Published 19. Dec. 2022

Communication is the key to the introduction of smart control of the heating system

Tests in FED's living lab in Aalborg show that citizens are ready to relinquish control over the heating system if they get a solid explanation of the benefits for the climate - and themselves.

Af Hanne Kokkegård, DTU Compute

Ravnkildevej 2020 7 Avis Web

There is nothing as effective as crises for making us change our behavior. We saw this during the Covid-19 pandemic, and now during the ongoing energy crisis in Europe, where price increases go hand in hand with energy saving advice, and where energy consumption is decreasing. But what will happen when the crisis (hopefully one day) is over?

In the FED project - Flexible Energy Denmark funded by the Innovation Fund Denmark - researchers are convinced that data-based automated management of energy consumption is the way forward. By being flexible, you can control district heating and power consumption based on variable pricing and the surrounding energy grid, thereby saving CO2 and integrating more renewable energy.

Citizens are actually ready to hand over the responsibility for the heating system to an artificial intelligence that controls the heating in the house based on the weather forecast, the capacity of the district heating network and the need for heat indoors. At least that is the result of a recent experiment with smart control of the heating in FED's living lab in Aalborg, in which researchers from Aarhus University, in addition to controlling the heating system, interviewed the residents. Skepticism turned to acceptance when the experiment was explained to the participating consumers.

"Even though this is a small study, it shows that people are ready for automated control if they are shown that it benefits the climate and their personal finances," says Louise Christensen, PhD student at the Department of Civil and Architectural Engineering at Aarhus University.

Right now, when people are aware of energy prices, many families regulate their heat and electricity consumption based on prices. But the experiment shows that automation, which controls energy consumption without intervention, will be the right way in the future.

"We know from previous studies that the effect of campaigns where people are asked to do something manually diminishes quickly over time. You simply lose interest. Furthermore, the need for energy flexibility does not follow certain patterns and may arise when people are not in the vicinity of their heating system. That is why it should happen automatically if we are to realize the potential, and we have to do that, because the benefits to society of heat-flexible buildings are enormous," says Professor Steffen Petersen, Louise Christensen's supervisor.

Aalborg Living Lab3

Simulations are flawed

When experiments with heat control are carried out, they often take place in uninhabited buildings. But this study in Aalborg goes a step further by both controlling the heat in homes while people live there, and by combining engineering science with anthropological studies.

During the experiment, Louise Christensen and Steffen Petersen both monitored and controlled the heat in the building, and asked about the residents' experience with the heat regulation before, during, and after the experiment.

“Simulations do not take all factors into account, especially not user behavior and experience. Moreover, simulations are often a perfection of actual conditions; it is assumed that everything can be done and that everything happens as planned. That is why it is absolutely necessary that we - like in the FED project - conduct physical experiments to prove that the potential of the simulations can be realized in practice, including whether the residents will accept the technology," says Steffen Petersen.

Himmerland Boligforening 2020 Ravnkildevej 2020 34 Renejeppesendk Web

Heating before and after the morning peak

In the living lab, three terraced houses with different resident compositions had equipment installed for monitoring the indoor climate. The researchers can remotely control the individual thermostats on the radiators, and in that way control the heating in the home.

The experiment, which imitated a "model predictive control" took place in February 2021 in Aalborg; around a year before the energy crisis began. This type of control will typically heat up the house early in the morning, to avoid heating during the so-called "morning peak".

The experiments were carried out 'blinded', so the residents did not really know whether the heat was being regulated. After the experiment, Louise Christensen supplemented the study with an interview with the residents in order to both put the experience into words and to explain why automation is good for district heating, the environment, and people's finances.

"In one of the terraced houses, the residents were used to switching off the heat at night and switching it on again when they got up. The warm mornings during the experiment were therefore unfamiliar to the residents, and they found it unpleasant. Still, they were willing to accept it if there was a financial gain to achieve," says Louise Christensen.

Termostater Morten Koed Rasmussen

Will expand the experiment

Aarhus University hopes to be able to replicate the experiment this winter over a longer period of time and with an expansion of the living lab to include a classic H-house – a detached house from the 1970s connected to the district heating network. Denmark has many houses of this type, so the potential is great if they can make it work.

"The idea is that the residents should be allowed to turn the heating up/down if they do not feel that the indoor climate is comfortable enough for them with intelligent control. Then the question is whether they will do it when they know in advance that the automated control benefits several things - including their personal finances," says Louise Christensen.

In the experiment, equipment that is already available on the market has been used to see if the technical components work in a setup like this. The experiment with the living lab confirmed – like other living lab experiments on control – that the online connection to the thermostat is often unstable. As an example, it has been difficult to raise and lower the temperature via remote control of thermostats. The researchers have also identified a number of technical challenges with the thermostats currently on the market, which they will cooperate with the industrial partners in FED to fix.

The sharp distinction between company and customers is blurred

The FED project is coming to an end in March 2023, and at the bottom line, it is clear to the researchers that the future is smart management.

In the future, one can imagine that the sharp distinction between where the district heating company ends and the customer takes over will be blurred.

"The district heating companies will be able to see an increasing benefit from the customer's heating system adapting to the district heating production. An obvious option is to let the embedded control in the district heating unit communicate with smart thermostats and indoor climate sensors so that the customers do not have to do anything themselves," says Louise Christensen.

Read more in the scientific article from Department of Civil and Architectural Engineering  at Aarhus University, and Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland: "A mixed-methods case study on resident thermal comfort and attitude towards peak shifting of space heating", which has just been published in the journal Energy and Buildings.