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It’s been quite a while since appliances had any prominence at a high tech show: images of women immaculately dressed in evening gowns while demonstrating the magic of microwave oven technology at the 1964 World’s Fair spring to mind. When LG discussed its new technology for fridges and washing machines alongside its smartphones and Internet-enabled TVs at its press conference on Wednesday, there were actually some sniggers from the audience. But after many years of producing essentially commodity products, appliance manufacturers are gearing up for a rejuvenated market as electrical utilities begin to roll out smart meters and homeowners are encouraged to install or upgrade to appliances that can communicate with these meters.

The ability to communicate with the meter means that these appliances can adjust their behavior as the price of electricity varies due to demand: for example, a fridge might postpone its automatic defrost cycle to an off-peak time, or a dish washer might suggest setting a delay of a couple of hours before washing its load (in the latter case, the user would have the option to override the machine’s recommendation if they needed clean plates sooner rather than later.)

General Electric has developed a complete suite of smart appliances, including a fridge, dish washer, electric oven, clothes washer, dryer, and hot water heater that all have Zigbee radios for communicating either directly with a smart meter or with the company’s Nucleus Energy Manager. The latter is plugged into a spare power socket. It uses Zigbee to talk with the smart meter, appliances, and any electric vehicle you might own, and communicates with users via a PC or smartphone interface over WiFi. It lets users see usage and price data, and program some parameters, such as at what electricity price point or battery charge status they would like to suspend vehicle charging (for example, if their car is 90 percent charged, they might want to stop charging at peak times, but if the battery is tapped out they probably would like to charge regardless of the price.) The water heater is already on the market, and the other appliances will be available to home owners in 2011 through utilities; mass market release is scheduled for 2012.

As the rollout of the smart gird, and therefore the value of smart meter-enabled appliances, is largely in the hands of utilities, some manufacturers, like Kenmore, are holding off on including smart grid functionality into their products, but they are already designing for it. When the smart grid gathers more momentum they expect to be able to quickly drop in the required hardware into their lines of appliances. Instead Kenmore is currently differentiating itself with features such as Kenmore Direct, introduced in October. This lets users having a problem with say, a washing machine, to call a phone number; the support technician will cue the user to hold their phone up to the machine and press the power button; an old-school telephone modem sound means the machine is communicating diagnostics to the technician, who can use this information to either help the user solve the problem or recommend a repair.

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Tagged: Energy, GE, smart grid, CES, smart meters, CES 2011

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