED lights, recycled building materials, low-flow water fixtures, a rainwater harvesting system, and Energy Star-rated appliances and windows all contribute to the savings. But according to GreenSpur president Mark Turner, it’s the home’s automation system that may have the biggest impact. “The most important thing when it comes to saving energy is having people change their behavior,” he says. “It’s more critical, even, than having solar panels.”
One 7-inch touchpanel in the home and Dave’s iPad relate real-time energy production and consumption information to Smiths. They can see in an instant how many kilowatts of electricity the solar cells are generating hourly and daily, and compare that to a read-out of how many kilowatts of electricity the lights, heating and cooling system and other devices are burning. “You can actually see the bar graph change as lights are turned on and off,” says Jordon Hobart of Hill Residential Systems, the company that designed the AMX NetLinx and Lutron HomeWorks control systems.
By reviewing their household energy trends, the Smiths can change how and when they heat and cool the house and dim a few lights lower than the current 85 percent presets. Even minor adjustments like these can make a big difference, says Smith. “For one month, our electricity bill was $73, and this was in the summer when we had our AC running.” That’s a drop in the bucket compared to the monthly $700 bill they paid for a 6,000-square-foot rental house down the street.
The Smiths attribute most of the energy savings to the efficient use of their heating and cooling system. Managed by the AMX system, the home’s three thermostats adjust automatically at times that were programmed into the system. MORNING, DAY, EVENING and night modes are scheduled, but to reduce their energy use even more, the Smiths can modify the temperature set points and start times of any mode on any thermostat directly from the screen of an AMX touchpanel. If they’ll be away for several hours during a time when they are normally home, they can set back the heat or air conditioning temporarily or extend the DAY mode. Granted, it’s possible to do this without the help of a home automation system, but the Smiths doubt they would be so conscientious if they had to reset each thermostat manually. “Being able to control every thermostat from one spot is a huge convenience,” says Smith.
Another simple, yet highly effective energy-saving feature—this one facilitated by the Lutron HomeWorks system—is an ALL OFF button. Found on Lutron keypads by each exterior door, the command switches off every light in the house—again, something the Smiths would likely not take the time to do the old-fashioned way. A green mode may soon be added to the system, too. When engaged, it will adjust the thermostats and lights to reduce their energy consumption by 25 percent.
By being simple, convenient and straightforward, automation systems have introduced the Smiths to a greener, more energy-conscious lifestyle. “Now that I understand the benefits of green technology, I can’t imagine living in a house without it. I’ve been bitten by the green bug. I may not be as extreme as Ed Begley Jr., but I’m closer than I’ve ever been.”
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Lisa Montgomery has been writing about home technology for 15 years, with a focus on the impact of electronics on a modern lifestyle.