The UK’s Smartest Home? Part 1
The home of Chris and Clare Hunter has a traditional stone exterior that belies the all-encompassing smart home system that resides within. A house that makes intelligent autonomous decisions rather than rely on its occupants to operate remote controls. Dr Karam from Idratek takes us through this incredible installation, their most comprehensive to date…
This time we are exploring an installation which perhaps goes to another extreme. A great example of the flexibility and scalability of the system, and the ingenuity and creativity of its owners, who were and are very much immersed in planning, installing, and ‘bespoking’ their system .
When Chris and Clare Hunter embarked on their self-build adventure, some years ago, they were keen to create a physical living space they could mould to be their own, and Home Automation (HA) was a key technology to include. Not just as an add-on, but very much part of the whole, and an important enabler . We asked Chris to provide us with a bit of background and tell us something about what they wanted to achieve :
The Smart Home We Wanted
“Not buying ready-made, meant we could arrange things to suit us better . The site was village infill and quite small, making it a challenge to achieve something we were happy with . We had to think everything through carefully, and we often found ourselves challenging and departing from the norm, both with the house, and with the Home Automation. We wanted accommodation that functioned well for us, providing convenience and comfort, open-plan, well insulated, and with good acoustics a priority. A largish-family and/or friends staying on-occasion, so sociable, too, ecomonic, small environmental impact, and we had no fear of using state of the art approaches .”
In terms of physical layout, the property is situated on a slope, facing east, and is laid-out on three floors with the stairs in the middle. From the front, at ground level, there’s the garage with basement beyond (hosting a small swimming machine). Up the stairs there’s an open-plan kitchen-diner to the left and guest accommodation with media area to the right. Both open onto the garden and, up again to the top floor, there’s an open-plan bedroom area to the left and a lounge / study area to the right. Running up through the centre, either side of the stairs, are a pair of service duct chimneys. These rise up from the plant room and open into every floor, both big-enough to accommodate ventilation ductwork. All in all quite a bit different to the previous three-bed semi’.
Chris’ Home Automation ambitions were clear from the start…
“With the Home Automation, we decided to go all the way – full automation and no conventional fall-back. If cars can completely rely on computers for engine management / people-comfort / support services, why not a house, too ? They are hugely better for it, so the house should be, too . We looked particularly at EIB / Knx, C-Bus, Niko, Dupline, EnOcean, IDRATEK, and later Velbus. All had advantages, different mixes of cost, capability, topology, intelligence, data-logging, reliability, support, flexibility, appearance, DIY, WAF. We chose Idratek for all these, but mostly for its intelligence, its affordability, do-able approach, and its prospects for future development”
Well of course we were pleased to be chosen for their project, but never did we imagine what it would become. Certainly we are aware of some pretty large installations, in much larger properties, but we reckon that Chris and Clare’s system is one of the most extensive we’ve seen in a single home – and they’ve certainly come-up with some imaginative uses.
I just love some of their departures from the norm. For example, in this age of touch-screen technology, their LED status indicator board idea is almost like having a retro radio set. But knowing very well the humungous amount of information their system is generating, minute by minute, I can well understand that it is truly useful and not just a matter of a nostalgic visual appeal. And as for connecting a model railway into the same automation structure ! What also impresses me, though, are the numerous intricate features they have implemented for themselves, utilising extensible Cortex constructs. Detailed features to suit their particular environment, benefiting from the overall integration umbrella.
“For us, this was important – a glorified remote-control and/or super-smart programmer / thermostat was not what we wanted, the HA had to go further, much further, and be non-intrusive and provide context sensitivity, and be easy to tune and adapt and grow in the light of experience, and as new things come along .”
By the Numbers
To be honest, I have found it difficult to think about how to write this article. Chris and Clare have done so much. So, in the end, I thought maybe I should just hand over to Chris’s own description. But before I go, I think it’s worthwhile providing some context, in the form of statistics, gleaned from their system database :
Total number of physical modules is 260 – so over 1000 individual networked devices, including over eighty lighting circuits, some directly dimmable, some switch-emulation dimmable (I kid you not), some just plain on/off … sensing and control elements (and logic, of course) for the underfloor heating and hot-water services, which include thermal stores, solar heating, pool heating, and operational functions. I counted over eighty motion sensors (imagine the battery replacement rota, if these were wireless) used for occupancy tracking & security, and around ninety temperature sensors – some for measuring air temperatures, others for management of various heat services, such as the pool water, solar heating system, thermal stores, bath water, tap water, etc, plus fifty humidity sensors, more than fifty light-level sensors, fifteen door & window sensors. And over a hundred & fifty digital inputs for things like float sensors, lid sensors, proximity sensors, appliance status; and around one hundred & thirty push buttons or button clusters (total individual button- count well over three hundred). As for the number of switched output devices, I gave up trying to count – but washers, driers, air-curtain, pool pumps, pool paddle, water-outlet solenoids, UFH and general heating system pumps and valves, microwaves, steam oven, warming drawer, extractor fans. You’ve probably got the general picture by now and, of course, let’s not forget the model railway! Eight panel-type modules add intercom, synthesised speech and sound prompt services, as well as infra-red transceivers, and there are two external video intercom units, twenty-five pulse-output power meters, seven flow meters … OK, I think I’d better stop there.
Total number of Cortex objects is just about 2200 – each a representation of a physical device in software, or an abstract object such as logic gates, macros, menus, heating controllers, and so on. Each individual object has its own behaviour paradigm, and settings, and multiple software inter-connections to other objects (hence the name, Cortex).
Chris and Clare are still running the system using a miniITX platform, awaiting an upgrade to something more powerful, when budget allows and they have finally completed finishing the house, to improve responsiveness and allow expansion to include more sophisticated video handling from CCTV etc. Also, no attempt has yet been made to use the extensive external connectivity functions – the Cortex server, e-mail, SMS, and mobile options – which awaits a new router install. So, over to Chris …
We recently finished building and fitting-out, so we’re now busy clearing- and cleaning-up, painting and painting, and beginning to move-in – it’ll be a while before it looks pretty and, while all the electrics are fully tested, the dust situation forces us to keep patch-panels & comm’s outlets taped-over or fully-populated (and not in- use) .
We thought carefully about how to wire – we wanted full, flexible and (as if it’s possible) future-proof facilities, at sensible cost. So we minimised the number of locations to wire-to (to around forty – about a third the number there were in our previous perfectly standard three-bed semi’, which had no HA at all) . We then wired and plumbed and ducted to each location, as comprehensively as we could :
- Mains - light and power (radial, no rings)
- CT100 – TV , Radio and Time (via DAB)
- Cat-5e UTP - point-to-point connections
- Cat-6 UTP - network connections
- Cat-5e FTP IDRANet - sensors & actuators
- Water - hot and cold plus waste + 24V supply
- Ventilation - integrated inlets and outlets
- Smoke and Fire sensors
Quantities of each of course vary with location and not quite everything goes to every place (water for example), and in some cases we ran tentacles out to nearby places, for lights. We drew-up tables for people to work-to, but everything is spurred from either the PlantRoom (water and air and vacuum going up via the service-ducts on each sides of the stairs, then out within the floors to each location) or from Node0, on the middle floor (electricals exiting top and bottom, directly into the floors, then radiating out to the locations). Water waste pipes necessarily go their own way, of course.
Our Node Zero
- Consumer-Units - eight units (four power, four light) each with an RCD and generally one MCB per location
- 24/7 PC (MiniITX) dedicated to running Cortex and IDRANet - feeding two IPS intelligent power supplies, with extra-large batteries to cover for power-cuts, feeding eight junction-boxes, feeding free-topology spurs to the modules at every location
- CT100 patch-panel
- Cat-5e patch-panel
- Cat-6 Ethernet switches
- 24V power supply
- SolarLogic - dedicated to roof-top vacuum-tubes
- Genvex Optima 310 controller – for the MVHR
- MGE UPS - covering 24/7 PC, SolarLogic, solar pump, Node0-lights
Our UPS lasts about three hours, but we live in the country, so when budget allows we need to add an inverter generator (100A PME connection, coming via overhead power-lines with transformers atop poles by the school which is vulnerable to the weather) . All in all our total cable run, all types, came out at around 17km.
In part 2 we’ll look at those cable runs in detail, as well as lots more photos of this amazing home automation system (coming soon).