Have you ever worried about forgetting to switch off a water heater or an air conditioner after you left home for a long trip? Well, you won’t have to worry about that anymore with Home Intelligence System (HIS)! HIS combines a network of smart switches which enables the user to control every switch in his household from his mobile. It has the potential to retrieve information such as the power consumption of each individual socket and to improve safety standards by cutting off the power to any socket if overheating or overloading occurs.

Home Intelligence System begun on an exchange trip I had with Zhejiang University (ZJU). It was part of the Asian Leadership Programme offered by SUTD, where we attended a month of lessons on design in ZJU (in Chinese!), followed by a 3 months project with the industry. My industry partner was Fonda Technology, a company providing smart lighting products, and together with May Ying, we designed the Home Intelligence System (HIS). HIS was later submitted to the Energy Innovation Challenge 2015 and awarded the Merit prize. Check out our HIS poster here for a concise introduction!

Help you, help me

Standby power consumption of common electrical household appliances

HIS was designed to help those who have better things to do with their time than finding switches by allowing users to switch on/off any socket from their mobile, at any time. In a survey by Lutron, 90% of 2,114 adults admit to leaving the lights on when they leave a room. Leaving 5 LEDs on for 8 hours/day will cost SGD32/year (22.41c tariff on 10W), or hundreds of dollars across multiple rooms! What’s more dangerous is standby power… they are a result of appliances continually drawing electricity while “powered off” but still plugged in, accounting up to 10% of electricity usage.

How It Works

HIS tackled this by introducing a network of smart switches controlled by a mobile device. Our mode of communication was Power Line Communication (PLC). PLC modules were cheaper than the alternatives, provided better signal strength, and rode on the power lines that already exist in the house.

HIS network model

On top of the PLC modem, provided by Fonda Technology, we also had a microcontroller to interpret and communicate between the mobile app and modem. Our microcontroller of choice was the pcDuino running Linux, and coded in Python. The mobile app was Android and thus coded in Java.

An electrical relay circuit was also designed to control the state of the electrical socket and controlled using the microcontroller.

What We Learned

Programming Is Useful

I first touched this project back in 2014, and this was also the first project where I actually coded something that does things. My only previous experience in programming was the term before where we had a course on Digital World, introducing Python to our programming language arsenal. Having had a taste of this sweet nectar, it motivated me to switch my pillar of choice in SUTD to Information Systems Technology and Design (ISTD). The things we could do with the words typed on a laptop was virtually limitless, and it opened a new horizon for me.

Electrical Circuits Are fragile

Where software reigned, hardware was pain. Our 3 main pieces of hardware: the PLC modem, microcontroller, and electrical relay circuit, all broke down at some point in time. When we did not have the spare parts, we were left stranded and helpless to solve the issue. Always buy spare parts!

It was also the first time I caused an electrical circuit to explode when plugging in a over-rated vacuum cleaner…

PLC Could Do Better

PLC was a fantastic idea when dealing with a single circuit. It was cheap, efficient, and was not hindered by walls or obstacles. However, we found that the circuitry in homes weren’t that simply. Electrical cables had transformers interfacing between them, and the length of the cables and source of each electrical socket in the house wasn’t well-known by the user. Transmission over distance longer than 100m were not reliable, and sockets in the same room might not even be able to communicate with each other!

Singapore’s Regulatory Obstacle

The biggest life lesson here was probably on Singapore’s regulatory practices. During the Energy Innovation Challenge 2015, a senior judge, previously from the Energy Market Authority (EMA), criticised our project for failing to adhere to electrical safety standards by not documenting the ratings of our electrical circuitry. Where startups and innovators are looking to create proof of concepts and focused on making the technology work, what did it say of Singapore as an innovative hub if a senior member was looking to impose regulations on student projects? In an environment where we are already constrained by a small domestic market and powerful MNC presence, I truly hope that the future generation of leaders play a part in helping these small projects grow, for the better of the nation, if not the world.

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