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Smart Appliances – a Dangerous Distraction for Smart Energy

January 28th, 2011 |  Published in Smart Energy  |  2 Comments

Over the past six months, culminating in the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas earlier this month, there’s been a growing clamour about smart appliances and how they will fit into the smart energy ecosystem.  It’s not just the technology advocates who have been selling the story; big players in the White Goods industry, like GE and LG have been out there promoting the story as well.  They have a view of a connected appliance that is constantly talking to your electricity meter, their service and maintenance site, your power provider, and for all we know, a dishwasher in Korea that’s wasting its time on the machine equivalent of Facebook.

It’s a nice high-tech story, but does it make sense?  You can see how it has evolved from the effort that is being put into smart grids.  The theory is that to reduce the strain on generating capacity, it makes sense for energy hungry appliances in the home to adjust their start time, so that they run when there’s least demand for electricity.  Hence by connecting appliances within the home to your smart meter, or your utility’s web site, they can be told when to turn on or off.  Which, on the surface, makes a certain degree of sense.

But there’s another side to the story.  The connected appliance doesn’t save energy – it just means that it uses the same amount of energy at a different time. The other approach is to make the appliance more energy efficient.  When you look at the relative efficiencies of different products, the manufacturers who seem most enthusiastic about smart appliances are those who sell some of the least efficient ones.  It makes one wonder whether their interest in connectivity is just a PR sticking plaster to cover up their poor performance.  Instead of investing in research they see an easier win in investing in media techno-babble.

The problem with doing that is that the promotion of smart appliances ups the requirement specs for the smart meters and gateways that are at the core of home energy management.  Rather than let the smart metering industry have a period of relative stability to confirm their technical specifications, complete trials and educate users, this new mania around connected appliances adds a level of unnecessary technical uncertainty.  As such it is a very dangerous distraction to the core requirements of smart energy.

There will always be a group of techies who want to connect everything and automate their lives.  The smart grid projects happening across the world have given them a golden opportunity to claim that home automation is finally here.  They’ve been saying that for the last sixty years without any great success, but believe that with the advent of cheap wireless, ubiquitous smartphones, iPads on every wall, universal broadband access and billions of Obama stimulus dollars flooding into their tech start-ups, there’s nothing to stop it happening in the next year.  (The fact they believe that everyone else owns and uses all of these devices does provide a good indication of their limited grasp of how most of the world really lives.)

As I said above, one of the goals of smart energy is to smooth out demand for electricity.  That helps utilities and generators to manage the distribution network more efficiently and helps them plan when they need to build new power stations.  Already in some parts of the world, utilities offer load shedding plans to consumers, which allows the utility to turn off domestic air conditioning units for short periods when there is peak demand, in exchange for lower electricity tariffs.

The smart appliance promoters believe that this principle can be applied to other energy hungry device around the home, such as fridges, freezers, washing machines and dishwashers.  At CES, LG even suggested that a smart oven could cook your meal more slowly if it noticed that electricity demand was high.  Which would give kids an excellent excuse for being late for school – “Sorry Sir, my toaster was experiencing peak demand, which meant my Pop-Tarts were an hour late.  But it helped me save the world.”

This all relies on the consumer wanting to save money, or in a few altruistic cases, wanting to help the environment.  It requires them to be prepared to inconvenience themselves by putting aside their “I want it and I want it now” mentality and accepting that the washing may not get done for another few hours.  As experience shows that not many consumers act this way, the proposed stick to change their behaviour is to vary electricity pricing on an hour by hour basis so that using your washing machine at peak times will cost more.  Hence the drive to add connectivity to appliances, so that they will know how much it costs to run at any particular point in time.

There are a couple of issues with that.  The first is that many users may not have the flexibility to shift the time they do their washing.  Parents with children need to wash their clothes in time for them to go to ballet lessons or play football, which means they may have very little choice – the washing goes in when it appears.  Even if they did have that choice, very few utilities will have the ability to move to this type of granular tariff in the short to medium term.  In order not to be divisive, they need to offer these new money saving tariffs to all of their customers, which means installing a lot of new smart meters.  That’s already underway, but the world needs to update 1.6 billion electricity meters.  That’s started and it’s a work in progress, but it is unlikely to be completed before 2020, so widespread availability of Time of Use pricing probably won’t happen for at least the next five years.

Behind that reality, the driving forces that are talking up smart appliances are the wireless standards.  All of them – ZigBee, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and 3G want to conquer the world and are desperate to find a market which will provide another billion chip sales every year.  They’ve all been working hard on the smart metering opportunity, but have seen that go into a lull, as utilities wait for feedback on the first tranche of deployments.  Only then are the utilities likely to sign off the national and regional specifications for the major roll-outs which will commence a few years later.  Which leaves the wireless companies with something of a quandary over what to do for the next few years?  So, according to the old adage that “the devil will find work for idle hands to do”, they’ve turned their attention to extending smart energy connectivity to encompass everything they can find within the home.  For each of them, the smart appliance is their current wet dream, with its prospect of billions of connected devices.

It’s a message that is resonating within certain elements of the white goods industry who want to smarten up their energy saving credentials.  By buying into the connected appliance story, they’re able to get on the bandwagon of claiming to be energy conscious.  The question is whether that’s driven by cynicism.  In an earlier piece I looked at the energy efficiency of GE appliances and found they were less than wonderful.  After the media frenzy at CES I was prompted to look a little more deeply and see how well others promoting this idea are doing.

Once again I turned to two sites which list the performance of domestic appliances in the US – the Energy Bible for dishwashers and washing machines and the Government’s Energy Star site for freezers and refrigerators.   The first gives an Energy Factor value – the higher the number, the better the device.  In contrast, for freezers and fridges, the number given is the energy consumption in kWHr per year, so in this case we’re aiming for lower numbers.

 washers

In the case of washing machine and dishwashers, GE and Whirlpool, who have been staunch advocates of connected devices fare very poorly.  For refrigeration, they’re better, but still not at the top of the list.  These figures take the average of all the machines for each vendor in the published lists.  If you look in more detail at the source information, the cheaper appliances from most manufacturers generally perform significantly worse.  Now, think about the demographic of owners.  There’s probably a good correlation between the people with the least ability to use their appliances outside peak times and these cheaper, poorer performing machines.  This means that any improvement in reducing grid load by using smart appliances is likely to come from a limited portion of the population.  So if these companies really want to help the grid, they should be concentrating on improving product performance, not fobbing users off with the story of smart appliances.  To my mind a smart appliance should be smart and efficient autonomously, and not rely on an internet connection. 

freezers

Fridges and freezers seem even less suited to being smart, as they are on 24 hours a day, so the emphasis must be on making them still more efficient in their own right. The industry has come a long way in the last decade, cutting consumption by 2 to 3 times, mainly by improving insulation.  But there is still new technology to be explored.  As an example, take True Energy, a company based in the UK, which has recently announced their SureChill technology.  It’s been designed for vaccine storage and uses phase-change materials to maintain temperature in a fridge in the absence of power.  This gives it the potential to keep a fridge cold for periods without power, decreasing the electricity consumption.  It seems a far better approach to reducing demand on the grid than adding connectivity and complexity, and I’d far rather see the industry concentrating its attention on technology like this.  I suspect there is plenty of scope for improvement without the need for wireless.

As I said at the start, this new concentration on smart appliances is a dangerous distraction for the smart energy industry.  It adds technical uncertainty at a point when the industry is trying to coalesce on standards for smart meters and it distracts appliance vendors from concentrating on core improvements to the technology of their devices.  By offering the prospect of jam tomorrow it also distracts users from starting to understand their current energy usage.  Utilities are just beginning to provide energy meters to their customers, along with information on how to save energy users.  That’s a very important thing to get right.  If the media is promoting a story that smart appliances will solve the problem, much of the momentum may be lost.  And as appliances only get replaced every ten years or so, that could put back energy consumption by a decade.

These are important issues.  The industry needs to consider whether the prospect of a smart appliance is worth pursuing in the short term, as it has the potential to do more harm than good.  It’s time to think about whether it’s any more than a PR ruse, particularly given the performance of appliances from those who are so active in supporting it.

2 comments ↓

#1 Laurie Lamberth on 01.28.11 at 7:43 pm

Hear hear! Great analysis, Nick, as usual.

I agree that the holy grail of reducing home energy consumption must continue be making all of our devices and appliances more efficient. Connecting them to the Web is nice, but we have to keep our eyes on the prize. They need to be more efficient, period. When connectivity really improves that, then connected, too.

A washer that can tell me when it’s the cheapest time to do my laundry are nice, but a utility can easily convey the same message without an Internet connection by implementing meaningful time-of-day tariffs. The conversion only requires a too-high eletric bill or two, and an ordinary kitchen clock. The penalty for daytime use would have to be steep to get people to convert, and this burden would likely fall heaviest on those amongst us who have the least income and schedule flexibility. The tarrifs should respect the difference between machines that have to be on all of the time or used at any time of day (freezer, refrigerator, stove, heat) and devices which can be used at any time (washer, dryer, hairdryer) or cycled for demand response (HVAC).

A friend, who recently left one of the connected appliances group at one of the companies you profiled, also complained that the cost to embed wireless technology isn’t likely to be borne by the consumers. Buying decisions for appliances that last for decades and cost as much as $2,000 are sometimes made over a $20 or $25 price difference. What’s the value to customers that will cause them to accept this price uptick?

As much as I’d like to see everything in the world connected, so far it’s hard to build a business case for connected white goods. Sure, I’d love it if my dryer could send me a text message when it’s done, but how much is that worth? Next time I need to buy a major appliance, I’m going with efficiency over connectedness.

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About Creative Connectivity

Creative Connectivity is Nick Hunn's blog on aspects and applications of wireless connectivity. Having worked with wireless for over twenty years I've seen the best and worst of it and despair at how little of its potential is exploited.

I hope that's about to change, as the demands of healthcare, energy and transport apply pressure to use wireless more intelligently for consumer health devices, smart metering and telematics. These are my views on the subject - please let me know yours.

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