Part of Future Homes- Avoiding unintended consequences

15. Zoning System Controls

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We have a heat controller / i-pad thing in every room and two in the corridor – can’t I just have an on-off switch, it would be far simpler?

Heating controls have evolved considerably from the familiar dial thermostat mounted on a wall in the hallway. Heating can be controlled independently for different rooms or zones in the home and each can be programmed independently.

The controls can also be ‘intelligent’, learning and anticipating your occupation and temperature preferences and also using information from the weather to compensate for, or react to, external temperature changes.

Control can be managed remotely from a phone app and feedback on energy consumption can be integrated. However, the increasing complexity does not necessarily ensure lower fuel bills.

The apparent complexity of menus and submenus on electronic devices may not be intuitive for the elderly, disabled or unfamiliar users and multiple research papers conclude that heating controls are difficult for people to use.

In this example a two-bedroom apartment had five heating zone controllers and the controller for the bathroom was located, confusingly, in the hallway. The zoning would allow the system to turn off the underfloor heating in southerly rooms when there might be direct solar gains but keep the northerly rooms warm with the heating on. The zoning system was therefore well thought out and appropriate for the home, but the underlying principles had not been explained to the users and the same control could have been achieved with a single device if the interface had been designed to be accessible and easily understood. 

Things that can go wrong:

  • Multiple interfaces and complex controls can be difficult to understand;
  • System left on default or factory settings;
  • Potential fuel saving not realised;
  • Generally, complexity = inefficiency.

Future-proofing recommendations:

  • DESIGN: Ensure equipment is identified and controls are clearly labelled;
  • COMMISSION: Supplement the BREL home user guide with clear and well-illustrated, non-technical home information.

Further Reading

  • Loughborough University for DECC, Heating controls scoping review report

    The usability of controls for adjusting temperature or for changing timer settings is an important consideration for achieving energy savings. (Loughborough University for DECC, Heating controls scoping review report, 07 April 2016, p25)

    Demand reduction should be first priority
  • Science Direct, Volume 93

    A comprehensive review of more than 60 usability studies provided “high quality evidence that heating controls are difficult to use, especially by older people. (Science Direct, Volume 93, October 2018)

    Demand reduction should be first priority

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