OpenTRV Interview
with Damon Hart-Davis

Open TRV uses sensor technology and thermostatic radiator valves to fit automatic heating controls in domestic properties, helping homeowners to save money on energy bills and to significantly reduce their carbon footprint. We spoke to CEO Damon Hart-Davis about his vision to change the face of home energy consumption in the UK.

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Read the full interview below

How did you first get involved with programming and working with technology?

It may shock you to learn that I’m a bit of a geek! My father bought me my first electronics kit when I was quite small, and I’ve been hooked ever since. After a brush with biochemistry at University, I created one of the UK’s first Internet service providers, and later moved on to provide ‘full stack’ coding and tech support for a number of pretty high profile companies, including many years with Lehman Brothers – aka the people widely blamed for blowing up the financial sector!

UK Carbon Emissions

How did Open TRV come about?

I started to become interested in energy efficiency around 2007. Professor David MacKay, who wrote extensively about sustainability and served as the Chief Scientific Advisor to the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change, invited me to lead a workshop about smart heating. We came to the conclusion that a lot of the waste in domestic heating could be eliminated with some relatively simple steps.

According to OpenTRV estimates, over half of the energy people use to heat their houses is wasted. Many homeowners are quite reluctant to spend a lot of time programming their heating systems, either because it’s too time consuming or because they’re afraid they might break something. There are also measures that are routinely applied in commercial buildings that could easily be carried over into the domestic space.

After becoming frustrated with the slow progress of working with government and getting nowhere with the big players, I started the open source project in 2013.

Opentrv Radiator Thermostat

How does Open TRV work?

In commercial buildings, it’s rare that heating or air conditioning will run full blast in a room that isn’t occupied. Through a combination of occupancy sensors and zoning technology, different rooms will often be set at different temperatures, and when a room is empty the lights and air conditioning will usually turn themselves off automatically. At Open TRV, we make it easier to apply that principle to the domestic space.

In most homes, a single thermostat positioned in the coldest part of the house is responsible for controlling the boiler that heats the entire property. This helps to ensure that the boiler is running whenever any part of the house is cold, but it can result in a lot of unnecessary waste. Many properties do feature thermostatic radiator valves, but people tend to either not touch them or leave them on maximum all the time.

At Open TRV, we have created smart thermostats with a temperature sensing control unit that notices when the room is empty, figures out when you’re not likely to return for a while, and turns the heat down accordingly. It’s as simple as that!

Opentrv Interview with Damon Hart-Davis

How much money could a household save by using Open TRV?

A typical dual fuel gas bill in the UK comes in at around £750 per year or more. Around £600 of that cost is spent on heating rooms, with the rest going on things like water heating and gas ovens. Around half of that £600 is effectively wasted money – so we’re looking at saving the average British home around £300 per year in energy bills, in addition to potentially knocking 10% off the UK’s entire carbon footprint.

Our goal is to get to a point where our products will pay for themselves within the first year, without requiring any expensive installation works. In those terms, it’s a no brainer for financial and environmental reasons – you don’t even need to believe in climate change for it to be a worthwhile thing to do.

On the left Damon Hart-Davis CEO of OpenTRV

Why is it that many British homes fare so poorly when it comes to energy efficiency?

As a rule, installing energy efficient technology isn’t particularly cheap. An automated thermostat system might cost hundreds of pounds at the outset, meaning it’s going to take several years to pay itself off. Unless you’re an early adopter who’s sure they’re not going to move in the next five years or so, why would you make that investment?

Our aim is to bring the entry-level costs down to around £10 per radiator. We’re not there yet, but that’s the target. At that cost, you could refit your entire home for less than £150 in total, and you wouldn’t need to do it all at once. When you compare an entry cost of £10-£150 to £250 or more, the former is going to see much higher adoption levels.

The Energy Saving Trust recently undertook a survey where they found that most people in the UK are interested in improving how their heating works. Countries like Germany are already far ahead of us in terms of making energy efficient heating systems widely available, while in the UK it’s generally restricted to enthusiasts and the wealthy. There’s a huge market there, it just isn’t being served effectively at this point.

What have been the biggest challenges you’ve faced since you launched in 2013?

There was a point this February when we were faced with at least six times as much work as we had pairs of hands. It was unavoidable – for obvious reasons we have to do the bulk of our work during winter, and we also had the IoT Launchpad project running at full tilt. We just had to work incredibly hard and accept the fact that we couldn’t possibly get everything done.

As a small business, raising finance is also an ever-present concern. We’ve been through many rounds of fundraising over the years, some successful, some not. But you have to expect challenges like that as a start-up.

Many people say IoT is the next Industrial revolution. Would you agree, or is this an overstatement?

If IoT is done right, it should fade into the background – making things work better and more efficiently with less brain strain for people using it. Industrial revolution might be an overstatement, but it could definitely make a huge difference to the way we run our houses, our businesses and manage the environment.

What’s coming up for Open TRV in the near future?

We recently ran a small batch of trial devices, and our aim this year is to take that to the next level and allow consumers to start to participate. We won’t be at our target cost right away, but we’re looking at some product-based crowd funding this winter to help get the device into the hands of the general public, which is very exciting. Details will be announced @OpenTRV on Twitter and on our mailing lists.

And what are your long-term goals?

In addition to our long-term goals of expanding the product across Europe, one side project we’d really like to be part of is helping to make the energy grid more resilient. There are around twenty million houses on the UK gas grid, each with a circulation pump of around 50W or more for its radiators. That’s 1GW (GigaWatt) of power that we could turn off as and when the grid required, without anyone even noticing.

Is there anything you’d like to see in the IoT and Energy Efficiency space that isn’t currently in place?

We’d really liked to see more co-operation and interoperability, rather than companies building walled gardens. Energy efficiency is too important to be scoring points over – we need to be working together to make our devices talk to each other. We also need to be better at security, and not apply it as an afterthought, because IoT currently fares badly in that area.

What is the most important skill when developing an IoT solution and taking it to the market?

As a technologist at heart, the lesson I’m learning is that technology is really only about 20% of the problem. You need to find ways to make your project as accessible as possible, fit it into the ways people actually work, and communicate that message effectively.

If people are naturally averse to adjusting their heating systems, you won’t change their behaviour by lecturing them. But if you can show them that it’ll be very easy, that it’ll save them lots of money, and that they won’t have to do any complicated programming, then you’re going to make more headway.

How important are dev boards such as Raspberry Pi for the execution of ideas?

I used to have a room full of servers at home. Now I’ve moved everything onto a single Raspberry Pi, which sits in my kitchen cupboard and runs off solar power. Doing that took its energy consumption from 700 watts to around 2 watts.

The wonderful thing about Raspberry Pi is the way it makes it possible to create a smart, secure Internet gateway. With IoT, I tend to think that the Internet shouldn’t connect directly to the Things, because the things need to be long-lived, and online security issues evolve rapidly. You need to have something operating at the boundary between the two, and the Raspberry Pi is almost perfect for that. It’s small, it’s cheap, you can manage it remotely and you can be confident that it won’t become obsolete overnight. Not to mention the vast amount of support out there if you need to fix things. That kind of affordable commodity hardware – including Raspberry Pi and Arduino – really makes executing tech projects a lot more practical.

What advice would you give to people who have ideas for an IoT project and would like to take it out onto the market?

To return to my previous point, don’t be tempted to simply build a better mousetrap, because that’s not enough. You have to think of the whole picture, from technology to social to marketing. Find a problem that really needs solving, and find a way to make IoT really solve it, in a practical and affordable way. And whatever you do, don’t build something incredibly insecure and flaky, which is going to expose millions of people to trouble in five years time. Make it appropriate, and make it secure.