Steps in my smart journey

For more than a year now we’ve been building up our smart home capability. There are various ecosystems of such devices, but we’re using Apple HomeKit a decision initially motivated by the presence of multiple iPads in the home.

1My first step into smart home was to replace radiator valves with smart valves. Typically that results in replacing a temperature-only TRV with a smart valve with both a temperature set point and schedule. A schedule still operated within the central heating timer, but The schedule within the valve allows heating to be disabled in a particular room even though on elsewhere.

Applications for this include disabling lounge heating on weekday mornings, disabling the playroom heating after our daughter’s bedtime, not heating bedrooms during weekend daytimes etc..
2My second step was to add the ability to turn on the heating remotely so, instead of having schedules in both the central timer and the individual valves, the schedules exist only in the valves. Instead rules link the valves to the boiler so the boiler automatically runs from the first radiator valve on to the last radiator valve off.

Thus, instead of potentially needing to modify both a valve schedule and the schedule on the central timer to make a change, only instead a single change to the valve schedule is required. Similarly things like extending heating in the evening, to watch a late film for example, a simple Siri voice command to the radiator valve is enough rather than having to extend boiler hours too.

The hardware to achieve this is a standard smart socket, driving a relay which closes contacts across the correct terminals on the central heating wiring block alongside the boiler. The software to achieve this is two rules - a boiler on rule and a boiler off rule. The rules require a hub to which to run which initially was my iPad.
3My third step was to add an Apple TV unit as a hub to complement the iPad. This allows the heating rules to operate even when the iPad is not at home of has insufficient battery charge to act as a hub.

Extra capability from this additional hub allows control from remote locations, such as warming up the home if one will be home early or disabling vacation setting prior to starting a home-bound journey at the end of a vacation.
4My fourth step started a completely different non-heating theme. We’d had a few occasions where family members had left the house with windows open, so I started adding sensors on windows that were most likely to the left open - typically cloakrooms/bathrooms.

In this step we needed to use the Apple Home app, the Elgato Eve App, or Siri to check window status.
5My fifth step continued that different non-heating theme with the addition of our first smart bulb, now in a lightfitting near the burglar alarm control panel.

A series of rules combine both automated dusk-to-dawn white lighting and coloured lighting when any monitored window is left open.
6My sixth step continued the lighting theme with the addition of our second smart bulb, now in the outside light by the front door. This light had an integral dusk-to-dawn sensor but this failed leaving the light on continuously. Rather than replace the whole lamp I simply added a white smart bulb.

The existing rules were modified to add the new bulb to provide dusk-to-dawn white lighting.

This step was added August 15th, 2018.

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Social media

This morning I see that the Greening Me blog has 1,222 subscribers.  Hopefully that’s 1,222 people taking steps to make a difference, rather than 1,222 people about to spam me!

For those who also use Facebook there is also an associated Facebook page which I use to share when there’s new content here, or share Facebook or news items which I think may be of interest to readers of this blog.  If you would like to see (and hopefully follow) our Facebook page then you can click here.

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Electricity Purchase to July 2018

In the last few days I’ve reported our status on electricity generation from our solar panels and our gas consumption, so here comes some thoughts on electricity purchase from the grid.

Starting in late 2015 after the meter was changed to Economy 7, there’s a general downward trend from November 2015 to March 2016, before my car charger project kicks in maximising use of my own solar electricity to charge my car (when available) which causes a significant drop in purchased electricity between march and April 2016.  That seasonal saving gradually drops through the autumn, although it’s interesting that by November 2016 we’re back on what seems to be a continuation of a downward trend from January to March 2016.  Electricity purchased is also significantly lower than 2015 as we enter the second year.

The second significant change is the addition of the storage battery in December 2016.  However from January to August 2017 (yellow) electricity purchased is significantly below the prior year (magenta) – potentially showing the benefit of the battery in saving electricity generated during the day to reduce consumption later in the day.  This benefit largely disappears from September to December 2017, presumably because my increased vehicle mileage after my daughter started school is offsetting the prior savings.

2018 (orange) generally falls somewhere between 2016 and 2017 as it combines both the storage battery and the higher vehicle mileage throughout the year to date.

The August 2018 figure is a projection based on the first few days of the month only, but may yet come to represent the month as a whole being a function of:  (i) record solar outputs, (ii) continuing battery storage availability, and (ii) no school in August leading to reduced mileage.

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Gas Usage to July 2018

This chart shows our gas consumption by month and year since we moved here in August 2015 (the first full month shown is September 2015),  Along the way several changes are marked which might be thought to influence gas consumption, although with natural variation month-to-month and year-by-year the effect of those changes isn’t dramatically obvious.

What is of course obvious is the dramatic difference in gas consumption between summer and winter as gas is our main means of space heating, and there’s no need for space heating in summer.  Most homes would exhibit such a pattern.  Ours is probably a bit more marked than many because of our water heating.  Many homes with gas will use the gas for both space and water heating, but for us the gas water heating is the back-up not the primary water heating system.  Our home is set up to divert surplus solar electricity from the PV panels to water heating during the day.  Only in the evening is gas water heating enabled and then it does no heating if the water is up to temperature.  The gas water heating thermostat is also set a few degrees colder than the immersion heater, so gas is separated from electric water heating by both time and temperature to prioritise electricity.

Previously I had just disabled the boiler in summer, but occasional dull days would leave my wife complaining about lack of hot water.  The new arrangement with the boiler operating later and with a lower temperature set-point has avoided that and is robust as long as your hot water cylinder is big enough for your daily needs so you only need to fill it once with hot water which is then stored available for use until the next day.

Over time 3 changes are called out which should reduce gas consumption further:

  1. In December 2015 we replaced the boiler, hot water cylinder and controls.  The previous boiler had demonstrated that it was incapable of heating the whole home as we went into our first winter so a replacement was rapidly arranged.  The new boiler is considerably more efficient which should reduce gas consumption for a given heat output, but it now heats the whole house, so that might counteract the improved efficiency.
  2. In late 2016 we upgraded the loft insulation from 100 to 270 mm which should be worth £73 in gas per year according to our EPC.  February, March and April 2017 do seem to show some benefit compared to 2016, but then there also variation in the weather year-to-year.
  3. In May 2017 we started adding smart heating controls which has gradually expanded over the following months.  The overall concept here is that most rooms now have smart radiator valves which are both thermostatic and contain their own schedule.  The schedules allow rooms to be heated for fewer hours: for example lounge not heated on weekday mornings, playroom not heated after children’s bedtime etc.
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Solar PV Generation to July 2018

What contrasts 2018 has been so far for solar PV!

As ever, my graph shows the maximum, average, and minimum daily output for each calendar month of each year since the system was installed in late September 2015 (approaching 3 years ago).  As can be seen from the middle group (the daily average) 2018 has produced a run of 3 months May to July with the best daily average outputs for their respective months since installation.  February 2018 was also the best ever February; although January, April and May managed to be the worst examples of their respective months.  Hence certainly a year of contrasts as every month is either the best or worst for its respective month since installation.

At the level of the best day in any calendar month (the blue line), May is remarkably stable with the best daily output for May for each of the last three years being almost identical, while new monthly records were set for February, June and July.

July 2018 was also a record-breaker for another reason – it was the first month in which our earnings from the feed-in tariff (which in the UK has both generation and export components) exceeded £100.  That achievement is helped by the index-linking of the feed-in rates which rise every year, and by July having 31 days which gives a slight edge over June’s 30 days.

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Ampera – selecting the charge current

My charger control project relies on the electric vehicle tracking the charge current set by the external EVSE / charger to maximise use of the solar panel output.  Most vehicles would readily follow such a signal, but not the Ampera.

The Ampera is designed to default to charging at 6 Amps when using a Mode 2 cable (that is one with a household plug).  Such a cable normally signals 10 Amps to the vehicle (a safety margin inside the UK’s 13 Amp domestic plugs) but the Ampera is designed to draw only 6 Amps by default.

To enable the Ampera to charge at 10 Amps the user has to permit this for every charging event individually.

This screen is reached by selecting Charging | Charge Current. Typically I would push the button in the driver’s door to open the flap over the charge port / vehicle inlet and then select the charge current via the touchscreen before leaving the vehicle.

Current limit from EVSE / AmpsCurrent drawn by vehicle / Amps - 6 Amp settingCurrent drawn by vehicle / Amps - 10 Amp setting

With my Ampera, if the 10 Amp setting is not selected, then the EVSE / charger risks going into an error condition as the Programmable Logic Controller (PLC) expects the control signal from the ImmerSUN to turn off after a few minutes as rising vehicle current should cause the ImmerSUN relay output to cycle on and off around the available current limit. If the 10 Amp setting is effectively disabled then one might not reach the point at which the relay cycles within a reasonable time which the PLC will detect as an error.

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4 years with the Ampera

I’ve just had the Ampera serviced and MOT’d at the end of it 4th year, so how has the Ampera been going?

The Ampera is a 4 door, 4 seat, plug-in hybrid car. Unusually for its size it has only four seats as its traction battery is T-shaped occupying the central spine of the vehicle (thus no center rear seat) and then across the Vehicle under the rear seat. By default it runs as an electric vehicle for up to 50 miles or so depending on driving style, heater use etc, and then runs as a petrol-electric hybrid once battery charge reaches a minimum level; although the driver can choose ‘hold’ mode which seeks to save electricity for later (thus using petrol now) so you might drive to the city as a petrol-electric hybrid and then drive within the city as electric.

More recent plug-in hybrid vehicles would include Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV, BMW i3 Rex, and Toyota Prius plug-in hybrid. Compared to Outlander, Ampera is a car (not a SUV) with fewer seats but more range. Compared to BMW i3 Rex, Ampera looks more conventional, has fewer electric miles range, more petrol miles range, and a more complex driveline where petrol engine torque can be transmitted to the wheels (rather than conceptually being more of a generator in an electric car). Compared to Prius, Ampera has more electric range power and performance, and a more sophisticated driveline allowing the petrol engine to be detached from the driveline to allow both electric machines to propel the car, or splitting the driveline to create a BMW-like generator feeding an electric car.

Thus Ampera switches between three Powertrain configurations:

  1. Dual motor mode – divorces petrol engine from the driveline allowing both electric machines to propel the car – more sophisticated that Prius providing improved electric-only capability.
  2. Range-extended mode – splits the powertrain into a BMW-like generator set and a single-motor electric driveline – used at lower speeds.
  3. Mechanically-coupled – a motorway speeds the Ampera links the petrol engine to the driveline allowing engine torque to be transmitted to the wheels in a Prius-like manner for better efficiency.

Anyway, this was supposed to be a 4-year update, not a technology summary.

Electric range is always somewhat seasonal (worse in winter, better in summer), and this summer I’m now seeing 50+ miles reported as the range after a full charge which is effectively 2 days of typical weekday use. No evidence of battery degradation there.

It’s been pretty reliable over the 4 years. It’s been attended to once by the AA when the vehicle wouldn’t start enough to drive but was locked in a sort of limbo between on and off. AA diagnosed a steering lock issue which they managed to reset making the vehicle driveable, but Vauxhall recommended replacement of the steering lock. The sound it now makes suggests that an older solenoid-based steering lock has been replaced by a motor-driven one which makes a distinct buzz rather than a click.

I bought the Ampera principally for local use, cross-shopping against full battery electric vehicles (BEV), correctly anticipating that the Ampera had enough electric range for my daily use at a price considerably cheaper than the full BEVs. However we increasingly use it for longer journeys as it’s big enough for our holiday luggage (2 adults plus 1 child) and, even when the battery is exhausted, is our most economical car.

Although now an older design, I’m not conscious of a more capable PHEV (apart from the BMW i3 Rex) so little incentive to upgrade.

However the alloy wheels are now peeling quite badly, so I’m likely to get those refurbished soon.

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Mid-year thoughts

Summer is definitely upon us now as we enjoy the glorious summer weather.  Disappointing weather earlier in 2018 has given way to two record months in May and June which yielded the highest monthly outputs for their respective months since the system was installed back in 2015.  Some days we buy no measurable electricity or gas  (given that the electricity meter has a resolution of 1 kWh) depending on what the need to charge the car.  If the car is at home then I can fully charge it from the solar panels, whereas if the car is at away from home during the day then I may need to give it some charge overnight.  When charging overnight I have been tending to charge for the minimum number of hours up to 7:30 AM when I typically leave home on a weekday – that pattern provides for mostly Economy 7 Energy from the grid less whatever comes off the solar panels from the rising sun less whatever might be left in the PowerVault from the previous day as illustrated below:
The green ‘hill’ from around 3:30 to 7:30 AM is created by car charging.  Normally this would be seen as a rectangular block as the car charger effectively runs at a constant 10 Amps (2.3 kW) through the operating period.  However in the illustration the charging event (at least in terms of power drawn from the grid) seems rounded at both the beginning and the end.  At the beginning of the car charging period the mustard ‘Device Power Out’ curve shows the last remaining stored energy from yesterday being drawn from the PowerVault, while at the end of the charging period the ramp down is a result of increasing output from the solar panels reducing the need for power from the grid.  Hence at the moment the car charging ends there’s a sudden switch to charging the PowerVault at full power (the blue line) and some surplus power not used by the PowerVault (the purple line) – suggesting that something around 1 kW is suddenly available.  Although the purple line is described as ‘Grid Power Out’ that’s not strictly true here as much of that surplus is being diverted to make hot water (although this is invisible to the PowerVault).

After that digression, my actual purpose in making this post was to reflect upon relative energy costs and the best use of my solar power to reduce energy cost.

Energy usagePetrolDaytime ElectricityNighttime ElectricityGasSolar Electricity
Battery Storagen/an/a - no economic case to charge battery from grid during dayOptional - need to consider value of saved energy versus cost of 1 cycle of battery cycle-lifen/aSelf-use Priority #1 via PowerVault (daytime electricity -> solar)
Car ChargingManual 3rd backup (typically only used for long journeys when charging en-route becomes impractical) Manual 2nd back-upAutomated 1st backupn/aSelf-use Priority #2 via ImmerSUN (nighttime electricity -> solar)
Water Heatingn/aManual 3rd backup (never used in 3 years)Manual 2nd backup (never used in 3 years)Automated 1st backup for dull daysSelf-use Priority #3 via ImmerSUN (gas to solar)
Space Heatingn/aManual backupManual backupDefaultn/a - a summer solar surplus is a poor match to winter heating demand but could be Priority #4

The table above shows columns of energy sources ordered by reverse energy cost versus the major energy consumers in the house: battery storage, car charging, space heating and water heating. Energy consumers are ranked according to the value of displacing the the alternative energy course if not solar:

  1. Battery storage – I currently only charge the battery storage from solar, although there would be a seasonal economic argument to charge from cheap rate electricity if the differential between day and night rates was higher.
  2. Car charging – I generally charge on cheap night-rate electricity when I don’t have enough solar. In summer I program my car charger via the ImmerSUN’s 7-day timer to deliver sufficient charge for the day ahead, but sufficient headroom to make use of any available solar.
  3. Water heating – water heating is my 3rd priority for solar self-use and is automatically based up by the gas boiler which runs for an hour making hot water in the early evening if the tank isn’t already hot from diverted solar power during the day. The gas thermostat is also set slightly colder than the immersion heater – still very usable for a bath or shower from gas but giving some ability to delay water heating from a dull day to a following sunny day.
  4. Space heating – my space heating is generally gas. It would be possible to run a heater (or heaters) such as storage radiators via the ImmerSUN’s third output, but I consider that the cost of the heater(s) and installation is unlikely to be recouped given the major mismatch between surplus solar generally being in summer and heat demand being in winter.
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Clamp orientation for ImmerSUN and PowerVault

In the last few days I’ve been assisting a reader of this blog who also has an ImmerSUN immersion heater controller plus PowerVault storage battery combination.  Like me, he had the immerSUN first and later added a PowerVault, but had immediately disabled the ImmerSUN to get the PowerVault to work.  Left to their own devices, the ImmerSUN will normally take the surplus power first before the PowerVault has chance to respond since it has a more dynamic control system, however economically it makes more sense to prioritise the PowerVault.

I previously posted on this topic in Prioritising smart loads for self-consumption but wanted to provide more clarity on the orientation of the clamps.

Both ImmerSUN and PowerVault rely on current clamps to get their control signal. Such clamps fit around an electrical cable and measure the flow of electricity through that cable.  Normally clamps for both these devices alone would be around the live in the incoming mains cable, but do that with both and the ImmerSUN will always take the available power first which is undesireable.

The illustration shows my solution, as per the prior post, where the PowerVault clamp surrounds both the incoming live and the live output to the immersion heater.  If the clamps are correctly orientated, this allows the PowerVault storage battery to be prioritised over the ImmerSUN immersion heater controller.  When the PowerVault clamp surrounds the two cables, it is important that outgoing power to the grid and outgoing power to the immersion heater from the consumer unit pass through the clamp in the same direction.  This solution should work for clamp-driven solutions too.

The PowerVault clamp is directional – it has an arrow which should point towards the consumer unit.  That means, if you pair the two cables as I described, so outgoing power flows in the same direction in both cables through the clamp, then the arrow should point in the opposite direction i.e. towards the consumer unit.

Fundamentally it doesn’t matter which way the ImmerSUN clamp faces, as during commissioning the ImmerSUN will work it out by cycling the power several times, but you shouldn’t change it after commissioning.

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Daytime charging as quickly as possible

On Wednesday an unusual pattern of vehicle use occurred (at least for me) which showed another way the charger could be used. I needed to take my daughter on a round trip in the morning (dad’s taxi), return home, and then repeat the trip later in the afternoon. Each round trip pretty much exhausted the range of my electric car, so I needed to recharge in between. My normal home charge routine would have prioritised the home storage battery, but that would have left me completing the second round trip partially on petrol which isn’t the optimum solution.

To fully recharge the vehicle to complete the second round trip (and thus avoid using petrol) I disabled the programmable logic controller (PLC) on the car charger using a push button which suspends the program causing the charger to operate at full power. It was a sunny day (at least for March) so the solar panels were producing a similar amount of power to that required to charge the car and, with the fixed battery partially charged during the period I was making the first round trip, the fixed battery was able to manage the difference between power generated by the panels and that required by the home (including car charging) for much of the period.

The result was an almost fully charged car for the second round trip (sufficient to avoid using petrol) for only around 1kWh of grid energy.

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