Stories & Features

Stars of smart home tech, from speaker lights to thermal blinds

Image of the C by GE smart switch dimmer
The C by GE smart switch dimmer with motion activation (on the wall, top right) can be operated by a mobile device, yet switches on-off by motion sensor in areas such as entry ways and stairwells where lights tend to be left on.

A look at product winners from the 2020 Lighting and Homes of Tomorrow competition

An in-ceiling speaker light you can talk to (and play music on via a JBL speaker). A dimmable light switch you can operate from your phone that also adjusts lighting by motion sensor. A programmable thermostat that works not just with baseboard heaters, but with other smart products in your home.

Those are just three of the winners in the 2020 Lighting and Homes of Tomorrow competition, the latest in an annual Consortium for Energy Efficiency (CEE) initiative to alert consumers and electrical utilities to some of the most innovative smart home products out there. And in most cases, the emphasis is on products that are relatively easy to install and operate.

Take the C by GE smart switch dimmer and motion sensor. It's available in Canada at Best Buy, and includes the option to buy a model that solves a problem with those (usually in older homes) with a specific wiring challenge.

"There's a version of it that doesn't require a neutral wire," says BC Hydro smart home team lead Tim Mosley, marvelling that a cool new product actually takes into consideration use in older homes. "There are very few products out there that allow this. And it's critical in households that are slightly older or had renovations where someone has made something work without pulling the neutral wire to the switch location."

Here's a look at some of the other award-winning products.

Image of the the Juno Ai speaker light
Alexa in the bathroom (and right above the tub) comes in the form of the Juno Ai speaker light, which combines the benefits of an advanced smart light with a high-quality JBL speaker for music and Amazon Alexa built in.

Juno Ai speaker light: Alexa, quality sound and lighting

This one turns heads, but comes with a price tag starting at about $500 in Canada. The question is, how much are you willing to pay for a recessed light designed to transform your visual and auditory experience in the rooms of your choice?

"If you have a living room or other spaces where you might install a couple of these, I imagine the Juno Ai could fill the room with pretty good quality sound," says BC Hydro's Mosley. "It might not be for audiophiles, but if you're a household concerned about speakers adding clutter to countertops and other areas, this would be a good solution. And it taps into everything else that Alexa controls for you, too."

That means voice-controlled Alexa access to everything from smart door locks to thermostats. And according to one reviewer, both the sound of the included JBL speaker and the colour-rendering of the integrated LED are a big step above the competition.

Not ready to take the leap, but want a premium music option that has Siri and Google Assistant access? The Bose Mini Soundlink Bluetooth speaker allows you to take your music and podcasts anywhere in your home (and on your travels). It's small, rechargeable, and has surprisingly strong bass when positioned on the floor an inch or two from a wall. And while it's usually priced close to $300, you can sometimes get it for $200 or less.

Image of Sinopé’s smart thermostat
The smart home capabilities of the Sinopé line voltage thermostat (compatible with electric baseboard heaters), helped make it CEE's award winner for 2020.

Ecobee, Sinopé, and Flair Puck Pro named top thermostats

In what's becoming a more crowded space, Ecobee and Sinopé got the nod for two different applications for programmable wifi thermostats.

The Ecobee SmartThermostat with Voice Control was named the overall thermostat winner, and that's not a surprise. It's a wildly popular choice that adds voice control to a list of benefits that include Smart Home & Away, which adjusts temperature when you're home and lowers it when you're away.

But the Ecobee isn't a fit for all homes. Sinopé Technologies was the winner in the category for homes with electric line voltage heating (such as baseboards), and it's no surprise that Sinopé is a Quebec-based company. Like B.C., Quebec has an abundance of affordable hydroelectric power that has translated to a higher percentage of electric heating than in most regions of North America. Sinopé's smart thermostat is compatible with Alexa, Google Assistant and other smart home systems.

The Flair Puck Pro was the winner for use with mini-split heat pumps, which are increasingly popular in B.C., thanks in part to BC Hydro's home renovation rebates, which include up to $1,000 for mini-split heat pumps. It coordinates all your heat pump heating/cooling as well as other smart thermostats, allowing you to schedule and control them all on one smartphone app. It works across multiple heat pump systems, turning your standard system into a smart system.

Image of a room using the Hunter Douglas Duette Architella Calypso Honeycomb Shade
Hunter Douglas led the pack for window attachments with its Duette Architella Calypso Honeycomb Shade equipped with PowerView Automation.

Hunter Douglas honeycomb shade is smart and thermal

If you've seen the Kate Winslet film The Holiday, you'll recall her delight at discovering – while jet-lagged from a flight from London to L.A. – that her home-swap vacation home features blackout blinds in the bedroom at the push of a button. We've come a long way since the original venetian blind, which has been around since the 18th century.

Hunter Douglas won the CEE's 2020 award for window attachments for its Duette Architella Calypso Honeycomb Shade with PowerView automation. These blinds are about as good as it gets, as the honeycomb-within-a-honeycomb design traps air to help create a thermal barrier to keep homes warmer in winter, and cooler in summer. The PowerView option (there are less expensive options, including manual operation) allows for smartphone operation and scheduling, a room-darkening feature, and the ability to adjust blinds for combinations of top-down, bottom-up adjustments for privacy and to control light. Hunter Douglas, which partners with several retailers in Canada, also claims the blinds can absorb up to 70% of sound that comes through windows.

Regardless of the type of blinds you have, always ensure your windows and doors are properly weather-stripped. Caulk around basement and storm windows. When heating or cooling, keep windows locked. Open your window coverings during sunny winter days to catch free solar heat then close them at night to keep that heat in. Close your window coverings during summer days to keep the heat out.

Image of the Modern Forms Renegade smart ceiling fan
The Modern Forms Renegade smart ceiling fan is primarily designed for outdoors, but it's design and efficiency also suits indoor applications.

Other winning products: Smart ceiling fans, hot water monitor, Powerly energy management

Mosley sees the other 2020 CEE picks as impressive but either unavailable in B.C. or less likely to be in demand in B.C.

Modern Forms won for their Renegade and Tip-Top indoor-outdoor ceiling fans, which are up to 70% more efficient than typical fans and are truly modern in design. They work with a variety of smart home systems, including the ability to work in tandem with some smart thermostats. Primarily designed for outdoor use, which translates to limited demand in B.C., they're also selected by those who want a stylish smart fan indoors. They're available in Canada at wayfair.ca.

The Aquanta Smart Water Heater controller won for its potential for energy savings, along with improved maintenance and leak detection. It works for both electric and gas water heaters, and is all about monitoring and control from a smart device. Given that one of the big features is the ability to schedule water heating to save money in areas where utilities have varied time-of-day electricity rates – Ontario does this, but B.C. doesn't – the most likely attraction for a B.C. buyer would be for a homeowner who spends extended periods away from home. Amazon.ca is among retailers who have made the controller available in Canada.

The Powerly energy management system was given special recognition and has attracted great interest from utilities, including BC Hydro, which is currently testing this system right now. It allows you to see your energy usage live and control and automate your smart devices all from the same app. Results so far suggest energy savings of almost 10%. Look out for a chance to join the trial later this year.