Smart lighting & smart hub DIY install: does it yield?

The whole-home automation market is in many ways the Wild West, with industry heavyweights jumping in and small innovators getting noticed. This market is still new, with a vast diversity of products, controlled devices, and levels of service. Although utilities might conclude from the frenetic market pace that it’s better to wait until the market settles down before they get involved, a statewide energy efficiency utility, Efficiency Vermont, saw the benefit to jumping in early.

They designed a pilot to map, define, and measure the interactions of Home Energy Management System (HEMS) hubs and their connected devices. Staff screened and then selected a representative sample of homes to participate. The pilot collected data that could fill two knowledge gaps on connected devices. The first gap related to smart lighting, controlled by HEMs hubs; the study metered the lighting so that the data could inform the extent to which it might save energy under real-world uses. The study filled the second gap by cataloging a wide variety of devices used with smart outlets. To map baseline energy use, staff metered smart bulbs with light loggers and compared the data to standard, non-smart bulb energy use. The pilot also tested the products’ aptitude for an energy efficiency program in the retail market by assessing the participants’ “out of the box” experience with installation and use. The study asked participants to offer additional information, via two surveys during the pilot. Their responses helped inform Efficiency Vermont about the product opportunity from a program standpoint, and about challenges and advantages from using these interactive devices. 

The pilot also showed unexpected types of use. Smart bulbs make dimming possible where none had existed before, and the results indicated that participants frequently dimmed their bulbs. In an average home, only about 10 percent of lamps are on dimmer switches. Homeowners in this pilot chose to dim their bulbs 38 percent of the time to varying light levels. This new option could yield even more efficiency potential as well as demand response opportunity. This is a big opportunity for both the lighting market and efficiency programs. We now need additional research to quantify such savings potential, and to determine how the types of homes and rooms in which these bulbs are installed might affect those savings.

There was no significant statistical difference in projected annual operating hours for smart bulbs in households that used regular automation, versus those that did not. Since these were do-it-yourself installations, with no guidance on how to schedule lighting use for greater efficiency, this finding shows that a significant opportunity exists for efficiency in scheduling. 

This study also monitored and catalogued what participants plugged into their smart outlets. At one point in the study, at least 67 percent of participants recorded having some sort of lighting device plugged in (lamps, lighted ornaments / string lights, or night lights). The additional dimming capability of the smart bulb in most cases offset whatever value the on / off outlet remote control provided for these non-smart bulbs.

The pilot’s results showed that users were enthusiastic about the energy and cost savings they can achieve with HEMS technology. Efficiency Vermont received a strong response to its request for participants which indicates that smart homes represent a major opportunity for efficiency programs to engage with a highly motivated market. All respondents who began the study participated fully throughout the study period.

This study represents an ideal setup for smart home technology, with major smart-home industry barriers removed through careful selection of products. Within that context we found that participants were largely able to install the smart products on their own, in an environment that mirrors a retail purchase experience. The survey responses offered a full understanding of the challenges with the equipment, particularly during installation. Despite these challenges, 47 percent of participants were surprised at how easy it was to install the product. Others were able to resolve their installation challenges, once they used the manufacturers’ support tools. Efficiency Vermont staff have concluded that there is opportunity for a retail program initiative based on these results if we can prove out the savings. Nevertheless, we also recognize that further study is needed to evaluate post-installation measure life. Will consumers keep these products connected to the grid, or are they a novelty to be discarded after a few months? Overall, participants’ satisfaction with smart products is high: 80 percent said they were “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with the HEMS hub; 87 percent said they were “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with smart bulbs; and 74 percent signaled similar satisfaction with the smart outlet. Customers value these products. Nearly all reported their experience with the products to be “neutral,” “satisfied,” or “very satisfied” at the conclusion of the study. 

In terms of energy efficiency program design, we now understand the challenges with installing and using these devices. This knowledge will help us and other efficiency programs partner in new ways with manufacturers to optimize performance and functionality. In this way, we hope to increase the persistence of energy savings as well as give us new opportunities to engage with customers directly. Automation might offer additional savings, given investments in efficiency opportunities. This study investigated two different manufacturers’ certified-compatible HEMS ecosystems, and found no significant difference in projected annual hours of use between the two. This suggests that efficiency programs could scale similar initiatives across manufacturers, assuming strict selection criteria for qualified products.

This study is the first to assess smart lighting and HEMS devices in real-world settings, with a nearly universal efficient application, light bulbs. Efficiency Vermont believes that the study has provided new direction for, and offers insights into, collaborating with and influencing the future state of the smart industry. Objectives might range from meeting short-term program needs, such as effective engagement with customers and achieving energy savings, to long-term influences, such as reductions in energy needed for demand response, improvements in data sharing, and integration with distributed energy resources.

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