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Smart tech – always listening, always on! “Alexa how much energy do you use?”

All homes have a background energy usage driven by the electricals that are on 24/7. Refrigerators, appliances on standby, set-top boxes, TVs, pumps, boilers, broadband routers, computers, chargers – the list of items sucking energy goes on and on!  Now smart devices… voice-controlled ‘smart speakers’ and home hubs have become the next ‘must-have’ tech. The irony is that this tech is consuming far more electricity than the old enemy – leaving stuff on standby!

Connected homes are being touted as the next big thing for those who have trouble typing, can’t find their remotes, or need help setting the timer on their heating! I hear myself now shouting “Hey Google! Siri! Alexa! Where’s my phone?” … “I don’t know… but I’ve found this on the web.”

Smart thermostat controls, making your heating work less

Whilst these devices may make life easier, and could potentially save you some energy if you’re using smart thermostat controls, like Google’s Nest or British Gas Hive products. Managing your heating as efficiently as possible it should get your bills down. These devices learn temperatures you like, then adjust automatically.  They’re controllable from smartphones, so if you’re delayed getting home you could remotely re-schedule your heating to come on later. Programming boilers on/off cycles should be much more user-friendly when done through an app interface. According to Nest’s own US research customers saved about 10-12% on their heating bills. However, I was quite surprised to see that the Nest thermostat uses 1kWh per month in standby.

Hive, owned by Centrica (British Gas) have claimed savings of £150 a year. These claims are really difficult to substantiate as it’s more about behavioural changes than the tech itself – turning down your heating a bit, wearing more clothes, or draft proofing your home could be equally effective. Combine this with switching to LED lighting, or upgrading to more efficient appliances, and you could easily match these claimed savings from installing their smart tech devices, without the expense.

Motion trackers helping disabled or older people, and those with health conditions

British Gas recently introduced a monitoring service that bolts onto the connected home Hive products. It’s available for a fee of £15 a month, plus a one-off £150 upfront charge. When installed a carer receives alerts via an app if anything out of the usual routine happens, such as a kettle not being switched on at the same time each day, or rooms not being entered. The monitoring is not meant as a replacement to everyday visits or contact, but as a safety guide to thousands of unpaid carers.

The Hive Link service does not have a camera; however, it does include motion sensors, window and door sensors, plus plugin sensors that monitor a regularly used appliance and electricals. This technology could expand further to detect falls and provide help with managing medicines.

Carers UK has partnered with British Gas on the Hive project, alongside the charity Caring Communities, to enable those they support to stay in their own homes for longer.

Smart tech, it’s not all good news

As most homes are struggling to find a spare socket to plug in the latest bit of tech, sales of extension leads and triple adaptors must be going the through the roof. All these devices are only going to increase energy bills. Finding out what these bits of kit use isn’t easy. Nest, owned by Google, make lots of claims on how much you could save by using their thermostat. They then fail to publish meaningful data on their connected home products, such as their Google Home Hub and voice-activated speakers. We contacted them, through their chat service, over three months ago regarding this, and as yet, they have not updated any energy usage data information.

Amazon’s energy usage figures aren’t well publicised and are vague when compared to Apple’s. And we’ve yet to find any environmental reporting, by Amazon, regarding the materials, manufacturing or recycling – not great.

Apple, on the other hand, has got their environmental reporting act together – since the Greenpeace campaign against them a few years back. All the energy usage data is there in understandable terms. Materials used in its manufacture and recycling information are well publicised, unlike the other tech giants!

Other premium smart speaker brands such as B&O, Bose and Sonos appear to be ignoring the fact that their products consume energy. If data is provided it doesn’t reflect real-world usage.

As yet there are no reporting standards or energy labelling requirements for this new classification on products – tech and the market get ahead of the policy makers again! Hopefully, this will change as the market matures.

Could smart connected homes drive up your energy bills?

Whilst the energy usage of these devices may seem trivial, it’s the cumulative effect of tens of millions of these devices in our homes. All adding to the background energy usage across the country. Even small reductions in the energy usage of smart devices could make massive reductions in the overall UK energy consumption.

A more worrying aspect of these technologies – from an energy usage perspective – is the back-end cloud and network services driving these products. At moment there doesn’t appear to be much information regarding network/cloud and data transaction impact in carbon emissions terms. A host of other factors would need to be considered to get robust reporting on this, for example, data centres, server configurations, and how these are powered (renewables or fossil-fuelled) to give a view on their carbon impact.

Amazon cloud platform AWS, which hosts the software that drives Alexa, achieved 50% renewable energy usage in early 2018. Their in-house combined solar and wind generation is estimated at 2-gigawatt hours per year. This is used to power some of their server farms. However, if you took that energy generation away from powering the AWS servers and turned it to run Alexa home smart speakers, that 2 Gigawatts would only power approximately 95,000 units a year. It’s estimated that over 75,000,000 smart speaker units have been purchased worldwide in 2018.

Standby energy usage improves to be replaced by not so ‘smart’ stuff!

Back in the day standby and plasma TVs were seen as the villains of energy usage. Now most TVs (apart from supersized LEDs) and peripheral devices have cut their energy usage down dramatically. All good, however, standby is still a waste of energy.

Fast-forward to the present… we have a plethora of smart connected products filling up our homes, constantly drawing more and more background energy than standby devices ever did. And the hidden cloud services that provide the intelligence and computer processing power are consuming yet more energy as they monitor our lives!  So as fast as we make efficiencies, we find more ways to use electricity!

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Is an electric car right for you? Buying new or second-hand, home charging and the practicalities of EV ownership

There’s a lot of hype around electric cars at the moment, possibly due, in part, to the realisation that diesel cars aren’t a cheap, clean option anymore. We were advised to buy them to reduce CO2 emissions and encouraged by the low fuel bills. The dash for diesel has certainly driven down motoring costs, unfortunately, at the expense of air quality – especially in urban areas.

So, after being persuaded to ‘go diesel’, is it now the time to consider going electric? – what are the options? And is it really a practical solution for you and your life style?

Things to consider if you’re thinking of choosing an electric car.

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Fluctuating oil prices – when is the best time to buy heating oil?

Trying to second-guess energy prices is notoriously difficult, that said, crude oil has risen from a low of $30 a barrel in early 2016 to over $80 in recent months. For those who have to rely on oil to run the heating – that’s about 1.6 million homes – they will be well aware of these fluctuations. Having benefited from the slump in oil prices they will now find that they are paying 50-60 pence per litre, rather than 35 pence per litre in 2017. This makes recent rises in electricity and gas prices seem small in comparison.

Heating oil delivery, nozzle placed into oil tank to refill

What’s driving oil price increases?

Oil is traded in US Dollars, making the exchange rate between US$ and UK£ a massive factor, the recent Brexittalks have led to fluctuations in the value of sterling, this has a huge bearing on the final price that we pay in the UK.  Economic and political events, nationally and worldwide, quickly feed into exchange rates which immediately impacts on the price of oil – this rapidly drives up prices at the pump and the cost of heating oil.

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The International Energy Agency (IEA) – the world’s energy watchdog – has been warning that energy prices could increase further in the coming months. Problems with Venezuelan and Iranian exports are impacting global oil production.  Political pressure is being put on other producers to increase production to take up the slack. Other factors such as sluggish demand from Japan due to natural disasters and extreme weather conditions may help contain price rises. The escalating trade war between the US and China is increasing the uncertainty, making market jitters even more likely.

When should you buy heating oil?

Buying your heating oil during the summer months is usually a better bet; prices tend to drop, as there is less demand. However, keeping an eye on oil prices is always the best strategy, as the summer rule doesn’t always work. That said, it helps to avoid the longer delivery lead-times in the winter months, especially if there is a prolonged cold snap. The golden rule is to never let your tank get low, especially in the winter.

Heating oil price – comparing the market

There appears to be plenty of competition in the heating oil market. Prices across the UK do vary, so it’s always best to ring around for prices to get a feel for what oil is trading at. Online services such as Boiler Juice and Heating Oil.co.uk are great for seeing current prices, even if you don’t order through them.

Building a good relationship with your supplier is beneficial; reliability of deliveries, even a driver who knows where your tank is, is often more important than saving a few pennies. Most oil suppliers are looking to build long-term customers and will offer a keen price to keep your custom.

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How big is your heating oil tank?

The more you buy the cheaper it gets certainly applies to heating oil. Buying in bulk helps reduce the delivery costs, so always ask your oil supplier’s price break points, they are usually 500, 1000, 2000 and 2500+ litres. Most domestic tanks range in size from 1000 to 3500 litre, commercial tanks do go larger. If you’re about to install a new tank and have the space, a larger tank maybe worth considering.

Heating oil club’s, getting together with your neighbours

Buying in bulk will certainly pay dividends – clubbing together with your neighbours would open-up better deals with your oil supplier. Filling-up four and five tanks within your village is far more convenient for the oil provider than their driver covering loads of miles with separate deliveries. Plus, you could arrange for one person be at home to sign the paperwork – deals are to be made where heating oil is concerned!

Keep your oil tank in good condition

One thing to remember, don’t be tempted to fill up your tank to the brim, avoiding spillages is a must!  Oil is nasty smelly stuff, very polluting to the environment and can cause major structural damage to buildings if it leaches out into the fabric of walls. My advice would be to have your oil tank and connecting pipes checked regularly, ideally when you have the boiler serviced. If you can smell oil, there could be a leak – cleaning up oil spillages is very expensive. Most home insurance policies will cover this; however, always check that you are fully insured.

In rented properties it is the landlord’s responsibility to make sure that the tank and boiler are maintained, and any equipment is sited as per building regulations.

Oil theft – keep your tank locked

A large proportion of households that use oil to heat their homes are in rural or remote areas – making them susceptible to theft. The theft of heating oil is becoming a real problem. When you consider 2700 litres (600 gallons) of oil, at today’s price (50p litre) equates to £1350, you can see why it’s an attractive option for criminals!

It’s not just the value of the oil that’s at risk; the damage to the tank by thieves and the potential clean-up costs for spillages, need to be factored in, as well as the inconvenience.

Here are some tips on keeping fuel secure     

  • Padlock tank fillers caps
  • Positions tanks where surveillance is easy.
  • Ask neighbours to keep a look out for unusual activity and inform the police if they see anything suspicious
  • Use external lighting with motion sensors
  • Install CCTV, or smart home cameras
  • Consider an electronic oil level gauge that sets off an audible alarm if the oil level suddenly drops.
  • Smartphone app monitoring are available
  • Check your oil levels regularly, it may have been stolen without you knowing!

Finally, please check that you’re fully insured and that your household insurance covers you for oil theft, damage and the clean-up costs. If not, shop around the market to find the best deals available.

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Water efficient kitchen appliances – drought proofing your home

After one of the coldest and driest winters in years we’re now enjoying the hottest summer since 1976. Extreme weather conditions are becoming the new norm, all adding pressure to our limited resources, whether that’s energy usage or water consumption.

It’s not just the weather that’s driving the UK’s thirst for water; population growth and changes in the way we live are increasing demand. The scale of the problem is as extreme as the heat this summer, by 2050 it’s predicted that there will be a 22% shortfall in available water – that’s only thirty years away!

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Home energy storage, vehicle-to-grid chargers – the future is almost here

It’s great to have some sunshine this spring after what seems to have been the dullest winter for years. Those lucky enough to have PV solar panels will be rejoicing that the longer days and bright sunshine are drastically increasing their energy generation.

The only problem is that this electricity is being generated when you least need it; as you may be at work, not using your appliances, lights, and heating during daylight hours.

Wouldn’t it be great if you could store this surplus energy from solar panels and then feed this back to your home in the evenings? Or even sell this electricity back to the grid.

Home solar battery storage solutions – Lithium or Lead Acid?

Solar electricity generation seldom coincides with demand, this is where home battery storage can make a real impact on your energy bills. Lots of home solar battery storage solutions have appeared in recent years. These tend to utilise Lithium battery technology, as they have longer lifecycles and are in smaller size than other battery options. This make lithium batteries easy to fit within your home or on an outside wall. Long warranties are the norm, ranging from five to ten years.

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