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How Internet-Enabled Appliances Can Save You Time & Money

The idea of the Internet-enabled home appliance has been around since the heady days of the dotcom boom, when LG introduced its DIOS refrigerator and Sun Microsystem’s Scott McNealy paired a tablet PC with a Whirlpool fridge. [digg=]

But LG’s “market leader,” which sold for $10,000, is no longer being made, while similar products from the likes of Samsung never even saw the light of day. Such devices have yet to become ubiquitous in the home because, well, who really needs the Internet on their fridge?  Surprisingly, the answer just might be: you. Tomorrow’s Internet-enabled appliances go beyond the glitzy LCD screens and digital shopping lists; in some cases they may even forgo that kind of luxury bling altogether. Instead, these networked home appliances are wired to help consumers save energy and money.

The idea of using the Internet to cut energy use is gaining traction, with a number of startups launching online energy dashboards and in-home displays that supply information about how much you’re using and at what cost. Information is power, they argue, and the research proves them right. One UK study found that energy management systems can help cut residential electricity use by as much as 15 percent.

Most of the products currently on the market require consumers to react to the information provided, either through timed schedules or immediate actions: High prices? Don’t run the dryer. Critical peak period? Run down to the basement and turn down the water heater. But for monitoring systems to really pack an energy-savings punch, the information needs to be instantly actionable, with limited input required by the end user. That’s where your web-surfing refrigerator comes in.

Internet-based appliances of the dotcom days boasted of the ability to go online and download new programs — new fabric settings for your web-connected washing machine, for example, or new cooking options for your online oven. Similarly, the Internet-enabled devices of tomorrow could monitor utility price information and activate, as needed, several internal actions designed to shed power for short, critical periods of time, all with little or no user input.

Instead of the utility or the consumer deciding what should be shut off, the device decides, based on current operation and price. According to Gale Horst, lead engineer at Whirlpool Corp., 98 percent of consumers who participated in a small pilot project testing such devices found the level of interference from such device decision-making to be acceptable.

Andrew Tang, senior director of Pacific Gas & Electric’s smart energy web division, says many of the large “white-box” companies (home appliance manufacturers like Whirlpool, GE, LG and Samsung) have already developed fully addressable, IP-enabled devices. But so far, he notes, they only exist “in deep, dark corporate labs.”

Several factors are keeping them there. First of all, there are no standards governing how such devices communicate, either among home appliances or between the home and the utility. As Whirlpool’s Horst notes, a consumer may buy a washer that can listen to what’s happening on the power grid in Seattle, “But what if that person gets a job in Chicago or Atlanta and it doesn’t interact with the grid?” he asks. Without a guarantee that the appliance will work no matter where you go, it’s a tough sell.

Because the devices won’t work everywhere, manufacturers are hesitant to sell them; and because customers can’t easily access energy management solutions, utilities aren’t able to implement the smart-meter and time-of-use pricing programs that would make them effective. “There’s a chicken and egg problem,” admits Tang.

But there are signs that a shift is occurring, thanks to the proliferation of home entertainment devices and the subsequent need for home networks to connect. The convergence of such technology with energy monitoring is all but inevitable. Crestron, a high-end home automation company, is already partnering with energy dashboard company Agilewaves, and appliance-ready networks will only open up opportunities for manufacturers to begin moving their devices to market.

And, in case you were wondering, LG will be there too. Its Home Network, which was the backbone of its Internet appliance initiatives, is still a major R&D effort.

Like this article? Check out the upcoming Earth2Tech Briefing, “The Smart Energy Home,” the second in our series of in-depth reports on emerging technologies.

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19 Responses to “How Internet-Enabled Appliances Can Save You Time & Money”

  1. I will agree with Jon as to Zigbee (and other wireless technologies such as OpenRF) being a great option. In fact, most appliance manufacturers are looking at ZigBee as a standard solution for a communications backbone within a home network. Complete smart appliances though are some ways off in the near future. Systems such as ours ( which offer a Zigbee solution for appliance monitoring and control of electricity use provide a “now” option that is applicable anywhere in the world. Added to our IP gateway and all appliances become internet accessible via cell phone or internet browser. As utilities embrace technologies such as ours, the home can become part of the solution to smart grid implementation.

  2. jon adams

    Hi Celeste –

    > …Yes, ZigBee is one such standard for communication
    > between devices, but its not perfect, yet…
    > There’s also the need for a standardized way for devices
    > to talk to the utilities, not just each other, and ZigBee
    > (to my knowledge) doesn’t address this problem.

    ZigBee is a powerful tool in the kit that utilities have to deploy intelligent metering services to residential and commercial customers. As any person who works in the field would likely agree, there’s no one tool that fits all the possible scenarios that the utilities face. While ZigBee is primarily a networking technology, it is based upon the incredibly robust and cost-effective IEEE 802.15.4 wireless digital packet radio technology, which is supported by over half of the world’s top 10 semiconductor manufacturers (mine included).

    The utility needs to be able to do more than just send a message to a display in an empty house (most people work during the day) indicating that a kW-hr of electricity now costs X. Ideally, the utility has already established an agreement with the resident that in exchange for perhaps better rates at other times of the day, the utility has permission to manipulate the settings of specific high-energy-consuming devices in that house. Pool pumps, thermostat settings, compressor motors, refrigerators, air handlers, other devices are all part of that. For those devices, ZigBee technology is a powerful way to communicate from the utility’s point of presence (often the meter) to devices within the house. While there’s some potential for communications over the powerline from the meter to the rest of the house, the cost of that solution appears far higher than using ZigBee.

    How does the utility communicate with its meter? That’s an interesting challenge, and one again being solved in a number of ways, depending on the situation. At one time, the potential of broadband over power line (BPL) seemed to be a great way for the utility to communicate directly to the home using its own infrastructure. To date, that technology hasn’t come anywhere near the promise. Some utilities have begun to deploy short-range wireless links from that meter to a local poletop radio, which then communicates via cellular, WiMAX or (again) power line back to the utility. That one poletop radio may service hundreds of residences. That short-range wireless link may be ZigBee as well. Another way is to arrange to come through the broadband connection into the home, then using a ZigBee bridge at the broadband modem or gateway to close the link to the meter.

    ZigBee networking technology is a powerful tool that can solve many of the issues that a utility faces in rolling out an effective energy-management system for residential and commercial uses. And, it works best when deployed in the appropriate scenarios.


  3. To put the potential for smart grid technologies in context,the SMART 2020 report produced by the Climate Group and GESI a couple of months back estimated that ICT services could reduce global emissions by 15% by 2020 based on a business as usual scenario. Within their analysis, they attributed 26% of this potential reduction to smart grid technologies.

    SMART 2020 is one of the most conservative studies so far – other reports attribute even higher potential abatement opportunities (link to the paper at my blog).

  4. Celeste LeCompte

    Hi Steve,

    I can’t seem to access the link in your comment, but… Yes, ZigBee is one such standard for communication between devices, but its not perfect, yet — even though it’s certainly gotten quite a bit of traction. At Earth2Tech, we’ve been tracking a couple of others (6LoWPAN, e.g.), as well as consortia that combine ZigBee with other technologies.

    There’s also the need for a standardized way for devices to talk to the utilities, not just each other, and ZigBee (to my knowledge) doesn’t address this problem.

  5. Anyone from the tech sector can vouch for the power-saving benefits you can get by customizing servers and network appliances. Heck, even your phone will keep a charge longer if you set the screen dimmer and turn off key-beeps. Why not connect the rest of our households?

  6. Enjoyed your article. Coincidentally, I blogged about a related topic this a.m. here:

    Just wanted to point out that there actually is a standard governing how devices in the home communicate between the home and utility. It’s called ZigBee, an it’s an IEEE wireless standard adopted by a bunch of utility, metering and home automation companies.

    – Steve

  7. Want to start a boom that can save billions of dollars and dramatically help reduce energy consumption? Use the power of GigaOm and others to push for meters equipped with a standard interconnect providing the homeowner with real time energy usage. This WILL unleash dramatic innovation. Once home control systems/computers/devices know what’s actually happening in terms of energy usage, they can begin to be smart. This opens the door for innovative products to help the homeowner understand what’s happening and make better decisions… manually as well as automatically.

    For example, before leaving for the evening, I glance at an inexpensive display reminding me that my house is currently using more energy that it should. When was the last time you glanced at your meter before leaving? A simple reminder will go a long ways and once the ball gets rolling, we can automate as much as we like. But the key is knowing what’s being consumed at any given time.

    Yes it’s a tall order and most people will suggest that altering the course of public utilities is futile. But, information is power and we need to know “how fast our house is driving”. Can we give this a try?

  8. I wouldn’t doubt if Internet enabled appliances is the next tech boom. Almost everyone I know has a wifi network in their house now. Most VCs have worn the whole social networking/media thing, I wouldn’t doubt if this is where money starts going. I’m not sure what you would call though, Web 3.0 is already taken…