Heating Controls: An IoT Case Study


A lot of things are being connected to the internet that probably shouldn’t be (with hilarious consequences)

Firstly, I have to admit to being a bit of an IoT sceptic. Anyone who follows the internetofs**t [i] (redacted for politeness) Twitter account will know that there are an awful lot of things being connected to the internet that probably shouldn’t be (with hilarious consequences). The recent story of someone’s 11 hour attempt to boil an internet connected kettle [ii] should be a warning to us all.

Also, the recent DDOS attack on the Dyn DNS provider [iii] seems to have been made by a botnet that consisted mainly of internet connected devices (mostly cameras and DVRs). A lot of these devices have unpatched vulnerabilities and seemingly no mechanism for patching them in the field. As one joker put it “The internet was designed to survive a nuclear explosion, now it is being brought down by toasters”.

I am also generally not an early adopter of technology. I tend to wait until a technology has matured (and the price has dropped). I didn’t rush to get a mobile phone and when I did it was a generation behind the cutting edge. I guess that I am just a cautious person (or maybe just a skinflint).

So when I heard that new heating controls were available that enabled you to control your home heating system remotely my first thought was “Why on earth would you want to do that?”. I have managed for several years with a digital programmable room thermostat that has (mostly) been fine.

Venturing forth into Smart Thermostat territory

This year it broke down. I have boiler repair cover with  one of the large energy suppliers and the controls are included. I could have had a like for like replacement but was offered their smart thermostat as an upgrade. I got a discount equivalent to the value of the old controls plus a summer sale offer so I decided to go for it. I had heard there were problems with the first generation system but they have now moved to the second generation which hopefully has addressed those issues!  The installation was very straight forward, with the only tricky bit being a telephone payment to a call centre that was clearly in India.

So far I am pleased with my purchase. Even without the internet connectivity, the new control is a vast improvement on my old one. The unit itself is quite smart and stylish with a mirror finish over a colour display (the first generation was a very plain white box). You can even purchase different coloured surrounds to fit with your decor!

In manual mode it is very easy to use. The unit also easily detaches from the wall mount so that you can control the temperature of the room you are in rather than one you aren’t. Although, as you would expect, you can program a schedule of on/off times and temperatures, I have mostly used it in this mode.

An IoT Success Story?

Anyway, on to internet connectivity which is surely the main selling point of this device? There is a small box that connects to your internet router. This also requires external power. There is of course also an associated app which is fairly easy to use, but a little bit basic in that it doesn’t seem to quite live up to the sleek hardware in terms of sleek design.

It doesn’t even flip when you turn the screen around. That being said the functionally is fine. You can do all of the things with the app that you can do with the control, but presumably from anywhere in the world. I guess this comes down to the critical point: how is this useful?

Well, I think rather than using scheduled heating which clearly involves heating a house that is sometimes unoccupied, this enables you to have heat on demand only when you need it. I currently have no regrets on my decision but we shall see. I have already changed from having the heating come on at a set time in the morning to just using the app to switch it on when I wake up.

Maybe I will also use it to switch it on just before I come home from work.  In theory this should save some money but only time will tell. The good news is that I can switch on the heating even when the internet is down. It seems to me that one essential component of any IoT device should be a manual override!

[i] https://twitter.com/internetofshit

[ii] https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/oct/12/english-man-spends-11-hours-trying-to-make-cup-of-tea-with-wi-fi-kettle

[iii] http://dyn.com/blog/dyn-statement-on-10212016-ddos-attack/