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Stanford News Service

Quality Insider

Build a Better Light Switch, and People Will Use It

Two innovations that encourage better energy decisions

Published: Thursday, September 12, 2013 - 10:04

People are more likely to conserve energy if it’s easy to do. Knowing this, students working on Stanford’s entry in the Solar Decathlon green-building competition have redesigned household mainstays to make reducing energy and water consumption a cinch.

When Stanford students began designing their entry, they wanted to do two things: Make the most energy-efficient house possible, and encourage people to make conscious decisions about their energy consumption. That’s why when you switch off the light in the Start.Home, you do so by swiping your fingers across a glowing touch pad.

The redesigned light switch was born from a brainstorming session on how to eliminate excess energy consumption throughout the house. The students zeroed in on two common culprits: people leaving lights on in empty rooms, and so-called vampire power, the small amount of electricity that electronics pull from the socket even when they’ve been switched “off.”

The design team knew that creating the most energy-efficient option should require the least amount of effort, says Jason Bade, who leads the project’s interaction design team. Crawling under cabinets to unplug appliances or switching off each lamp in a room is the energy-responsible thing to do, but it’s too much hassle to become a consistent behavior.

An easy and effective solution would have been to connect all the lights and outlets to an automatic motion sensor that shuts everything off when a person leaves the room, Bade says. But installing such a sensor is a one-time decision that the homeowner makes to be energy conscious, and it places the control in the technology, not the person. It would have a limited effect toward encouraging people to make better energy decisions.

“What happens if the system breaks, or what happens if you’re in a house or office building that doesn’t have the same design features?” asks Bade. “We want to give people a sense of understanding their energy consumption, and to empower them to make better energy behaviors because they want to. If they actively reduce their energy consumption in the house, then hopefully they’ll behave that way in the rest of the world, too.”

The Start.Home features a custom-made “room switch.” As you leave a room, a touch pad mounted near the doorway will gently glow to remind you to turn off lights and unnecessary outlets. The switch operates much like a touch-pad mouse on a laptop computer, and various tap or swipe sequences can issue different commands to turn off some or all electricity to a room.

The Stanford team applied the same design philosophy to develop another type of switch. People waste a huge amount of water by leaving the bathroom sink running while they brush their teeth or shave. The Start.Home’s solution is a knee-operated switch built into the sink cabinet. Simply lean against it, and water flows as you need it; remove pressure, and the water stops.

“We’re redesigning things that have been around for a hundred years,” says Bade. “To get people to adopt this, we had to also design them to be better than what we’re used to.”

So far, focus groups have responded well to prototypes of both devices, and the students calculate that the devices will make significant energy and water savings over the long haul.

To learn more about the Start.Home, visit the project’s website.

Solar Decathlon 2013 will be held at the Orange County Great Park in Irvine, California. The competition houses will be open to visitors on eight days over two weekends. Public hours will be from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily:
• Thurs., Oct. 3 through Sun., Oct. 6, 2013
• Thurs., Oct. 10 through Sun., Oct. 13, 2013


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Stanford News Service

The Stanford News Service is part of Stanford University’s Office of University Communications. It provides assistance to reporters and disseminates much of the university’s news. It also serves as a liaison between scholars and media outlets. Stanford University is recognized as one of the world's leading research and teaching institutions.