May 01, 2008
by Steven Castle
There are solar panels on the roof. There are monitors in the house that display energy savings. And there are efficient compact fluorescent lights (CFLs) throughout. All very green—and very automated.
We should say very, very automated. Lights come on and turn off automatically. Blinds shut when it’s time to cool the home. Beyond the energy-saving green functions of this abode, a sophisticated home control system provides security alerts in a woman’s voice—yes, the house talks—and can be controlled by voice commands. Incoming phone calls are screened by the system, and announcements are made when the mail is delivered or a car appears in the driveway.
The 2,500-square-foot Caribbean-style home in Jupiter, FL, called Lucia, started as a model for Solaris Communities, which plans a development of eco-friendly homes in the West Palm Beach area. But Solaris owner Tom Pirelli and his family liked the home so much that they moved in and now use it as their second home. (Their primary residence is in Chicago.) “We lived in an automated house for 10 years in Chicago, but that’s no place to be putting solar panels. When we decided to move to Florida, we were able to put it all in,” Pirelli says.
To say the Pirellis went all out on this house may be an understatement. There’s the 4-kilowatt solar array of Sharp photovoltaic panels on one south-facing roof in the back of the house, so they’re not visible from the street. A solar thermal system provides all of the home’s hot water needs.
When the pool pump and air-conditioning are not running, Pirelli says, the solar panels produce more electricity than is needed. It’s tied to the utility grid, so the power goes into the local system, and the home’s meter runs backwards when it’s producing extra energy. Pirelli expects energy costs during the summer will be about half that of an average home.
He can track his energy savings on monitors in the house that run an Environmental Management Automation (EMA) system that his company, Solaris Home Systems, has developed. The computerized system senses the occupants’ energy use and anticipates and reports in real-time on the current use of electricity, water and even the carbon footprint of the home. Touchscreens in the entry from the garage and the kitchen display the information, which can also be accessed by computers and the home’s LCD TV.
Pirelli attributes a large part of his energy savings to the use of CFLs. All of the home’s 120 bulbs, according to Pirelli are energy-efficient CFLs, and they’re all dimmable to save even more energy. (Most CFLs aren’t dimmable and will flicker or become damaged if dimmed.) All the lighting in the house is completely programmable, thanks to a Vantage Controls system. In-wall touchpads contain buttons that enact preprogrammed “scenes” using only the lights that are needed.
The lights will turn on and off automatically, due to occupancy sensors in most rooms. Some infrared sensors on the ceilings detect the body heat of anyone in a room, and magnetic sensors in doors command lights to come on when someone crosses the threshold. Outside lights automatically illuminate 30 minutes after dusk.
Motorized Venetian blinds also get cues from sensors. If no one is home, the blinds will lower. If someone presses an away button, the blinds will lower, the lights will shut down, and the thermostats will be adjusted to allow the temperature to get to 85 degrees Fahrenheit before the air-conditioning comes on.
Water is conserved as well. There are low-flow toilets and faucets, and when someone enters a bathroom, a door jamb sensor triggers a recirculating pump that replaces any cold water in the warm-water pipes with hot, which Pirelli says results in a huge water savings, because you don’t have to run the water until it warms up. (The replaced cold water is reused elsewhere.) Outside, moisture sensors override an automated sprinkler system so plants are watered only when needed.
So when does the house talk? Lucia’s voice comes over speakers to identify the caller on an incoming phone call, for example. Think of it as an advanced form of caller ID. Telemarketing calls are stymied by the system when it asks for the caller’s name and hangs up when none is given.
At the press of a button, the Pirellis can use Lucia’s voice to call their teenagers to the dinner table. She will also announce when cars arrive in the driveway, thanks to sensors placed there. To avoid annoying announcements every time someone leaves, there are two sensors in the driveway, and the announcement is only activated when the one nearest the road is tripped first.
The voice system is also great for security. If someone gets in without using a code, the lights flash, the voice tells them the police have been called, and security cameras take an incriminating picture. A webcam located across the street even takes images of license plates that come in the driveway.
All this is controlled by HomeSeer software, along with an Elk security system and the Vantage lighting, which run on a common Dell computer. The dedicated computer monitors everything in the house, including security sweeps to see what windows or doors are opened. “That Dell computer has so much power that we can check everything,” Pirelli says.
Pirelli started in home automation as a hobby for his Chicago home. He said he had tried Internet-based IP-controlled thermostats but had had problems with them. He found HomeSeer to be flexible and inexpensive and filled in with Elk products to monitor the temperatures and magnetic sensors. “Piece by piece, the system got more sophisticated, he says, “so that now it can adjust the angle of the wood slats in the Venetian blinds. Even the mailbox by the road sends a signal when opened so the voice in the house says, ‘You’ve got mail.’”
So what’s next for the Pirellis’ green home? “We’re going to put in rainwater recycling, and it’s so clean, you can actually use it for drinking water.”
For more articles on green technology, check out Steve Castle’s Green Blog.
Steven Castle is Electronic House's managing editor. he has been writing about consumer electronics, homes and energy efficiency topics for two decades. He is also the co-founder of GreenTech Advocates