Rattled by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, and reminded by smaller quakes that are a daily occurrence in Japan, every large Japanese automaker entered the smart home business. We have seen smart homes from Toyota and from Nissan. Today, we went all the way to Minamiyono in Saitama to visit the smart home from Honda.
Of all the houses visited, the Honda house appears to have the highest degree of system integration and redundancy. It has the requisite solar panels, it allows to charge an EV (Honda recommends its new 118 MPGe Fit EV), it has a storage battery and can use the EV’s batteries as backup when disaster strikes.
However, again, a small ICE tips the balance of power in Honda’s direction. A compact cogeneration unit uses a tiny engine with a big name: The one cylinder “EXlink multi-link type high expansion ratio engine” has an engine displacement of 163cc (9.95 ci), whereas the intake volume is only 110cc (6.71 ci). The Atkinson cycle engine runs either on natural gas, or on LPG.
Around 90 percent of all Japanese households have some kind of a gas supply, the “all-electric house” is a recent phenomenon, I learn today from Honda Chief Engineer Naoya Toida. The little wall unit generates electricity via a sine wave inverter generator, and heat via an exhaust heat exchanger. The heat is used for hot water and heating (radiant or forced air.) The unit produces a moderate 1 kilowatt of electricity, and 2.5 kilowatt of heat.
The cogeneration unit goes together with a storage battery, a water heater and a management unit, all flat enough to fit to the side of a wall with minimum fuss. The design is easy on the eye. A solar panel goes on the roof. The house itself is chockablock full with smart home gadgets. If needed, the house can be operated remotely via the vehicle navigation system, or a smart phone.
With Japan’s nukes off the grid, blackouts are a constant danger. In this house, they lose their threat potential. A Honda engineer cuts the power to the grid. 30 seconds later, the system has automatically reconfigured itself to autonomous mode. The lights are back on. We have power as long as the sun shines and/or as long as natural gas comes through the pipe. Should the big one strike, and everything is out, we can liberate the gas bottle from the barbecue to produce electricity and heat, even to charge the Fit for a get-away. But who would want to leave a cozy and lit home now and venture into the pitch black?
Honda is not in the house business. It strives to sell the system to builders and home owners. Honda is no newcomer to this business, it has built and sold cogeneration units since 2002. The smart home in Saitama is part of a demonstration and testing project, together with Saitama University.