Idratek are well known for their work in building intricate smart home systems whilst reducing the complexity for the user. Director, Karam Karam takes us through a recent assisted living installation that has lessons for all home automators…
Why is this? Probably because of the perception of what home automation is and how it tends to be used. Often the focus is rather more on control than automation – providing users with ever more convenient (and sometimes complex) ways of accessing appliances in the home, from a remote thermostat to lighting that can be controlled from a touch screen. In the context of assisted living these simple features can be useful but perhaps not compelling enough for a full install, especially also for a significant part of the potential client base who may find it a bit daunting to be faced with an array of technology to control a few lights or constantly adjust their heating.
IDRATEK has long been known for its emphasis on automation and the desire to reduce user interactions rather than increase them, so maybe it wasn’t too surprising that this technology was chosen to be installed in a small flat occupied by an elderly relative, whilst this was undergoing refurbishment work. This article is not just about the technology but also hopefully provides some insights from client feedback.
Starting off with the install itself: The property comprised a modest 2 bedroom flat with an open plan kitchen diner and adjoining lounge. As is usual these days not much room to swing the cat, nor to fit large racks of equipment. However the remit was not to skimp on features and to achieve a properly automated and integrated result. To this end, and particularly because hands free audio communications and audio messaging to the occupant were considered important, pretty much all rooms (including bathroom) were primarily fitted with IDRATEK panel style DFP-H02 modules. These provided the audio functions, local user interface, and most of the sensors and actuation capabilities necessary for various automation tasks.
Even though just a small flat, the heating (from a gas fired condensing combi) was to be fully zoned. Old radiators were replaced with newer higher output units allowing faster response when required and in the lounge a single long horizontal unit was replaced by two smart vertical units – improving heat distribution, reducing ‘dead furniture space’ and increasing power output capability. Looked nice too ☺. Each of the 7 radiators in the property was controlled via electrically actuated valve heads handled by 2x IDRATEK QRI-002 relay modules. By virtue of he DFP units every room already had at least one temperature sensor to allow completion of its feedback loop. An SRH-002 relay module provided the heat demand signal to the boiler. The kitchen additionally incorporated a floor level plinth heater to help cosy up the floor area on cold winter days. Its blower was connected to IDRANet using a nearby DRH-002 relay module. Since this was a combi regime no control of hot water was incorporated beyond that offered by the boiler unit itself.
This was limited to automating the bathroom extractor fan. Fan power was controlled via an XRM relay accessory attached to the bathroom DFP module. Temperature and humidity data relating to its control were derived from the DFP unit itself and also from a multi sensor module located in the ceiling . Why two sensors? In this case the ceiling sensor was providing additional motion information from angles blocked by a large glass shower screen. It was also a better place to measure humidity levels. Cortex is no stranger to improving data quality through multiple sensors, so there is no significant commissioning penalty when extra hardware is added in this way.
Lights in the passageways, lounge, dining and kitchen areas were to be dimmable. A mix of down lights and pendant lights was used and the 7 individually dimmed circuits were handled by 2x QLD-001 dimmer modules. Lights in other rooms were simply to be switched. This was accomplished using XRM accessory modules attached to local DFP units (and utilising existing lighting wiring). Additional independent control was provided for kitchen unit lighting with two circuits connected to relays on a local DRB-002 module.
Security / Protection
Again by virtue of the DFP modules and one or two additional smaller modules, PIR coverage was provided in all areas. In the lounge an off the shelf corner mount PIR was connected into a digital input on a DFP module and powered off the IDRANet supply to provide coverage at angles not visible to the DFP module itself. All doors were fitted with standard magnetic reed sensors which connected conveniently via short wiring runs to digital inputs on the nearest IDRATEK module. Two 12V smoke sensors with internal battery backup were connected to digital inputs. Their primary supply again derived from IDRANet. A ceiling mount PLH-001 module in the kitchen area provided localised PIR and light level sensing but also a temperature sensor for rapidly detecting abnormal temperature signals in the cooking area. In fact pretty much all temperature sensors in the property were configured to provide over temperature/rate alerts. Using devices for multiple purposes and to provide redundancy is of course one of the benefits of home automation systems and Cortex makes it particularly easy to do this.
A set of 5 off the shelf pulse count output meters were connected in line with all mains circuits at the consumer box, including very usefully the separate circuit serving the electric cooker. Pulse output signals were simply connected to unused digital inputs on the local QRI modules serving the radiator valves.
IP cameras, lighting to front and rear, an illuminated door bell push button, and an external multi-sensor module were all connected in to the IDRATEK system. As was an off the shelf alarm box (sounder and strobe).
A small under stair cupboard served as the location for the notional node zero. Here was placed the IDRANet intelligent power supply unit. The 2 lighting QLDs and the 2 radiator valve QRIs together with a 24V supply for the valves were also placed here, in a small metal enclosure similar to that of the power supply.
Also in this area a number of other ancillary items were located; such as the Cortex PC platform, the PC/IDRANet interface module, a couple of further small modules dealing with the alarm box and the cupboard light, a modem, router and small Ethernet patch panel. Although not related to the IDRATEK system part of the remit was to include multiple Ethernet and telephone points around the flat and add a few extra mains sockets ‘whilst the electrician was at it’. All of the equipment was ‘boxed off’ with plenty of space to spare in nothing more glamorous than a small IKEA ‘Billly’ book case.
The Cortex floor plan and module commissioning were carried out before fitting the modules. Perhaps testament to DRATEK’s integration philosophy is that despite the complex interacting automation features which are described below, the commissioning process was a relatively straightforward task – automatically endowing introduced objects with connections to others and implementing various automation features without hours of explicit programming. In fact after physically fitting the modules it took less than a day to get the whole system up and running, checked, and ready for use. More detailed adjustments to some parameters such as light level thresholds and heating set point profiles were carried out after the system had been running for a while in order to relate better to installation specific conditions. After the initial install the system was revisited remotely on occasion in order to take account of further user requirements and feedback.
The whole purpose of this install was to provide a convenient and comfortable environment for an elderly person who had no affinity for technology, and also to provide peace of mind for their carers. With ever increasing costs, energy efficiency was also a valued feature though it was not to compromise comfort.
So how has the automation fared? Perhaps one of the most immediately noticed features was the lighting automation. It took the occupant a little while to get accustomed to the idea that they did not have to touch buttons in order for the lights to switch on and off under appropriate light level conditions – other than in the bedroom when retiring for the night. In fact it was more the ‘off’ part that they felt suspicious about since the ‘on’ part happened more quickly than they could reach for a button! In the early days It was like the classic fridge light scenario where the occupant would close a door to a room and think that the light had stayed on because when they next opened it the light was apparently ‘still on’ … Unlike the fridge it was of course easy to show them through the logged data and via mobile access that the light was indeed switching off and just rapidly switching on when the door was opened.
What might be considered a minor but nevertheless prized feature was the automatic reduction of lighting levels in the passageways overnight. That is, when the occupant needed to visit the bathroom not only did the lighting along their path promptly switch on but it also came on at a non-blinding level.
In terms of overall feedback the occupant, who unfortunately suffers onset dementia, reports that they sometimes still wonder if the lights go out when they leave the house or close doors. On the other hand they remark on how they are still in awe when they see the lights in the relatively open plan lounge-kitchen-diner gracefully fade off shortly after they have vacated an area. “How does the system know?” One thing we have noticed over the years is that when you get into the realms of pervasive automation psychological factors begin to have more importance than the abilities of the technology itself. For example, based on the above we considered the idea of giving some feedback on lights switching off in some rooms, perhaps through a spoken message or a sound specific to that light, purely for reassurance. This would be easy to achieve, a simple connection or two in Cortex, but in fact the occupant has declined this for the moment and I think I can understand why.
In so far as the heating is concerned the occupant is living entirely hands free. Although temporary nudge up/down controls are available the occupant has never used these. Since the initial install the set point has been fine tuned in some cases as a result of occupant feedback but mostly to improve savings in areas and at times where it became apparent from accumulated data that there was more margin than initially estimated.
The main feedback from the occupant to date has been: the bedroom initially being too warm overnight (profile duly adjusted) and that on occasion when having a nap in the living room they felt they would get a bit cold. At first we wondered whether the occupancy sensing was failing but after looking at the data we could see that this was not the case and it was simply down to the natural lowering of body temperature when the occupant was inactive. We have since considered introducing an automated temporary upward adjustment based on knowledge that a room was occupied and activity levels very low. But for the time being the occupant felt that the extra energy expenditure was unwarranted and they’d rather simply pull over a light cover when they chose to nap. It is interesting to note that visiting relatives at such times would comment that it was actually too warm… When occasionally asked for feedback about the performance of the heating control the occupant sounds surprised – ‘I don’t know… I don’t really think about it… its always comfortable’.
Despite the emphasis on comfort and it being a small home and occupied most of the time, we estimate energy savings have been in the region of 10% so far and can probably be improved further. 10% may sound like a modest figure but of course it is based on real data and mainly perhaps reflecting the effects of zoning, though the occupant often forgets or perhaps doesn’t like to close doors to unused rooms. A gentle spoken reminder from the system based on ta delayed room unoccupancy signal has been considered, but again for psychological reasons this has not been deployed as yet.
Day to day protection features are largely invisible to the occupant and mainly configured to generate alerts to the carers. As described above, smoke sensors and multiple temperature sensors are configured to send out SMS and e-mail alerts to relatives under abnormal circumstances. House occupancy state is also relayed by e-mail. The unoccupied security monitoring (you might call it ‘alarm system’) is automatically and silently armed when the occupant vacates the property and for this particular person is automatically disarmed with minimal fuss by means which cannot be discussed here. Under the armed state the system effectively reduces the sensitivity of the motion detectors in order to reduce potential for false alarms – remember that in an IDRATEK system PIRs normally need to react very quickly for lighting automation but not so sensitively for intruder detection purposes. Obviously with numerous sensors around the property detection capability is very high. Furthermore the video cameras are configured to record time buffered clips and snapshots under various trigger conditions including motion detection from the image itself. This occurs 24/7 but what happens with the data and which triggers will elicit clips or snapshots can vary with the state of the security function and the particular camera. Intrusion detection events have various data and images transmitted out of the property by a variety of methods and of course alerts are sent to the relatives. Other aspects of protection for example, include monitoring of the cooker circuit and raising an alert if this is found to be drawing substantial power when the home is unoccupied. External door opening at unusual hours is also reported by SMS and e-mail.
As mentioned before the IDRATEK audio features were an important consideration for this install. From the automation side spoken information is provided to the occupant from time to time, for example greeting them on entry to the lounge in the mornings and then speaking out the date, time and outside temperature. Also upon return to an unoccupied home. This and other information can also be manually requested by pressing designated buttons on the DFP units. Interestingly the occupant has remarked that the audio features and automated lighting gave them a feeling of companionship, i.e ‘as if the home were a friend’. And for all that it is such a simple feature they value greatly the reminders of the date and time. Obviously you don’t need an automation system to do this but that is missing the point of integration. Another example is routing of the door bell sound to all rooms.
As well as generating messages the system provides a hands free communication channel between the occupant and their relatives, presently implemented via Cortex’s Skype integration, to the extent that under certain circumstances a securely identified relative may call the occupant without them having to press a button – a peace of mind measure in case the occupant for example has had a fall and is unable to reach a button.
Although presently redundant in most of the rooms, the IR transceivers in the bedroom and the lounge have been put to good use. In the bedroom a simple IR key fob allows remote lighting override from the bed. In the living room the transmitter is used to mute the TV whenever an incoming call to the intercoms is detected and subsequently un-mutes when the call is completed or rejected. But a more interesting use was found when the occupant remarked that they experienced difficulty remembering the sequence of button presses on the TV handset to switch the source to their set top box. To address this the IDRATEK system was taught to intercept the IR signal from an unused handset button and then use the IR transmitter to emulate the necessary sequence of handset controls in order to select the correct source.
Another noteworthy feature is the automation of the bathroom extractor fan. This now has a delayed start to prevent the fan from coming on for brief visits and the switch off employs both humidity and timed control. At night times this automation is automatically inhibited since visits during this period do not typically merit the use of the fan with its associated noise. However manual control is of course always possible.
And finally, one cannot talk about home automation systems these days without mentioning smart phone or other touch screen and remote access. Here the feature is provided directly by the Cortex mobile server. This wraps up the entirety of the automation system, its controls and its data into one automatically generated and coherent touch screen structure. Ironically perhaps, the occupant them self was not keen to interact with touch screen interfaces. However the relatives report that the remote access aspect has been invaluable for providing peace of mind and. mainly utilised for ‘looking in’ to seek reassurance rather than for control, although some occasional remote assistance with the TV is also reported.
So how well has a complex automation system fared in this environment? Well as far as we can tell from occupant feedback it is much like the question about the heating: ‘they don’t really think about it – just go about their daily lives rarely touching any buttons and pretty much take it all for granted now, only noticing something amiss when they visit another (non automated) home!’ Interestingly a recurring theme has been the subjective feeling of companionship – something we’d like to capitalise on further. Total cost installed came to around £5,000