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Christopher Mims

A View from Christopher Mims

Smart Gadgets are Like Sleeper Cells in Your Kitchen

Most people don’t know their gadgets can already talk to one another, and even be controlled remotely by their utility company.

  • October 3, 2011
Manufacturers are “future-proofing” their appliances with capabilities that are latent – for now.

If you bought a major appliance in the last three years, odds are it was “smart,” even if you didn’t know it. Meaning: it probably contains a wireless radio that can broadcast and transmit over a small personal area network, sending out information about a device’s status and energy use, as well as receiving commands that alter its behavior.

Many appliances that don’t even announce they have this capability are equipped with it, says Mike Beyerle, an engineer at GE whom I recently interviewed about GE’s coming Nucleus home energy management system.

“We want to build up a base before we make a big deal out of it,” says Beyerle.

It’s an intriguing twist on the old business maxim “under-promise, over-deliver.” In this case, manufacturers aren’t even telling consumers what their devices are capable of because, in part, those abilities are useless without an energy management hub like GE’s Nucleus or a utility company’s smart meter. (Confusingly, GE appliances that can communicate in this way are labeled “Brillion.”)

In both cases, smart appliances must be “bound” to a hub (either an all-in-one hub like the Nucleus or a smart meter itself) in order to communicate with the outside world.

Once a device is hooked up to an energy management system, things get interesting. Did you realize, for example, that your refrigerator’s ice maker’s defrost cycle can be shifted to another time of day by your utility in order to drive down power use during times of peak demand?

Ditto your clothes dryer. If a user is signed up for a “demand response” program in which they agree to have their energy consumption remotely reduced by a utility in exchange for a lower bill, various elements of a dryer can be shut down. For example, it might be set to dry at a lower heat but for longer, allowing the same level of drying but with less energy consumed.

Consumers in states like California, whose utilities are using so-called “demand sensitive pricing,” can also set their appliances to use less power when electricity is at its most expensive. (Usually, in the afternoon on hot days.)

GE’s Nucleus won’t roll out until 2012, and smart meter penetration is still no more than 25 percent in the U.S. But with the cost of new power plants rising by the day, putting smart meters into homes is more attractive than ever to utilities. Not only do they allow utilities to enroll customers in demand response programs, they also tend to lower electricity consumption overall, because they empower consumers to understand when and how they are using energy.

So do you have a sleeper cell in your kitchen or laundry room, waiting to be activated by the installation of a new smart meter or some other Zigbee-capable device? You may not know until you have the right kind of hub installed – but some already have a ZigBee label.

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