Let's knock some sense into climate change

7th June 2017
Lanna Cooper


Self-proclaimed geek, Damon Hart-Davis, can’t be accused of aiming low. He genuinely believes the smart energy management technology he has developed will make its way onto 400 million radiators, and save homeowners billions, as he explained to Breakthrough magazine.

Damon has spent almost 30 years working as a ‘full stack’ software developer (the back-end’ technologies that make an application work, and the 'front-end' interfaces which make an application easy for the user to work with) for high profile companies that include BP, RBS, Nomura and Lehman Brothers. He also created one of the UK’s first internet service providers in the early days of the internet.

Today, Damon’s expertise and energies have turned to carbon reduction. Not looking to start slowly, his latest project, OpenTRV (Thermostatic Radiator Valve) aims to reduce the entire carbon footprint of the UK, and possibly the EU, by between 5 and 10%. It is certainly an ambitious goal, but when Damon explains how it would be met, amazingly it seems quite achievable.

In the UK, studies have shown that between 10 and 20% of our carbon footprint is created by the processes needed to cover domestic space heating. And half of that is wasted through areas being heated when they are not occupied.

So, if that wasted energy can be significantly reduced, or indeed eliminated, the potential savings are enormous. Products like the Nest and Hive thermostats go some way towards achieving the energy reductions, but they do have drawbacks. Their main weakness is that they monitor and control entire premises. They work by controlling the output of the boiler they are linked to. So, while they can turn heating systems down, or off, when premises is unoccupied, a significant amount of energy is still being wasted when only part of a property is occupied.

And so the OpenTRV project works on what is known as a zoning basis, controlling the temperature in individual rooms. This principle is not new. Independent timer based thermostats and even PIR (Passive Infrared) occupancy systems have been available for some years and are used in commercial buildings. But these systems do not learn, they do not adapt, and they are not ‘smart’. Also, they are not generally available for domestic applications. This is where the Open TRV system comes in.

The product developed by Damon is a smart radiator valve which can be attached to each radiator and which reacts to its surroundings. Based on its local environment the smart valve can control the output of the radiator - independently of every other radiator in the building. In essence, it is a temperature sensing control unit that can deduce whether a room is empty or not. It is also intelligent enough to build up patterns of occupancy, so it can work out when a room is likely to be unoccupied for a while and can turn the heat down accordingly.

The valve draws on a number of sensed inputs to build a picture of what is going on around it. For example, the levels of ambient light can indicate occupancy when a light is flicked on, or curtains are drawn. It will learn over time too, building patterns unique to its setting. So whether the valve is jammed down the back of a sofa or near a sunny windowsill, it can calibrate itself and work effectively.

Technology of this capability might sound expensive, but a key objective for Damon was to develop a solution that isn’t. A typical domestic home can be fitted with a series of OpenTRVs for a similar cost to just one of the high-profile smart costs low, the components Damon has chosen are simple - more than capable of doing the task needed of them, but not with capabilities beyond those required.

Also, he purposely hasn’t incorporated the ability to control the devices from a phone. This decision was a strategic one which demonstrates Damon's understanding of how people will want smart devices to work. The early adopters taking up these new technologies want to ‘play’ with them, to interact with the devices, see how they operate and control them. But, to broaden their reach beyond the tech-loving early adopters requires a different approach.

“Smart technologies need to get out of people’s lives and get on with what they are doing in the background,” Damon explained. “Some things will be core to people's lives, but I don’t think managing their heating is one of them. And so if we can help people to save money, to be more comfortable than they were before and they don’t need to think about it, that will be the right thing to do.”

The ‘open’ aspect of the project’s name refers to Damon making the work they have done open source, meaning that anyone can inspect, modify and enhance the software that has been created. It's an interesting approach and one that is not often associated with commercial activities.

Explaining why he chose the open source option, Damon said: “What we are trying to achieve is ultimately for the public good. But it's not easy by any means. So I would prefer to err on the side of making my work available, to gain support from others rather than hiding it away on the off-chance that we might be able to make the third or fourth billion.”

Unfortunately, the OpenTRV products are not available to consumers just yet. The team have run several successful trials, but more testing is still needed to gather the level of data they need to demonstrate the system’s effectiveness to investors. For now, Damon can’t say exactly when the valves will be available. But he firmly believes they can meet their goal to be on 80% of Europe's home radiators, that's about 400 million, within the next 30 years.

OpenTRV has worked with Breakthrough funding, a company that helps UK SMEs achieve R&D tax credits - a government scheme created to enhance and reward innovation amongst UK businesses. Could you be eligible? Click here to learn more.

For more information, click here.

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