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Copper is key to making dumb homes smarter

Copper is key to making dumb homes smarter

An army of builders in Australia is in training to install electronic "brains" into new homes to make them smarter than their 20th century predecessors.

At the core of the pioneering initiative is a central nervous system of copper wire tentacles installed before the walls go up.

Homeowners are offered such options as accessing the Internet from kitchen appliances, bedside panels, even the bathroom.

Security cameras can be turned on even if you are overseas; energy consumption can be monitored and adjusted automatically.

That's just for starters.

Carry the portable television into the kitchen to watch over dinner? How 20th Century.

Why not just turn on the refrigerator door, or the kitchen wall for that matter?

Appliance makers are trial-testing Internet-based refrigerators and ovens with promising results and may eventually move on to microwaves, washing machines and other household goods.

A new breed of architects and homebuilders regard most conventionally built houses as dumb and gluttons for energy.

"Interior reform" is the latest catch-phrase, and experts say it won't happen without copper.

Smelted as early as 3,500 BC, copper is about as far from a new age material as you can get. Or is it?

COPPER ROOFING?

The first thing many miners working in Bingham Canyon, Utah, did when they bought their homes from the Kennecott Copper company was rip down the copper roofing, replace it with brick or shingles and sell the metal as scrap.

Built decades ago as a company town, it seemed natural at the time to use copper from the giant Bingham lode to help erect the sprawling suburb.

But by the time Kennecott had decided it no longer wanted to be a landlord as well as a mining company, copper roofing in houses worldwide was on its way out, deemed yesterday's metal for such purposes and too expensive to boot.

Now the so-called red metal fetches about $1,875 a tonne. Not surprisingly, few homes sport copper roofs.

However, it seems, copper is everywhere else. Computers, telecommunications, mobile phones - all the essential elements of the so-called "new" economies.

OLD VERSUS NEW AGE

The role of copper in 21st century applications flys in the face of doomsayers of the last century who predicted the advent of fibre optics would relegate the metal to the most basic of industrial uses.

Commodities analysts expect world producers to churn out a record 15.2 million tonnes of copper this year, still not enough to satisfy demand from traditional industrial users as well as new economy consumers.

"In 2001, despite expected slowing in the rates of growth of world copper consumption and uncertainties about the extent of the expected slowdown in industrial production growth in the U.S., western world copper consumption is expected to continue to exceed production," said Peter Barry of the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics.

Next month, the Copper Development Centre Australia Ltd will unveil a "smart-wired" home, using on average some 100 kg (220 lbs) of copper - twice the amount in a conventional home - to create independent wiring systems running everything from phones, telephones and computers to lights, security systems and lawn sprinklers.

In other words, copper is being put to work undercover. Its task: to wisen up home construction.

"Smart-wired houses are a technology evolution that would enable home builders to future proof their homes," said John Fennell, the centre's chief executive.

"Smart houses and smart communities are the face of the future," said Fennell.

Existing homes are classified as dumb ones by a growing legion of builders and electricians who are embracing the interconnected device systems.

16,000 ELECTRICIANS BEING TRAINED

Installation of advanced copper telephone and coaxial cables can speed Internet service and other data transmissions, facilitate computer networking and improve reliability of voice and fax service, they say.

The Copper Development Centre is working with Australia's Housing Industry Association (HIA) and the National Electrical Contractors' Association to introduce high-technology copper wiring into new homes.

"Over 16,000 electricians nationally are being trained to install data cabling at the same time as they wire a home for power," Fennell said.

"The HIA have incorporated the smart wiring package and options in their standard housing contract," he added.

Meanwhile the centre has registered several smart-wired names and logos as trade marks. They will be marketed to trade and consumer groups.

"We expect homes endorsed with the smart wiring logo and complete smart wiring package to become more valuable and be in greater demand than homes with only normal power wiring," Fennell said.


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