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People need to collaborate before our appliances will

Posted: 14 Jan 2009 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:appliance smart home? Energy Star?

By Paul Westbrook

There is still plenty of talk about smart homes and smart appliances, but another year has gone by and the collective IQ of houses and appliances seems to be about the same. That's probably because no one can quite define what the smart home is and make a compelling case for people to buy it. I do have a few examples of what seems to work and what doesn't. Maybe the smart appliance and home industry can learn from these examples.

In 1987 my municipal utility offered to install devices on home air conditioning compressors that would allow them to turn off the compressor for up to 10 minutes per hour during peak demand. It was a voluntary program, but I couldn't wait to sign up. In addition to a free device and installation I got a discount on my utility rate. This device caused me no inconvenience!the system could still keep my house cool and I was saving money. It required no input, monitoring, setup, or maintenance by me. I just benefited with a lower utility bill. The utility benefited by not having to add an additional power plant to cover peak usage. They would just do rolling outages to all the remote devices during the peak use periods. Society benefited from having one less coal fired power plant adding pollution to the air and water. THAT was a smart appliance. If smart appliances are going to thrive there has to be benefits for all !especially the consumer who is often being asked to pay for it.

Back in the mid 80's I bought my first Yamaha DX7 keyboard synthesizer. Somehow the music instrument industry had all agreed on a standard specification called "MIDI" that allowed all manufacturers instruments to talk to each other. MIDI stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface. I could play a note on my Yamaha keyboard and my Roland, Kawai, or Kurzweil synthesizer or drum machine could all understand and respond. A software industry blossomed with sequencer programs for the Amiga, Atari, Apple, PC, and every other platform available. The sequencer could easily communicate with any manufacturer's system. It was simple to setup. Smart appliances and homes need a common standard like MIDI. MIDI is still in existence today.

Another successful example of integrating technology and making something smart without making it complicated for the driver is the Prius. It's a well designed car and very different from all that came before it. Yet, the driver sees very little difference in operating the vehicle. Press the accelerator to go, the brake to stop, turn the wheel to turn, and fill it up just like any other car. The software in the car manages all the complexity and optimizes the gas mileage for you. The display gives you instant feedback of your mileage and enables you to make further improvements through slight changes in driving behavior. Smart homes should work the same way. The system should manage the complex analysis and provide the consumer with a dashboard and information that helps them make slight behavioral changes to optimize their energy use. I've averaged 53.8mpg over the past 4 鐃? years !

A less successful example for me was X10. When I built my house in 1996 I installed a few X10 switches and light fixtures. X10 devices send communication signals over the power line to control other X10 devices. I bought the boxes to control them and programmed all the codes, keeping my little log book of what number I assigned each device. Now, after 12 years about half of those switches have failed. Some would just turn on at random times, some wouldn't turn on at all. Some of the small boxes that could control multiple switches had enormous power draw due to cheap transformers. They felt like a fire hazard. Slowly I've migrated back to plain old light switches. I've had a zero failure rate with those !and they are significantly less expensive. Simplicity and reliability have got to be part of any next generation system.

The industry needs to agree on some common standards for interoperability. I don't want to see a VHS vs. Betamax battle !I want a MIDI style implementation that just works. I think government has a big role too. To earn an Energy Star label an appliance should have to meet some strict standby and operating power requirements and be able to power down to zero, or close to it, when not in use. That would require a little intelligence from an appliance. The device should have the ability to report its consumption and be remotely controlled should the consumer agree. Then the utilities come into the picture to drive adoption. Go back to my 1987 power company example and see the benefits for all. Offer consumers free devices or reduced rates to allow remote control of certain appliances for peak load reduction. These appliances become virtual power plants and eliminate the need for the more expensive and polluting ones. The home dashboard helps consumers drive behavioral changes that save money and reduce peak loads. And finally, implement the monitoring and communication into inverters for local solar and wind so consumers can easily monitor and sell back their own production. Consumers save money and utilities gain power capacity with no new construction. Everyone wins and that seems pretty smart to me.

What should the right standard be? Who is doing the best job at integrating the data and providing a dashboard? Which utilities are being progressive and figuring out that this is the lowest cost and most environmentally friendly "power plant" they could build? We need some smart people figuring these things out before we'll see the smart appliances and houses.

- Paul Westbrook is sustainable development manager, SMTS, LEED AP. He is one of the power and energy experts featured regularly at TInergy.

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