Here’s the second part of our series on what may well be the UK’s Smartest Home (make sure to read Part 1 first). Over to Chris Hunter to take us through the next instalment on his amazing Idratek powered home automation system…
Node Zero – when we came to build our Node0, we managed to get a lot more into it than we had anticipated. We’d imagined having to spread it over two locations, one above the other, on the middle and lower floors. But, by doing it in layers, we managed to get it all into one location – and still keep everything reasonably accessible.
We tried to keep it neat, and there are doors to hide it away (they’re smoked-glass, and open in the photo’, and the patch-panels have yet to be patched – soon, hopefully).
Node1 – nevertheless, later in the build, electrical loading considerations caused us to split-off a satellite Node1 in the sub-basement …
Node0 and Node1 are two of the forty-plus locations at which everything systems-wise is concentrated around our home. Meaning all power and comm’s outlets, all lights, all sensors, all actuators, all ventilation inlets and outlets, all water outlets and wastes. We call the locations ‘installations’, because they each needed significant joinery work.
Details & Features
What does everything do and what’s the result ?
Cat-5e UTP caters for point-to-point links via the patch-panel in Node0, so anything anywhere can communicate directly with anything anywhere else, one to one (we generally put three outlets in each location).
Cat-6 UTP – patch-panel with Ethernet switches in Node0, for networking Computers & other IP devices, plugged-in at any location – they can then talk with each other & reach-out over the Internet (again, generally three outlets per location, more in the study).
CT100 – another patch-panel in Node0, and to ensure good Radio & TV reception at every location, so we can listen & watch and be precise on time & date (via DAB) anywhere in the house.
We’re out in the country, and the house is built of concrete with lots of steel reinforcement, so we have the aerials (DAB FreeView, FM, 3G, plus Satellite & AM to be added later) up high, at the back of the house, feeding to splitter-amplifiers at the local location, which in-turn feed to a local patch-panel, that feeds to Node0.
For economy, we didn’t run CT100 to all locations, but we wish we had. For example, we missed window-ledge locations, and they’d be good places for clocks and radios. Then again, DAB reception has improved a lot since we started so, maybe, it will work-out.
Comm’s and Power Sockets are mostly concealed behind flaps (some drop-down, some hinge-aside, some removable), with mains to the left & signal to the right. The flaps can carry ‘strips, for outlet-multiplication, and they have a brush-seal along one edge, for cables to come-through, for temporary connections. Window-surrounds are hollow, window-ledges & shelves, too – so additional permanent connections are easily arranged. Integral ventilation outlets keep help to keep wall-warts from getting too warm, while also making sure heat is distributed, for wider benefit.
Sensors – temperature, humidity, light-level, PIR, buttons, analogue and digital inputs – are placed all around the house, in locations where they can work well & give good inputs for sensor-fusion, which gives representative values for the automation. Analogue inputs include under-floor and black-bulb temperature sensors, signals from dedicated controllers, etc. Digital inputs include reed-switches, relay-closures, float- switches, push-buttons, third-party PIR devices, etc …
Actuators – there are plenty of relays, to switch appliances, pumps, valves, solenoids, to select dedicated controller modes, etc … plus several 0-10V outputs to adjust pump speeds and valve-settings … and digital-outputs to switch indicator LEDs in status-boards …
Ventilation – there’s MVHR for fully-fresh air with good economy, and a heat-pump to recover latent energy, and an after-unit heat-exchanger (like in a car radiator) looped off the UFH, to be sure to avoid any chill in the air, and a microfilter.
Routing the ventilation ducts to each location gives better control of air-quality and also ensures quietness (separate ducts ensure acoustic isolation and the ducts are good attenuators). Generally air outlets to the room are kept high and pointed upwards (to give a fountain effect) and air extracts from the room are kept low (for good dust control), but extracts are set high in the showers and by the hob, to be sure to capture steam (it being a nuisance, but also having lots of latent heat to recover). Duct-sizes are optimised to match the needs of the locality – the aim being to keep velocities high-enough for scouring and low-enough for quietness. Every duct goes via one of four manifolds (built-in to the stair-side service ducts / chimneys), to ensure pressure-equalisation and dust settling.
Wet UFH, in the two upper floors, was chosen for economy and comfort, including radiative comfort. We did have electric UFH in the washrooms in the basement, too, but it got damaged somehow in the fit-out and had to be abandoned.
Multiple heat sources – in addition to heat-recovery in the MVHR unit, we have two more ASHPs, one middling and one small, and solar-thermal, and each is associated with a thermal store, the first two having back-up immersion’s, and all having a dedicated controller – the first thermal store (225 litres, fed by a 4.5kW ASHP that takes heat from the yard) is used primarily to heat the pool (10,000 litres, which is very small, as pools go), the second (285 litres, fed by a 1.5kW ASHP that extracts excess heat and humidity from the pool room) is used primarily for the UFH, and the third (800 litres and fed by 6kW vacuum-tubes, up on the roof) is used primarily for DHW. Cortex (the Idratek application) keeps an eye on them all and provides safety and performance and efficiency enhancements, intervening when necessary to make sure the ‘stores don’t get too cold or too hot and the vacuum-tubes don’t boil or freeze. Heat is shared when one is short and heat dump is enacted when necessary (to the other ‘stores and ultimately to the pool). NB: the ASHP output numbers are nominal (they depend on operating parameters), but are a good guide to what’s typical, and the solar-thermal output number is summer-peak.
Data & Status – key temperatures are spoken on-demand (push a button on an intercom, and an appropriate summary is replied). Idratek’s Cortex can present actual numbers and trends on graphs for any sensor, HVAC object, etc. But summary status information is also displayed in Node0, on a diagrammatic board that has LEDs to show the state of things – valve positions, pumps on / off, thermal stores and pool up to temperature, heat-pumps running, etc. The LED states are on, off, or flashing. It’s something like they have in railway signal-boxes, but for our heating & ventilation system rather than trains, and it allows us to see how things are at a glance, with no need for finger-work or menus.
Fully automatic – automation is relied-on almost completely, around 99%, with no conventional fall-back, no light-switches, no wall- thermostats, and just one tap (over the sink in the garage, for the garden hose). But nearly all power-outlets have been kept separate, so we could use the working lamps and heaters we saved from the build, if we had to.
Context Sensitive – automation is fully context-sensitive – lighting, heating,ventilation, water-outlets, appliances and access are controlled in ways that take account of equipment characteristics, efficiency factors, and people – where they are, home or not, in which room, what they’re doing – and also the weather (how light, how warm or cold), the time of day, what’s coming-up (visitors, sunny-day), etc.
Buttons & proximity sensors – while there are no light-switches or thermostats, there are buttons and proximity sensors (all low voltage) carefully positioned to be where people will be (by windows, at table or desk, in shower, in bath, by sink, on sofa, etc). So people can make an input when they need or want to – which is not very often.
Sensor-fusion – there are lots of sensors, of every type, and plenty of sensor-fusion – both to avoid the confusion that can come with open-plan layouts (several sensors triggered at once), and to improve context sensitivity. Lights come-on appropriately and are not left-on unnecessarily, heating and ventilation are provided appropriately, information is provided appropriately, etc. Logic in Cortex deduces what’s going-on by using data from several sources. Which sensors, what order, how long between triggers, movement from one room to another, doors and windows opened or closed, water-outlets used, buttons pushed, etc.
Summary information is displayed for each room on a second status board in Node0, that shows both where people are and where there are problems (rather like the panels that are provided with some fire alarm systems).
Water-outlets – these are no-touch, using hand-wave proximity sensors, for good hygiene, and fully automated to cut frustration. Proximity sensor (CoastForm) & solenoid, installed locally, work together with a thermostatic valve at the thermal-store off-take. No need to repeatedly adjust temperature and flow-rate while the water is flowing, and Cortex takes account of context and provides timing – wave a hand and bath or bucket or sink are filled just enough, with no need to hang-around, or worry, or even be in the house (automatic top-up of feeder-channel for plant-trough, and of waste-traps, too, so no dead plants or nasty smells when we’ve been away for a while). Outlets are inhibited when the house is unoccupied or we’re asleep etc (so also no floods, hopefully). It’s our own home-brew arrangement, and it’s economical and cuts water-consumption, and cost less to install than conventional taps.
Dispensers … we have no mains drainage so we use a septic tank. Battery-operated soap dispensers limit detergent use and save water, too (less water needed to rinse).
Float-switches – our water table is not kind, float switches are wired to ODI digital-inputs so Cortex can monitor it’s ups and downs and keeping us informed via speech-synthesis. It also records the data so we can plot the trends and project ahead (manually, for now).
Timing – washing machine and dishwasher have options to start immediately or after we’ve left the room or gone to bed, or the electricity tariffs are more favourable. They’ll auto-pause if people come-back in the room.
Boiling water is available for a brew on-demand, without having to wait, even when have just arrived home. Cortex takes account of time of day, occupancy, etc, and switches the Quookers, so the water’s only heated when it might be needed.
Speech synthesis informs us via the intercom when a door has been opened, or one has been left open too long. Not annoyingly, but again only when necessary (eg: when small children are about and are exploring where they shouldn’t, or we are not nearby when a visitor lets themselves in by the garden door, or it’s the pantry or pool-room door that’s been left open, or it’s an external door and it’s winter or night-time, etc). Speech synthesis is also employed to let us know if any doors or windows have been left open as we leave the house. All internal and external doors have reed-switches fitted. We’re also reminded to switch the water off (SureStops) and given warning of auto’ shut-down / fall-back of house systems and appliances and lights, setting of alarm, ghost activation, etc. It also reminds us when we return home to switch the water on, put the ‘bins out (if it’s the day), wind the clock (ditto), or whatever. It will also tell us when, for example, heat-dump has been started or stopped.
There are ten Intercom modules, at various locations about the house – we could do with a few more, but they’re useful when we are far apart. There are cameras at front door and yard gate, and we’ve wired for small displays to be installed later by some intercom stations (screens sold for car reversing display might be the thing, when budget allows).
Parlour / Kitchen / Diner – a home-grown design and build, optimised for sociability, sight-lines and ergonomics, with a minimum-clash. Also good stowage, convenient waste-disposal. Facilities come into play automatically, when someone starts to work. We also took care to get air flows right, there’s an air-curtain to trap billowing steam, and fan-speeds are varied with humidity. The window ledge herb garden is watered automagically. Most appliances are linked into Cortex, but some needed intermediate contactors which was a step too far (though we might add them in the future).
Lighting scenes – when the cooking is done, switch the lights to something more comfortable, lighting-wise, at the push of a convenient button. Ditto when we want to watch a movie, view slides, relax in bath, read in-bed, etc.
Freezer boost – automatically pre-enacted for shopping days, and also available on-demand (push a convenient button) with automatic stand-down – so it’s no-longer left running unnecessarily (second-relay in a DRB wired across the boost button, enables Cortex to do this).
Logs – overall power consumption is logged courtesy of a stick-on sensor added to main meter … significant individual loads are also logged, using pulse-output power-meters wired into power-feeds … both being wired to digital-inputs in convenient nearby modules (most IDRATEK modules include two of these). Cortex counts the pulses and presents totals and trends on-demand, so we can keep an eye on overall consumption & on individual & groups of appliances. This way we can know what’s eating energy & be sure of how things are doing (we hope to add CoP analysis etc, too, before too long too).
Security – garage doors and yard gate are enabled only when appropriate, so their remote’s work when they should, not all the time. The gate can be opened and closed while looking onto it from a window by pressing a convenient button.
Projector – signalled by push of a button on the sofa-table, the slide projector comes on, room-lights are set, and in-rush resistors are by-passed a few seconds later – so projector bulb is run hot enough for colour-accuracy, but protected during start-up, when resistance is low – meaning they will last longer, as a result.
Garden fountains & cascade are included both for their sound (there’s a motorway across valley, about a mile away) and for summer-cooling (even our way, it can get too warm, in summer). Using just a 185W pump, it’s not Chatsworth, or Versailles, but the pump is turned-on as a function of light level and temperature, and when people demand, with auto-off in-case forgotten. Plan is to add a reminder to service the filters, too, based on accumulated operating time. We had hoped also to include micro-misters up on the roof, for summer cooling, but we couldn’t source them in-time.
Pool – it took six-months to excavate the rock for our small swimming pool machine (SwimEx) in the basement. It has its own controls, but water-temperature & top-up & filtration is looked-after by Cortex, which also feeds a digital display (London Electronics) to show water-temperature (when stationary) and water speed (when running).
Workbench – lift the lid, and things are set for work (lights, safety-interlocks, etc) …
TV & time – the CT100 cables allow computers to be used for TV and Radio, in most locations (desktops and laptops, with an EyeTV USB-stick). When budget allows, we’ll add low-cost DAB clock-radios, too, to continuously show the time. Advantage is, they’ll set themselves after power-cuts and auto-adjust for summer-time.
Virtual Rooms – Idratek’s Sensor-Fusion logic works-out when someone’s doing, for example, the ironing. It then creates a virtual room and sets the relevant lighting etc appropriately for the task.
RFID – we wired for Violet Mir:ror RFID readers in key places, so people can place tags on them to signal particular requirements. For example, to say it’s them who’s home, have the kitchen facilities behave their way, set a virtual alarm-clock or timer for a particular task, etc.
Alarms – dedicated alarms have been included for smoke and fire, but they’re linked to Cortex, which monitors, enhances them. In-turn it uses the sirens and flashers to signal other events too, much in much the same way schools use theirs for class-changes. Cortex adds intruder, flood, tamper, malfunction, and temperature, alarms – amongst others.
Railway – the model railway on the middle-floor is a simple oval track with two sidings and two trains, set all above our heads. Track-side reed-switches & magnets on trains (front & back) signal events to Cortex, which looks after safety-interlocks & manages a status-panel, with track-plan & LEDs & push-buttons, for user information & requests. Cortex controls and monitors the pattern of reed-switching, sets power and signals and points appropriately, and interrupts power-feeds when something’s not right. In effect, Cortex plays signal-man, people play engine-driver. There’s no scenery, focus being on the dynamics – it’s set up-high both to see the trains from the right angle and to have the space for large radii for both curves & points, and also so the lighting can light the rooms below. Rope-lights are run in hollows on each side of the track. We’ve had two train crashes, and it’s a long way to fall, for a train – the first was catastrophic (the train being delicate & detailed, for enthusiasts), but the second caused only minor damage (the train being less detailed, having been designed to be reasonably child-proof).
More – there’s a lot more, and more to do, especially in terms of context-sensitivity. For example, to detect the difference between someone just passing through a room and someone staying there. Also, if something happens while we’re out, then we need to be told on our return. Plus, we need an ability to think ahead – when there’s a problem, we’d like to be told what might happen next.
We need a rain-gauge, and more logic – eg: for swimming-machine speed control, and automatic bath-fill pause (when someone wants water from another outlet, somewhere else in the house). And more sensor-fusion. And, while we can already use our ‘phones and tablet to switch things, we need to develop links with other things on the computer network – TV, Radio, HiFi, etc. We also need to do something about mobile’ reception – for ‘phone & broadband, we have an aerial at the back of the house, at roof-level, which feeds to a coupler – but things only work when placed against the coupler, which is not very convenient, and can be quite awkward. We’ve joined the local B4RN initiative, which will hopefully provide a solution, sometime next year.
In the third and final part of the series, Chris looks at how the system actually works in real life, shows us more amazing photos and talks about what the future developments with be for his incredible system (coming soon).