Smart Home ‘David vs. Goliath’ Inventor Seeks Clients, Industry Acceptance

Today we chat with Baran Galocy of Redding. He’s a licensed electrical contractor who worked in the solar industry for many years. His work last year on a computer-controlled LED grow light morphed into two parallel concept companies, CompuGrow and CompuMilieu (say “mew”).  

Q: Baran, many people know you as the solar guy around the north state, but you have a new business, right?

That’s right, Doni.  My new business is named CompuMilieu (literally, “automated living environment”), which is also the dot-com name of my website.

CompuMilieu has developed a COTS (commercial, off-the-shelf) –based technology, home environmental control system.

Milieu, by the way is a French word meaning one’s living environment, exactly what I am seeking to control.  It is pronounced “mew , so CompuMilieu isn’t nearly as hard to say as it might appear.

Q: How did you come up with this idea?

As you said, I have been a solar designer and installer since 2001.  You and I have history because I installed a grid-tied system on your house a number of years ago.

In the ensuing years I have come to realize that, while I was saving people a great deal of money by reducing their electrical consumption, I was offsetting  wasteful lighting, heating, and air conditioning costs for my clients without actually reducing their consumption of energy.  It was as if I was subsidizing my clients’ wasteful living environments with “free” power from the Sun instead of actually helping to reduce their power consumption.

I realized that insulation and caulking can only go so far and, at some point, we need to address the core problem which is our (relatively speaking) hedonistic lifestyles that  dictate keeping our houses cool in summer and warm in winter – regardless of the time of day or specific room use.   My CompuMilieu (say “mew”) system automates the lighting, heating, and cooling of a building based upon a multiplicity of factors.

Q: Sounds pretty complex. Did your former solar experience have anything to do with this development?

I was the second licensed electrical contractor who specialized in solar (photovoltaic) energy in Shasta County in 2001.  Then  Power House Solar moved in and we occasionally sent clients to each other, as I was self-employed and didn’t represent one manufacturer.

Now, every heating and air conditioning company or fireplace sales company is a “solar specialist” and the competition is fierce.  I realized I was receiving no joy from manual labor, beyond fresh air and sunshine.  Life is far too short to make a living doing anything other than that which we love.  I speak from the experience of being a master electrician.  One can be extremely competent in one’s field and still remain unfulfilled.   Rather than learn to love what I did, I decided to start to do that which I love – “invent” things.  Anyone can do this and everyone has had the experience of saying “wow, I thought of THAT years ago”.  When I say that about the CompuMilieu system in the future, it will be in an entirely different context – more like “wow, I thought of that, years ago”!

Q: Where are you in the development stage of this product?

I have a patent pending and I have created a demonstration unit to show off the basic attributes of my system.  Final development of the system will come after a successful test run in a model home or private residence.   This should create the investor interest I need to start a small manufacturing plant here in Shasta County.

Q: This is a “smart home” feature that helps regulate light, temperature, humidity and even a home’s safety, but what makes it different from other smart home systems I’ve seen before, some going back as far at 20 years? In layperson’s terms, please. 🙂

What a great question!  Every “smart home” system you have ever encountered has been comprised of proprietary circuitry and proprietary software.  By “proprietary”, I mean that it is not open for anyone, save the manufacturer, to adjust, modify, or alter.

My CompuMilieu system has a patent applied for in its name, and this is only common sense.  I do not want someone telling me, in a few years, that I cannot build my devices because “they” patented it, even though I was doing it first.

The software however, is an entirely different story.  Try to imagine G.E., Sylvania, Westinghouse, et al. opening up their operating system for any end-user to modify at will.  The very thought is laughable.   The corporate behemoths are uber-protective of their “proprietary” everything!

I, however, am opening up the programming language to anyone who procures a system.  This means that anyone with basic C++ programming skills can entirely repurpose the device based upon their needs.  Suppose someone does not want a “smart house” controller but, instead, an aquarium lighting system or a greenhouse controller.  All one needs to do is reprogram and repurpose the CompuMilieu system to suit one’s needs.

The “part II” answer is that only in the past few years have we been able to economically manufacture reliable sensor devices that were cost effective.  Today, a motion sensing device cost less than $5.00, a digital thermometer/humidistat cost about $4.00, and a low-power radio communications card runs about $3.00.  The most expensive singular component in my CompuMilieu system is the color touch screen.

It has multiple pages of data entry and every page has its own particular set of control means that are best suited to the data at hand.  Temperature may be set with a keyboard while lights (especially red/green/blue luminaires) may be best adjusted with sliders colored to match the lights they are adjusting.

Remember, we are packing dozens of discrete controls, across a variety of pages, with everything displayed on a 3-1/2” X 2-1/2” screen.  While the touch screen may be any size, this one conveniently fits inside an electrical wall box.  Most every screen has a “HELP” button which explains in layman’s terms how to operate the controls on the page that one navigated from.

Q: Can you describe in tangible terms how it might be used?

If I can’t, I have no business talking to you.  Allow me to present a very real and, as yet, unaddressed issue.  From offices to homes, we cool or heat all the rooms without concern for the rooms that sit empty for hours or days at a time.

The CompuMilieu system automates the functions that we (as good humans) would like to be responsible for, but can never quite live up to.   Let us say that you enter a room.  The lights were off but simply opening the door tells the Nest smoke alarm (which has a thermometer and motion sensor built in) to activate the lights.

The lights are LEDs but they are not retrofit devices designed to match 120 volts of AC power.  Rather, they are low-voltage devices that can be set at a particular brilliance based upon the ambient lighting.   So, you walk into the room and the lights turn on, but it is 2:00 p.m. on a sunny day so the blinds open, as well.  The LED lights adjust to augment the ambient light that is coming in from the window(s).  This way, the lights are not using any more energy than necessary.

In a similar manner, the thermometer in the Nest smoke alarm might notify the CompuMilieu system that the temperature is eight degrees above the preferred setting.  The HVAC louvers now open and the HVAC unit, if it is not already running, is activated at a rate determined by the number of open louvers.

Assuming that this is an office and you know that you are having a meeting in one-half hour in a particular room, you can simply press an “activation” button to preset the room for the conditions you require.   The benefit of the CompuMilieu system is that both Nest and Honeywell are issuing “developer’s kits” in the first quarter of 2014 to allow people like me to interface with their products.

If CompuMilieu requires a Nest smoke detector to monitor every room and every room requires a smoke detector anyway, it is a match made in heaven.   Every house that wants a CompuMilieu system will require one of several specific third party adjunct devices – smoke detectors, thermostats, etc., which are all “smart”.  This way I am not reinventing the wheel , rather, I am collaborating with other manufacturers instead of competing.

Q: How user-friendly is it?

Sometimes a question begs a question . . . how user-friendly do YOU want it to be – you being the home builder, developer, architect, or home owner.  I have designed a color touch screen programming means that communicates with the master computer over a telephone cord to control all aspects of your milieu (living environment).

As it “talks” to other thermostats and smoke alarms that have to be properly set-up, it is contingent upon the installer to create a system s/he believes is appropriate.  I can make any touch screen image control any aspect of a home environment.    The question is, how much control does a builder want to give an end-user?

The more control, the more “difficult” the system . . . the less control, the simpler but more restrictive, the system.   My goal is to simplify home power control to where it is operating behind the scenes – not unlike a highly qualified butler who anticipates your needs before you express them.  Rooms are cooled and heated, and lighted when needed – without the occupant having to do anything.  With appropriate presets and overrides, this system should disappear into the background, much like a water heater or solar PV grid-tied generator.

Q: Let’s say a person were interested in this system. Is it available?

Yes, in the most restrictive sense.  I am currently seeking ONE major builder, architect, or developer to “sponsor” me to complete a functional whole-house smart home system.  I am at the point where I will customize a system for the model home of anyone who wants to be the “first” to have a smart home technology that is entirely open-ended and designed to last forever – by being all things to all people through software accessibility.

This is the UNIX or Linux of “Smart Home” systems.  Of course I would be willing to work directly with a home owner who wished to incorporate this device, with the understanding that they get it at cost, plus my salary to assemble and custom-design it for their use.  Some people will want a master control with sub-control units.  Others will want only a main control that expands into a map of the building for individual room controls.

The ideal situation is a builder who employees an individual just to program and install the system controllers.  This person would have to have basic electrical experience, as well as some C++ and VISUAL programming skills.  The contractor would direct the programmer to create a system based upon the home-owner’s preferences and, of course, that particular company’s style and layouts.  In a sense, every system is different, and every system is the same.  The alternative is bending to the will of a corporate giant who simply dictates the format of smart home controllers for the next generation.

Q: What exactly would it entail for a homeowner to implement this? Can it be retrofitted in an existing home, or does it need to be done with new construction?

I see this as an entirely new-construction device.  Of course, retrofitting is possible but there is a multiplicity of devices coming out now designed to drag your home, kicking and screaming, into the 21st century.

I want to set the standard for this century’s (or, at least, the next generation’s) home control technology.  Once builders begin incorporating these devices, all manner of third-party accessories will start to show-up at Home Depot and Lowes to address the minutia of the masses, based upon demand.  With open-sourced coding, anyone can create (or have created) anything to interact with the real world.  You can always find a hungry programmer on Craigslist who can redesign/repurpose your control unit for whatever application you desire.

Q: How much space does it need?

The master touch screen controller can be built into a standard “2-gang” electrical switchbox, such that, instead of two switches side-by-side in your wall plate, you see a color touch screen.  One, or more, “PowerDucts” reside in the attic or crawl space and receive signals from the touch screen.

The PowerDucts, in turn, control lights, blinds, HVAC louvers, and can energize receptacles when needed.  This prevents receptacles from being susceptible to fireworks caused by a bent paperclip (something that I did as a five-year old) when they are not needed.

Q: OK, here’s what my first question should have been: What would be the price tag for a basic system?

The truthful answer is “more than you want to spend”, at least right now.  With mass-production, these systems can be installed for a few hundred extra dollars.  Right now, we are looking at several thousand dollars for a whole-house controller with all of the servo-motors, LED lights, and smart accessories, but much of that is basic non-assembly line labor.

As soon as possible, I hope to hire a couple of college students to perform assembly work for me which will significantly lower the cost.  Currently, when factored into the cost of a new $300,000 home, the cost is tolerable.  In a million dollar home, the cost is negligible – especially when you consider that you will be saving energy on heating, cooling, and lighting from the first day.

Just like the television or air conditioner, I expect that the systems will go from custom homes to tract housing within the next decade as other systems enter the market and drive the costs down.  Unlike these other appliances, this one will pay for itself and keep on saving you money, based upon today’s way of doing things.

Q: Anything else you’d like us to know?

Yes.  Except for digital power relays (where existing high voltages are being controlled), the system operates on 5 to 12 volts of DC power.  The LED luminaires all operate at less than 60 volts DC, which avoids overzealous regulation by Underwriter’s Laboratories (UL).   Your readers can visit the website at:  http://compumilieu.com or my Fund Raiser site at: http://fundrazr.com/campaigns/2c1Ff/ab/61mkb2.   A video can also be found on YouTube, which is especially important for your readers who may wish to view it on a smartphone, as the Flash video on the website has no smartphone applications to play it (damn you, Adobe;).

I am, for all intents and purposes, a David up against several Goliaths.  I have a little time on my side, as well as flexibility.  The major corporations have money.  If I can get my system established by offering freedom and control that major manufacturers cannot before they overwhelm everyone, everywhere, with their “one-size-fits-all” mentality, I might be able to make a difference in the world.

Well, thanks, Baran, for taking the time to share your invention with us. The best of luck to you!

Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded what’s now known as anewscafe.com in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke of the Czech Republic. Prior to 2007 Chamberlain was an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She lives in Redding, CA.

Doni Chamberlain
Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded what’s now known as anewscafe.com in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke of the Czech Republic. Chamberlain is an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She lives in Redding, California.
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