University of Massachusetts Amherst

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CAREER Research into Smart Buildings Can Make Them Cheaper and Greener

David Irwin of the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department at the University of Massachusetts Amherst has been issued a five-year, $461,434 grant from the prestigious National Science Foundation (NSF) Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program. The NSF grant will support Irwin’s research for boosting energy efficiency in houses and buildings, which represent the largest segment of society’s energy usage. The title of Irwin’s project is “Model-based Energy Management for Sustainable Buildings.”

Irwin's CAREER award is the third one received by young faculty members from the College of Engineering in a matter of weeks.

“The purpose of my research is to make a home or building as ‘smart’ as possible in terms of monitoring and controlling energy efficiency,” explains Irwin. “By employing the methods I’m researching, consumers could save an estimated 15 to 20 percent on their electricity bills, while also reducing their carbon footprint.”

By extension, that percentage of savings in a large building such as a skyscraper would translate to an enormous amount in money, electricity, and environmental impact.

“It’s not altogether about costs,” Irwin adds. “There’s also a crucial environmental aspect to it.”

As he notes in his CAREER proposal, modern society depends on a massive amount of largely “dirty” energy to sustain itself. Collectively, buildings consume significantly more energy – 41 percent of the total amount – than the two other broad sectors of consumption, industry (30 percent) and transportation (29 percent). Typically, electricity is used in homes, apartments, and other buildings to supply a variety of devices, including heating and air conditioning systems, resistive and motor-driven appliances, information technology devices, and lighting. Even small improvements in the collective efficiency of this electrical equipment in buildings of every kind have the potential for a massive impact.

A significant barrier to improving building energy efficiency is that fine-tuned, pervasive monitoring of electrical devices at large scales remains impractical because it is prohibitively expensive, invasive, and unreliable.

Irwin’s research will address that barrier in several ways. First, Irwin will create a “Wikipedia-styled” website to use as a repository for electricity usage data used from thousands of specific brands and models of appliances; an encyclopedic site in which visitors can either use data or add data about their own appliances. Understanding how and why individual electrical devices consume electricity is critical to improving a building’s overall energy efficiency.

“Our hypothesis is that a comprehensive repository of detailed models that describe how specific devices use power provides a foundation for programming and managing energy usage in buildings,” Irwin explains.

Having established what in effect is an “Electripedia” of specific electrical devices and the power they consume, Irwin will introduce a new line of research that uses models of these devices to develop automated discovery, monitoring, and scheduling software, which can automatically identify wasted electricity in a building, track energy consumption, and program electrical devices to go off or on, according to need. This kind of smart electrical system will be inexpensive, private, reliable, and sustainable.

To institute his smart system, Irwin is developing software that can automatically schedule, control, and optimize the electricity usage in all the appliances, switches, outlets, and circuits throughout a home or building, while at the same time protecting the privacy concerns of occupants as raised by the smart meters which utility companies are now installing in many houses and larger buildings.

Irwin did the preliminary work for his NSF proposal by using his own home as a prototype. As he says, “In my house right now, where I’ve been collecting much of the preliminary data for the proposal, I’m using smart plugs and smart switches that anyone can buy off the shelf and are programmatic, so I can control them via computer. I’m able to monitor and control these plugs and switches right now from my campus office, to, for instance, turn on lights and see how much power they consume. Currently, I can control about 80 plugs, switches, or appliances in my home from anywhere in the world.”

If Irwin’s house does not yet qualify as a total smart home, it’s at least getting very savvy. But home sweet home doesn’t necessarily translate to a real test bed for all his research.

“Because of the uncertainty caused by people and pets living at home,” Irwin explains, “any experiment I want to perform with my research there might not be repeatable and controllable.”

Thus, Irwin is planning to set experimental sites, including places on campus equipped with a variety of standard appliances found in homes. That’s where he can run controlled and repeatable experiments in which no innocent bystanders would either get in the way or be impacted, and he can experiment at larger scales. 

He’ll also be working with the Holyoke Gas and Electric Utility which is deploying many smart meters in the homes of customers. “The purpose is to figure out ways of using the vast amount of smart meter data utilities are collecting,” Irwin says.

Beyond helping homeowners slash their electricity bills, one major purpose for the kind of software Irwin is developing would be as a building control system for larger structures. “Right now,” he says, “building control systems don’t manage the electrical usage to this degree of sophistication.” The impact could be huge. (February 2013)