A DIY Green Machine of a Home
A smart sensor network drives lights, thermostats and motorized shades in this San Francisco do-it-yourself treat.
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November 02, 2009 by Julie Jacobson

No, Milburn controls heating, ventilation and cooling (HVAC) his own way. It starts with multiple smart thermostats from Residential Control Systems. Each unit has four different set points: The most extreme setback occurs in VACATION mode, followed by UNOCCUPIED, then ASLEEP and finally OCCUPIED.

A few algorithms were required to coordinate the modes with the neural network, but it’s child’s play for Milburn. Enter the motorized shades. “My house faces east and west,” he says. “If it’s too warm, the shades will lower automatically.”

Again, no big whoop for Milburn. “Where it’s pretty smart is with the weather station,” he explains. “Being in San Francisco, it can be foggy, so the system uses a combination of the intensity of the light, plus whether or not it’s foggy. It could be bright but foggy, so it’s OK to leave the shades up.”

There’s one more thing: The Davis Weather Station, together with an hourly feed from the National Weather Service, can help predict the weather. “Depending on the forecast,” he says, “if it’s going to get cold, I will start warming up the house using the motorized shades. They will stay up longer even if it’s a bright day.”
And if Milburn had his dream motorized windows, “they would know when to open up.”

For the time being, Liam will verbally suggest he open one or more windows to modulate the indoor temperature. Milburn can go to his Liam site any time, from his home or on the road, to check up on the house and make adjustments as needed. EH readers can check it out at www.liamsite.net.

Solar System
Milburn had no intention of installing the photovoltaics himself, so he hired a local firm, Luminalt, to do the job. He chose the company because they had excellent service, the best price, a good choice of attractive panels (Sunpower), as well as a gateway that he could hook into for home automation.

Through Luminalt, Milburn can track his solar-related energy savings by day, month or year, but he is waiting for the final piece of the utility-integration puzzle: The Energy Detective (TED) 5000-SG model energy monitoring device.

With that, he says, “I have the final part to monitor both sides, supply and consumption, and hook into Liam.”

For its part, Milburn’s utility provides info on the net energy usage for each of its three time periods: peak, semi-peak, and off-peak. “I’ve gone onto a different charge plan called Time of Use, in which you’re charged more during peak time and less during off-peak times, compared to normal rates,” Milburn says. “Since peak times happen during the day, I essentially have a multiplying effect with my solar system.”

The next step for Milburn? “I want to manage the use of certain optional devices for times when electricity is off-peak.”

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Julie Jacobson - Editor-at-large, CE Pro
Julie Jacobson is co-founder of EH Publishing and currently spends most of her time writing for CE Pro, mostly in the areas of home automation, networked A/V and the business of home systems integration. She majored in Economics at the University of Michigan, earned an MBA from the University of Texas at Austin, and has never taken a journalism class in her life. Julie is a washed-up Ultimate Frisbee player with the scars to prove it. Follow her on Twitter @juliejacobson.

At a Glance/Equipment

Solar panels with installation: $45,000
City rebate: $6,000
Federal, California rebates: $8,000
System cost after rebates: $31,000

HOME SIZE: 2,600 sq. feet

Monthly electric bills: $12 (In 2010 the utility will owe the owner money)
Panel life: 25 years+
Inverter life: 15 years
ROI: About 10 years

4.7-kilowatt photovoltaic system
RCS Thermostats
JDS hardware, software
and always-on PC server/media server
Hunter Douglas motorized shades
Powerline Control Systems X10 devices
Davis Weather Station
RCS keypads

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