As the summer comes to an end, I'm mentally preparing myself for the onset of the cold weather, and the need for heating.
With that in mind, I accepted the offer by British Gas to have its Hive smart thermostat installed.
It is only logical to assume that this unusually long and pleasant summer is a direct result of me having a new heating system to review. Happily (and I mean unhappily) the weather has taken a turn recently, giving me more of a chance to have more of a play.
So what is Hive, and why would you consider it? Let's take a look at what hardware is involved, and how it is fitted.
There are two hardware components to Hive. The first is the little wireless receiver that attaches to your boiler. It is this that the British Gas engineer is there to install for you, as everything else is basically plug and play.
The second part is the thermostat itself. It's large, but not massive, the screen takes up most of the surface, which makes it look different to, and more advanced than, other digital thermostats. It's also backlit when you're using it, which is really handy.
The final part of the system is a small, and easily forgotten device that connects to your home broadband router. This is how Hive communicates with the British Gas website, and your smartphone.
Which brings us on to the last part of the system; the range of apps for smartphones. These allow you to control your heating from anywhere in the world. You almost certainly won't want to do that, but it's nice to know you can flick the heat on while you walk back from the pub on a cold winter evening.
We got a morning slot and a cheerful British Gas employee turned up. He came expecting the worst for his morning ahead because British Gas, it turns out, has pretty comprehensive records on the houses it services, or has serviced in the past. We're not British Gas customers, and haven't been since we moved in to our current place, so the information was a bit out of date, and included a long-removed back boiler system.
Hive can be installed on a wide variety of systems, and British Gas will be able to explain that when you order, or enquire. It is worth pointing out that although this is a British Gas product, it can be installed in any home, no matter who your energy supplier is.
Our heating is driven from a combi-boiler (water heated on-demand) so we didn't get to use Hive's feature to preheat water.
This could be quite useful if you have a hot water storage tank, because it will allow you to get your house ready for baths or showers, even if they are needed at different times to when your system usually heats the tank.
Installing everything doesn't really take long if you are using a modern heating system. Our engineer was here a while, but he was taking the time to explain it to me and have a general natter. You could have the whole thing fitted and running in a couple of hours if you were in a rush.
The broadband component configures itself automatically, but it took a long time to do this. The engineer explained that it calls home, downloads updates and registers itself during this time. It doesn't really matter though, and it's totally automated. British Gas says the initial setup uses about 5MB of data, and from then on the system should on use about 512kb per month, truly tiny amounts.
Costs and benefits
Hive costs about £199 to buy and install. British Gas says it can save you £150 per year on your heating. Even if you ignore the savings then Hive isn't a massive amount more expensive than any decent thermostat.
For example, Hive in my house replaced a Honeywell wireless thermostat that costs about £120. You'd also need to have any new system fitted, which would be extra on top of that. Hive, on the other hand, includes fitting.
When it comes to saving you money, that will very much depend on how you use the system. It's not inherently more efficient than any other thermostat. It offers some nice features, but if you're working at home or in the house for other reasons it's not going to be able to save you a fortune.
What Hive does do is give you comprehensive control over your heating, and allow you to make changes to your schedule when you aren't at home. For example, you might usually head back to your house for 6pm, but instead you head out for a meal and drinks, save some money by bumping the heating to come on when you arrive home later.
These changes won't make a massive difference, and without running the system for a year I can't actually tell you how much you'll save, but it's certainly a step in the right direction. My advice, therefore, is to think of this as a heating upgrade, rather than something to save you money.
There are two key aspects of the app. The first is obvious; the ability to control your heating. The second is the geo-location applications that are opened up by smartphones.
British Gas has only recently added support for geolocation, but as you might expect it allows you to program your heating to come on when you get close to home. This is especially useful if you're schedule suddenly changes, and while you could switch the heating on with the app, the geolocation allows you to simply let the system take care of itself.
The apps themselves are really well designed. To connect them you simply login with your email address and password. Once that's done, you can control the heating from any number of Android or iOS phones and tablets. Everyone in the family can run the app if needed.
The two main areas the app covers are adjusting the current temperature, so turning the heating on if needed. And the second is setting your heating schedule. Phones obviously play a big part in the automation too, if you intend to make use of that geo-location we mentioned earlier.
You can control most aspects of Hive via the website too, which is really nicely presented. Hive also keeps a record of your home temperature for a year, so you can see how warm your house has been. It's quite illuminating actually, and it's the sort of thing us data geeks love to mess about with.
Hive is clearly designed to be as simple as possible. Initially, I was a little worried that it might be too complicated for most people, but the truth is it's probably easier than most systems.
It comes down to telling it what temperature you want it to be at any time, and letting the system take care of the rest. What that means is, when you're setting the timers, you define times when you want the house to be heated. If you work 9-5, then get the heating on an hour before you wake up, then as you're getting dressed you have it switch off, and stay off until you're leaving the office to come home.
Even when it's "off" though, you can set a temperature. So if you want the house to be 20 degrees when you're there, and 15 when you're not, the heating will only come on if temperatures fall below 15 during the day. It's a good idea to set it up like this, because it means the house will never cool down too much. Of course, you might opt to set the day temperature much lower.
Overnight, the heating won't let the temperature fall to below 5 degrees. This is really to stop pipes from freezing, but realistically, you won't want the house to drop below that if you're in anyway.
One thing I noticed was that you're quite limited in the number of different time periods you can set. Overnight is predefined as the anti-frost mode. The minimum is 5 degrees, but you can increase it to anything you want. You only get three other timer settings though. I thought this might be a problem, but in fact it isn't. You can control each day separately anyway, so weekends can be set up to suit your schedule, even if it differs from the weekday.
Lots of potential
While the British Gas engineer was over, he explained that while he wasn't sure what was coming in the future, he said that there was a lot of excitement at the company about what Hive is capable of. He said there was certainly a plan to evolve it as time goes on.
British Gas also has smart meters, and it would make a lot of sense if the company tied all these devices in together. Ideally, you'd be able to see online, or in the app, how much electricity and gas you were using at any given moment. That could be a huge leap forward in terms of power savings and being aware of the real cost of energy.
It would also make sense for British Gas to offer a home automation system too, which would also, ideally, be tied into the same online portal. Imagine if you could control every aspect of your home from your phone, or computer while you were anywhere on the planet.
Of course, for now, these are all just things that could (and should) happen. We'll have to see how far British Gas is prepared to take the system.