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'Smart' heating control puts you in charge

Hive dashboard'Smart' heating and hot water control: the dashboard on the British Gas Hive website lets you adjust your Hive thermostat remotely, wherever you can connect to the internet.

Ever asked yourself:'Why did I leave the heating on full blast while I was out?' Or stopped to think how your heating system could match your day-to-day needs more closely? Well, a new generation of 'smart' heating control systems provide answers to these familiar problems.

Costing typically in the region of £150-250 plus installation costs, these new devices enable you to adjust your heating and hot water via your smartphone or other mobile device, using the internet, in theory from almost anywhere in the world. Savings of up to 20% off heating bills are claimed by the manufacturers.

The same principle now applies to a range of home appliances and devices that incorporate a 'smart' sensor, such as certain models of light bulbs, washing machines and security systems.

Change settings online

All operate essentially by replacing the existing heating programmer and thermostat with one or more devices that serve three basic functions: switch the boiler on and off; control the ambient temperature (in effect acting as a new thermostat); and communicate with each other and with a phone or computer via the internet. Adjustments to your heating schedule are made online using a website or downloadable app, and can be performed, well, anytime and anywhere...even when you're lying in bed and just want an extra hour of warmth! By looking at three of these products more closely, we can get a better picture of how they work.

Hive Active Heating (from British Gas)Hive app

The smart phone app for Hive is available for iOS and Android devices.

Launched in September 2013 by British Gas, this consists of a wireless thermostat, a controller/receiver that operates the boiler, and a hub that plugs into your broadband router. By downloading the free Hive app to your iPhone or Android smart phone, you can change time settings and temperature whenever you want from your mobile device, via the dashboard on the Hive website, or by text message.

If you have a hot water cylinder, the Hive app also lets you decide when to heat the water. The system has various settings and features such as temperature presets, hot water boost and frost protection, and all these can be controlled from the room thermostat as well as the web. You can also see a temperature record of your home, which can help in adjusting settings, and receive temperature alerts by email. An upgrade with Hive Multizone allows you to control two or more different heating zones.

The Hive system including installation costs £249, or equivalent monthly payments. It is said to work with most types of gas, LPG and oil boilers, but is not compatible with heat pumps, biomass boilers, or underfloor heating. You do not need to be a British Gas customer.

Other devices designed to work with the Hive app include smart light bulbs, motion sensors and power plugs. So you can turn lights and appliances on and off remotely, and receive alerts if there is movement detected in the house, or you have left a window open. Get all this kit and you're well connected - welcome to 'the internet of things'!


Nest Learning Thermostat (from npower)

Nest deviceThe stylish design of the Nest thermostat/programmer is designed to blend into the decor of a living room wall. The central display is orange when heating, blue when cooling.

This device was developed in the USA by two ex-Apple employees, launched there in 2011, and proved so popular that the company, Nest Labs, was bought by Google in 2014. It was introduced to the UK in April 2014, in a partnership deal with energy supplier npower. It consists of a combined thermostat and programmer, which is positioned in the living space, and an on/off boiler switch that links to the thermostat by high-voltage cables, not wirelessly.

'Programs itself'

The product's distinctive claim is that it 'learns' your pattern of usage, depending on how you control the thermostat, and programs itself, devising a heating schedule that matches your lifestyle and requirements. This can be overruled at any time by adjusting the thermostat. It also has a motion sensor that detects if anyone is at home, and adjusts the heating accordingly. And of course it can be controlled from a laptop, tablet or smart phone, using the Nest app, available for Android or iOS devices. The cost for npower customers is £189, plus installation; the cost from the Nest labs is £279, including installation.

A growing range of smart devices on the market are compatible with the Nest system. See the nest website for more details.

Evohome from Honeywell

The basic Hive, Nest and similar 'whole-house' products work by turning your existing heating system on and off - with no control over individual rooms. With the Evohome system from Honeywell individual radiators or underfloor heating systems are fitted with 'intelligent' sensor/controllers, that operate the input valve. These communicate wirelessly with a central control unit, which can be programmed to regulate the temperate and heating times for each room, or zone, independently. So, for example, you can enjoy a warm kitchen or living room during the day, while the lounge and bedrooms remain relatively cool (or vice versa!).

The Evohome is not such an internet-based system as Hive or Nest, and instead relies on the dedicated controller. It does link to the internet, though, and you can control functions remotely via a smart phone app or a voice assistant, such as Amazon's Alexa or Google Home. There are many additional features, such as the ability to analyse how quickly different rooms heat up and cool down, thus compensating for different levels of insulation. Also the radiator sensors have old-fashioned dials that you can physically turn, and they can detect if a window or outside door is left open, causing the radiator to shut off.

The basic starter pack costs around £249, and the radiator sensors are about £80 each, plus the cost of installation. Although expensive, this comprehensive and very flexible system can potentially yield greater savings on heating bills. Find out more from the Honeywell Evohome website.

Other smart systems

Competition for the smart heating and lighting market is growing rapidly, with new products coming along all the time. Other examples already available include:

  • for zoning and smart heating control: Heat Genius, Neo (Heatmiser)
  • for remotely programmable room thermostats: Inspire (Inspire Home Automation), NetAtmo, Tado, Lyric (Honeywell) and Owl Intuition family of smart heating control systems
  • for smart lighting: Philips Hue, Osram Lightify, Elgato's Avea, Belkin WeMo

The differing capabilities of these systems, some with the option of zoning and potential for future expansion, mean it's worth carefully weighing up the pros and cons of each before deciding.