Joiners, decorators, furnishers and installers of home electronics have been busy in a previously unused part of Vattenfall’s Älvkarleby laboratory since the beginning of June. This work has now been completed, but what looks at first sight to be a regular studio apartment is actually a new laboratory for the homes of the future.
“Previously we were forced to test new ideas at someone’s home, but we can now test everything exhaustively in our new laboratory. We are really raring to go,” says Jonas Alin, Head of Technology for New Businesses at R&D.
A responsive lab
A few days after the inauguration of the Smart Home i-Lab (the ”i” stands for integration), an alarm went off to alert staff to the presence of moisture in the vicinity of the washing machine. It turned out that a hose had come off due to a careless installation and sprayed water onto the floor.
“We quickly fixed the hose and wiped up the water that had run out. In future we can imagine that features of this kind will become standard and perhaps even a requirement of the insurance companies,” says Ulrika Morild at R&D, who led the lab construction project.
Sensors and detectors are a key part of the new lab apartment, and apart from measuring moisture, light, temperature and air quality, they can also detect if someone is present or moving about in a room, or whether a door is open or closed.
“With the aid of sensors and detectors, advanced features can be made available that are simple to use or are activated automatically. These may include controlling the quantity and quality of the lighting to create a daylight feeling inside, or to link energy consumption and charging to prices on the energy exchange,” says Morild.
How the lab is designed
The lab is equipped with a kitchen, a utility room, an outside area and a garage driveway. There is also a living room with a sofa and a TV corner. App-controlled lighting, advanced door locks and a series of other technical solutions are installed in addition to all the usual domestic appliances. A solar cell array of 3 kW is located on the roof, and a special technical room contains an inverter (**), a battery with a capacity of 3 kWh as well as measuring equipment.
“We let an architect design the apartment, and we want the lab to give visitors a taste of the future. Compared with a real home, it really only lacks a bedroom. A series of energy-smart products and services are already available, such as output control or the micro-production and storage of energy. We will see how they affect each other by testing them in a home-like environment,” says Morild.
Testing a new charging technology
Among the first units to be tested is an electric car charger with load balancing. The idea is for the system to recognise the electricity consumption of the other devices in the household and adapt its charging pattern accordingly. The car can then be charged safely at the same time as the sauna and washing machine are switched on – without tripping the main fuse.
“There are already a couple of solutions on the market, but we are trying to develop a technology that selects intelligently how much current is to go to the car and how much to the rest of the home. The car charging rate does then not have to be reduced as much when the other electrical appliances are swi
tched on,” says Jonas Alin.
The lab is also set up to further develop EnergyWatch, Vattenfall’s app designed to visualise and control electricity consumption at home.
Early investments in intelligent homes
Already at the end of the 1990s, Vattenfall invested in developing new services for what was then called the “intelligent home”. Then as now, falling electricity prices led Vattenfall to conclude that it would be difficult to earn money in future purely by generating and selling electricity. So customers were to be offered the option of controlling the temperature of their refrigerator, monitoring that the cooker was off when no one was at home, that the dishwasher did not leak water as well as checking the burglar alarm. Like so many other projects developed during the IT bubble, this investment proved to be a fiasco. But many of the ideas which flopped then, such as the sale of food and clothing on line, are today both profitable and a natural part of many peoples’ daily lives.
“Our reality was fundamentally different then,” says Alin as he takes his mobile phone from his pocket and explains. “Mobile phones have changed consumer behaviour quite radically, and people now expect them to control everything. Now that Vattenfall is focussing on its customers, we hope that the Smart Home i-Lab will become a resource and support for the BU’s that will be developing new products and services.”
(**) An inverter is a device that converts the frequency, voltage or current type (DC/AC) in an electric circuit
A video (in Swedish) with an advertisement for the intelligent home from 2000:
“Hi house! Call me if anything goes wrong while I’m away”