Building smart homes of the future

Fulton Innovations Soon, induction heating coils may be built into counters and surfaces in many homes

You come home after a long, hard day at work.

Having grabbed a frozen meal on the way home, you set it down on the coffee table and turn the kettle on.

Seems normal, right?

Only that your frozen meal has smart packaging and the coffee table has induction coils built in. So that as soon as you set the meal down - anywhere on the table - it starts to defrost the meal and keep it at that temperature.

And because the kettle is also powered wirelessly, you can leave it anywhere in the house. The surface senses a kettle has been set down and starts to power it up.

The surface is using magnetic fields to heat directly into the metal inside the product, and only the coil, meaning that you will not burn your hand if you put it next to your thawing meal or boiling kettle.

That may seem far-fetched, but according to Dave Barman of the US firm Fulton Innovations - which makes this cordless induction-heating technology - we could be only three years away from this being a reality if manufacturers want it to happen.

GE's smart grid programme For General Electric, the formula for using smart meters is very simple

"It's more efficient than gas and electric," he says. "When installed properly, there shouldn't be any cost difference between the traditional method and an induction zone."

Green buildings

The smart home of the future, featured in science fiction movies and cartoons like the Jetsons, is almost upon us.

While we are not quite at the state of transporters and instant food makers a la Star Trek, our homes are getting smarter and more sophisticated.

Real-time monitoring of every aspect of your house is here already, from plumbing to electrics, while companies like Google are trying to get the internet into your TV.

But it takes a lot of power to make this happen, and a much more sophisticated approach to home construction, presenting opportunities for a whole slew of companies out there.

In the UK, for example, low-energy "green" buildings are extremely uncommon, according to John Alker, head of policy at the UK Green Building Council, an industry body formed by the biggest homebuilders in the country.

But this is set to change.

The new government has stuck to targets mandating that all new residential homes must be carbon neutral by 2016, with commercial and public buildings to follow three years later.

Much of what the Council does now is retrofitting old homes to make them more energy efficient, like making them less leaky.

"A lot of it is not particularly exciting stuff," Mr Alker says. "But in the new-builds, that's where you see genuine innovation driven by the standards being set."

And it is creating a market for new companies to come in.

Fulton Innovations Fulton Innovations is developing ways of charging home electronics wirelessly

A UK firm, Green Structures, is developing a passive heat recovery system using heat pipes and a thermal accumulator that stores the night's cool or hot air for daytime release, saving both the cost of air-conditioning and winter heating.

Another firm, Nano Solar, makes thin-film solar panels that Mr Alker says might one day provide "parity" with energy generated currently in power grids.

This technology can also provide savings to the public sector - albeit in macabre ways.

Mr Alker says that one council recently announced it was going to warm its swimming pool using wasted heat - from the local crematorium.

Fulton Innovations has already partnered with Panasonic and electric car maker Tesla Motors on bringing its wireless power technology into their products.

Smart grids

But none of this matters if the power grid is not set up to be more efficient and deal with this technology.

GE, one of the world's biggest corporations, has partnered with energy utility AEP to test out the practicalities of so-called smart grids. The initial pilot began in 2009 in Indiana with 10,000 GE smart meters.

Now GE is part of AEP's gridSMART Demonstration Project, located in central Ohio, which began last year. The scheme has 110,000 customers in towns such as Columbus, Pataskala and Westerville.

"It is about providing customers with information and new ways to better manage their electricity costs," says Britton Cronin, a spokeswoman for GE Energy in Dallas, Texas.

"AEP Ohio will be able to show how smart grid technologies provide customers with greater energy control, improve electricity delivery and cut energy consumption to delay the need to build more power plants."

For those customers in the scheme, the size of a small European town, AEP has introduced a variety of innovations to see how they respond.

For example, some of the homes are tested with plug-in electric vehicles, to see how often they are used and how the grid responds to the additional strain on its electricity.

Technology of Business

And if it all fails for some reason, storage devices have stored some energy and can keep the lights on until the problem is solved.

GE's contribution is through smart meters, which are being rolled out in most parts of the US and Europe now by utilities, and which provide two-way information transfer between the power company and the person at home using their radiator.

"The grid is wasting energy at every point during every second of every day - lots of energy," Ms Britton says. "And that costs lots of money."

The cost of generating a kilowatt-hour of electricity is 70 to 170 times the cost of "saving" a kWh through efficiency, GE says.

GE believes that smart grids will provide both savings for the US economy in terms of energy and money, but also a lucrative business area for itself going forward.

"It is important to take steps today to lay the foundation for our growing energy appetite," she says.

Fulton Innovations is also trying to reuse wasted energy, by for example having the sensor on urinals powered by the energy of the flush, or a shower radio derive its charge from the shower itself.

But this only goes so far. The shower cannot power the washing machine or the heating system, as it would take too much power out of the system.

"If you try to push too much power from the plumbing, it goes back to the source," Mr Barman says.

"We're not trying to get free energy."

That, at least, is a long way off yet.

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