Networks – What Me Worry? / by Jay Lewis

Networks are everywhere and have been here since the beginning of the planet. We have all sorts – chemical, physical, ecological, energy, social, transportation, etc., etc.. They are a fact, not just of life – of everything. The first of Barry Commoner’s Four Laws of Ecology is that “Everything is Connected to Everything Else.” Networks are powerful and unavoidable. No matter how you may try, you cannot escape them.

Recently, it has become fashionable to put down those networks, which are most in our face on a daily basis. The Internet, Facebook, Twitter, Smart Energy Grids, highways, iTunes, Kindle all come in for their share of criticism, which is as it should be. They are seen to sap our time, take our money, invade our privacy and may seem to be the arena of elites. All that is true to some extent. Clearly, most people have done some benefit/cost analysis and have decided that these networks generally work in their favour – most of the time. Like democracy, which must be defended on a daily basis, our participation in networks must be continuously evaluated and adjustments made where necessary. Whether various regulators shape the networks we have control over or participants get vocal and then walk, if things go off track, vigilance and action is always required.

With the Smart Homes we design, thermostats are connected to lights, which are connected to the TV and on it goes. The aim of the system is to reduce energy and other resorce use, cut costs, add convenience and improve safety and security. There are legitimate concerns that privacy may be compromised by these systems. As we have designed safety into our electrical systems for the past century, Smart Home controls require strong security. It may be that utilities and product suppliers would like to know what appliances you are using and how much energy they consume. You may want to share that information with them, maybe to your benefit, but maybe not.

Any appropriate Smart Home system must be secure and under the control of the resident. They alone can decide, whether data will be shared with a utility or product supplier. The Smart Meter at the home reports energy use to the utility for billing purposes at various intervals, but does not necessarily connect to the control systems inside the home. The utility does not know what you are doing and when. There needs to be a drawbridge at that point, which only the resident can lower.

There are those who are fearful that anonymous hackers, utilities, sales organizations, espionage agencies and government officials are poised to snoop in their home. Some paranoia is useful in this world, but really – let’s get a grip. Who is going to spend time and money hacking through your firewall to reset the temperature on your hot water tank. They can’t even scald you, as there is a thermostatic mixing valve that prevents that. People are justifiably concerned about an unauthorized person accessing the hard drive on their computer, but checking the lighting setback regimes is not very interesting to even the most bored hacker.

Smart Homes produce a wide variety of benefits for the residents and society in general. By optimizing energy system efficiency and instituting load management, fewer generation, transmission and distribution projects need to be built. Distributed generation systems, such as solar panels on your roof can easily be integrated as the economics improve. Seniors can remain in their homes longer with Living-in-Place systems. House fires and flooding from leaking pipes and tanks will become a thing of the past. Networks that we control will give us more time and money to do the things we like, while minimizing our negative impacts on the earth. Smart Homes are not just automation, but they can reflect the way we want to carefully live our lives.