Go green and save money: smart lighting

Marie Brewis

The time was smart lighting was really only an option in large offices. The concept of using only the power you need to save money and energy required the kind of server-level controls available only to those with IT support. Not so any longer. Any home or small office can have intelligent lighting that works only when a room is occupied. You can find out about smart lighting in detail in our piece: Best smart bulbs and smart lighting.

Unless you are determined to divest yourself of cash you should consider LED bulbs. Some key benefits to using LED rather than incandescent bulbs are that they use less energy, produce less heat, and last much longer. But smart lighting is also pretty cool, with some of the bulbs we've tested able to set mood lighting for the different rooms in your house, be controlled from afar or scheduled to turn on and off at preset times from your smartphone or tablet, and even to function as an alarm, gently waking you in the morning. Some smart bulbs can even blast out tunes from your ceiling. And all will save you money if you calculate the cost over a long period.  

But there are some down sides, too. LED lighting is still much more expensive than the technology it replaces. Yes, you'll make savings on your energy bill and in buying fewer replacement bulbs, but how long will it take you to return your investment and start seeing those savings? That's not something we can easily answer for you, since it will depend on how much you're spending on and what you're using to light your home right now. But you can see how much we've managed to save in our article LED vs Halogen: Why now could be the right time to invest in LED bulbs. 

You can buy LED bulbs on the cheap, but as with any tech you'll get what you pay for in the quality of light, brightness and coverage. We'd recommend sticking to well-known brands, and looking for those sold with decent warranties. Good returns policies are important, too, since there's no guarantee that low-voltage LEDs will work on your particular transformers or dimmer switch.

Colour temperature and brightness are important for home use. The former is measured in Kelvin, where 2700-to 3000K is a warm white; higher values look cooler and lower values warmer. Brightness is measured in lumens - look to match or exceed that provided by your current bulb.

The beam angle determines the spread of light the bulb produces. For replacing spotlights look for around 40 degrees; for replacing incandescent bulbs aim closer to 140 degrees.

Olixar light bulb

At the more expensive end of the market we like the Philips Hue system. The Philips Hue is a remote-controlled lighting system for the home, using standard screw-fit lightbulbs that can be adjusted from a smartphone app.

That control extends to brightness, colour and timing - you can set your lights to come on at preset times, or when you approach or leave the home, and even entirely remotely over the internet when you're miles away.

With the system set up, you can have three bulbs in the same room or set in different rooms, although many of the preset lighting schemes use complementary colours so work best with the three bulbs in view together. But at the time of writing a starter kit will cost you £176 from Amazon UK, so although you will be getting a smarter home and saving electricity, it will be a long time before you feel the benefit in your pocket.

At the other end of the scale are a couple of inexpensive smart bulbs that also encompass Bluetooth speakers, namely the 1byone Smart LED Bulb and the Olixar Light Beats Bluetooth Speaker Bulb. It may feel like a weird combination, but the beauty of pairing light bulb and speaker is that, provided the light is turned on, the speaker is fired up and ready to go. There's no fiddling with buttons, and no need to charge the speaker or plug it into a wall outlet.

You just grab your phone or tablet, connect to the Olixar Speaker Bulb over Bluetooth 4.0, and are instantly ready to blare out music, podcasts and audiobooks from the ceiling. So not only can you control your lighting from an app to ensure that unoccupied rooms stay dark, but you are guaranteed to switch off your Bluetooth speaker whenever you are not around. And at £24 a bulb these products are much cheaper than is a Bluetooth speaker, and not much more expensive than a dumb old LED bulb.

Right now, although you can definitely save energy by going smart, the simplest way to save money on your lighting is to switch to LED without investing in any fancy tech. But prices will come down, and the ability to remotely and smartly control what lights stay on will ultimately save you cash. (See also: How to cut your electricity bill: best energy-saving tips.)

Go green and save money: smart heating

Matt Egan

You've probably seen the adverts for Hive with its quirky song about how great it is to control your heating from a laptop, smartphone or tablet. And yes, it is - pun intended - a cool thing to be able to do. But more than that, smart heating is likely to be a key part of every home going forward. As fuel costs rise and supplies run dry the ability to heat our homes in an efficient way will stop being a nice bonus, and become an essential part of every home's economics. You can find out everything you need to know about smart heating in our piece Best smart heating systems and thermostats 2016.

As part of the burgeoning 'Internet of Things', IoT smart home heating systems are only the beginning of a process that will see us able to control power and fuel consumption. Expect in time to be able to switch off your fridge and freezer for the peak hour of each day. The aim of the game is efficiency: maximum comfort for minimal cost to you - and to the environment.

Smart thermostats and smart home heating systems have become readily available to almost all homes. If you have a boiler and central heating you will likely be able to fit any of the systems on the market. But not all smart home heating systems are made equal, and which one works best for you is another question altogether.

The key question is the level to which you need- or want to make your heating smart. Most of the systems on the market - Hive, Nest, Netatmo, Honeywell and Tado - simply put a smart thermostat into the most-used room in the house or the hallway, and moderate the temperature of the whole house to match that room. For smaller houses in which most rooms are in regular use this is probably a cost-effective way of attaining the desired results. You can always turn off the radiators you don't need to avoid heating rooms unnecessarily.

Heat Genius

Honeywell Evohome and Heat Genius offer something more, by replacing the valves on your radiators with 'smart' valves. They allow you to divide up your home into various zones and then offer smart heating in each zone, so your guest bedroom is heated only when required, the master bedroom is warm in the morning and at bed time, and the kitchen is hot at tea time. They are more sophisticated and objectively better solutions but, of course, they are a lot more expensive. And in the UK at least, all modern houses with living space covering ground greater than 150m2 have to be built with at least two zones of heating, according to 2013 Building Regulations Part L.

So again: a well-used, modern, small house (or flat) is unlikely to need this level of sophistication, and a well-used large home may have sufficient zones plumbed in to make Nest or Hive a good solution. Just remember that you'll need one thermostat per zone, so while it's cheaper than fitting each radiator with a £50 smart TRV, it's still relatively expensive.

The right smart-heating system for you will be dictated by your home, your use of that home and your requirement to save money. The good news is there is a way of making every house more efficient, comfortable and the householder more wealthy (or at least less poor). But the best way for each house will differ.

Portable devices rather than fixed desktop terminals, with detail on battery life / solar chargers - Being able to work anywhere means we don't need to travel to work. And with innovative charging devices we can limit the amount of power we draw from the mains. See also: How to make your home a smart home.

Go green and save money: hybrid computers

Chris Martin

A laptop that is also your desktop and a tablet is more than just a cool gadget and a way to work on the hoof. Hybrid devices mean one computer instead of several: and that has the potential both to save you money, and to save precious resources. The most energy a computer will ever use is in the construction of its parts, so being able to use a single tablet or laptop wherever we are is huge efficiency. And - obviously - buying one device rather than three is a good way of saving money, even if you will have to shell out to get a decent hybrid. You can find reviews of all the best laptop tablet hybrids in our piece: Best convertible laptops and tablets 2016 UK.

The undisputed champion of this category is Microsoft's Surface range of products. But cheap they are not. And you get what you pay for.  

Although they've been around for a while, hybrid devices vary a lot and so various different names have been used for the category without a real front runner being settled on.

We're going mainly with 'convertible' here, but across the media, retail and the manufacturers you'll hear names such as 'convertible', 'hybrid' and '2-in-1'. They all mean the same thing in essence – a device which is designed to be both a laptop and a tablet, and so should also be able to replace your desktop PC (remember them?).

Within the category there are two different types of product, and the question you need to ask yourself is whether you need a tablet or a laptop the most.

There are some big differences between a convertible laptop and a convertible tablet. While both are a 2-in-1 device aiming to be a laptop and a tablet at the same time, design challenges mean that you'll typically get more of one than the other. However, some do manage to sit somewhere in the middle.

A convertible laptop comes in various different styles but is likely to have a screen which flips almost 360 degrees in order to change it into a tablet, for example. That's the main part of the design and doesn't vary too much across the market. It also means you can use it in other 'modes' such as tent or display.

Examples include Lenovo's Yoga range which has been the inspiration for many rivals. A recent exception is the Microsoft Surface Book which is laptop-first but still has a removable keyboard.

HP Spectre

Meanwhile, a convertible tablet is more like a regular tablet but either has a keyboard which attaches magnetically or a fancy case which creates a laptop-like experience. The keyboard may connect over Bluetooth in some cases.

Examples include the Microsoft Surface Pro 4, Samsung Galaxy TabPro S and the Huawei MateBook.

Which one is right for you depends hugely on what you want to do with it. Do you mainly want a laptop on which to do regular work but can also shapeshift into a tablet for the odd task? Or do you want a tablet which you can also do a bit of typing on when the need arises?

Much of what you need to look for in a convertible laptop or convertible tablet is the same. Like almost any tech device you'll want to get the best specifications for your money including the processor, memory, storage and screen. Make sure you click through to the in-depth reviews of each device to find out what they offer, including benchmark results.

As alluded to, the design is going to be a big part of your buying decision here and you need to choose a device which fits your needs best. A convertible laptop is likely to be bigger and heavier but is likely to offer longer battery life (there's more space for a bigger battery). Since it is laptop-first, it will also provide a better typing experience and there's normally room for things like more physical ports should connectivity be an issue.

Although a convertible tablet might not have many physical ports (some have full-size USB), they are smaller and lighter than a hybrid laptop making them great for travelling around. As the device is a tablet-first with a keyboard dock/case, using it like a laptop is often fiddly and awkward. Look for one with a clever design and proper keys. A trackpad is also a boon, despite touchscreens, but not all feature one.

Get it right and you can have one device to rule them all, saving money and power.

Go green and save money: keep your old PC

Matt Egan

Not unrelated is the value of keeping your existing computer rather than giving in to the constant upgrade cycle. Computers these days last longer than once they did, in part because of the greater reliability of components, but also because once you have a sufficiently fast system with enough storage, there really is no need to upgrade. Reader, we are at peak PC.  

This can lead to inefficient power usage, of course. But the laptop that lasts for five years is better for the environment than replacing it with a brand new and moreefficient device every year or two. We all change our phones far too often, too.

You can elongate the life of most tech hardware without having to replace the whole thing. Replace that inefficient spinning hard drive with an SSD. Displays can be replaced or upgraded, as can power supplies. My own venerable desktop PC has been in service for a decade, during which time it has been spruced up with new memory and storage on more than one occasion.

If you do have to upgrade either phone or PC, be sure to recycle your older kit, either by donating it, selling it, or passing it on via a freecycle site.

Go green and save money: video calling

Matt Egan

This is more of a business thing that something that can be adopted at home, but not exclusively. Any time you can avoid a journey and speak face to face over a free video-messaging service such as Skype, you can save both time and resources. Travel - and in particular car- and train travel - burns a lot of fuel.

A lot of face-to-face business meetings simply don't need to happen. It is trivial - and free - to have a video chat and share your display using tools such as Skype and Google Hangouts, with Join.me and other screen-sharing services.

There is no escaping the fact that as human beings we are social animals predisposed to spending time with one another. So we are not about to suggest that you stop going to visit grandma and instead expect her to subsist on a diet of Skype calls with little Johnny. But even in your personal life there are times when a face to face chat is more personable than a phone call or a rushed flying visit. And you will save time, money, and a tiny part of the planet.