Warwick Stirling hopes for a more meaningful relationship with his refrigerator. You see, they just haven’t been talking as much as he’d like. There was the time, recently, when he would have appreciated knowing just how warm this normally cold-hearted appliance was feeling inside.

Stirling, the global director of energy and sustainability for appliance maker Whirlpool, came downstairs one morning to find his kids had left the freezer door open overnight. As a leader in that company’s efforts to bring smart appliances into consumers’ kitchens, the experience brought home the sheer lack of intelligence in even today’s top-of-the-line equipment. Some sort of notification from his recalcitrant refrigerator could have saved him the cost of replacing a freezer full of thawed-out food.

Stirling’s sad tale of poor communication underscores one of the selling points appliance makers are developing for the new generation of smart appliances they have been promising for the last several years. Much of the promotion has focused on the ability of these appliances to communicate with an owner’s electric utility. This dialogue would enable consumers to monitor appliance energy use in real time, or close to it, and manage those products’ operations to minimize monthly energy bills.

While the full deployment of the smart electric meters required to enable that kind of monitoring is several years away, manufacturers now are outlining the full array of functionality more intelligent appliances could offer.

For example, your refrigerator could text you.

Before you roll your eyes and wonder why you’d want to pay any more for a fridge with a built-in smartphone, consider that Stirling’s experience could be your own, especially if you have a house full of hungry, less-than-attentive teenagers running amok. After all, a technology that saves the expense of a shopping cart’s worth of spoiled food, as Stirling puts it, “pays for itself very quickly.”

Defining terms
The word “smart” is used so often these days that it can be difficult to know just what a manufacturer means. For appliances, the consensus seems to be a smart device must meet the basic requirement of connectivity—to the Internet, the meter and even other appliances. How these connections will be made, though, is still being determined. Connecting formerly “dumb” consumer goods isn’t technically challenging—manufacturers of everything from lighting switches to door locks already have products on the market (see “Home Automation: There’s an App for That,” Electrical -Contractor, March 2011). But enabling both cross-communication and network security remains a challenging task.

Security is a critical element in this task, and it is creating some headaches for manufacturers, Warwick said. Developers face competing goals in efforts to create open communications between varied networked devices (and the grid), while maintaining security against outside digital intruders. And, because manufacturers can’t expect homeowners to be network engineers, these communications must work right out of the box, without the need for hours of fiddling with router menus and arcane error messages.

Enabling such functionality requires a larger agreement between utilities and manufacturers of home-networked devices. Eventually, utilities want to be able to send and receive signals from individual washing machines and air conditioners. The rules defining how these conversations happen cannot be too restrictive, though, because manufacturers require the freedom to develop their own innovations if this technology is to move forward.

For example, product makers now typically use one of three networking protocols to enable crossdevice communication: ZigBee, Wi-Fi or HomePlug. Any overarching standard has to allow products with any of these protocols—or future new approaches—to at least recognize signals from any other. And, of course, all devices will be required to communicate with utility signals if promised demand-response functionality is to become a reality.

“It really has to be very easy and very secure,” Stirling said. “That’s why it’s taking so long to get products to market. It’s actually much harder than most people thought it would be.”

The Gridwise Alliance is helping to define networking protocols. This group, with a mission to advance smart grid technologies, has outlined some of the requirements of any new protocols and standards. The most promising effort, according to board member Adrian Tuck (also CEO of Tendril, a networking-technology company) is a standard called Smart Energy Profile (SEP). While the protocol’s first version, SEP-1, only supported ZigBee-enabled devices, SEP-2—scheduled for a 2012 release—will support Wi-Fi and HomePlug as well, Tuck said.

But design-guiding protocols alone aren’t enough. Manufacturers also need a way to evaluate—and prove—their compliance to such standards. The Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers (AHAM) is one group making an effort to establish standards and related testing procedures for appliance makers. First, according to Jill Notini, the association’s vice president of communications and marketing, the organization has established a smart grid task force charged with developing procedures for testing the ability of appliances to communicate with smart meters and respond to utility-initiated demand-response signals.

“Our smart grid task force is a relatively young group in AHAM, but in just two years, we’ve become the go-to source for information,” she said. “It’s on our policy and technology agendas to advance the smart grid idea.”

One important driver for AHAM is the group’s desire to gain Energy Star credit from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for appliances proven to accept and respond to various utility signals to reduce or cease operations during periods of peak electricity demand (see sidebar). AHAM’s smart grid group is targeting refrigerators first for its test procedures. Performance-proving guidelines for dishwashers and clothes washers will follow.

 

Manufacturers also want to ensure successful communication between appliances and their owners—especially in this initial stage, before the smart meters required for utility interactions are fully deployed—and they are looking to the cloud for solutions. Tuck’s company, Tendril, is already working with Whirlpool to provide the backbone for that maker’s communications with appliance owners to pass on alerts about issues like Stirling’s open freezer door.

With Tendril’s approach, most actual computing takes place on their remote servers. The appliance would communicate condition information (“freezer door open”) with that server through the Internet, using the homeowner’s network connection. An application on the server would decide what to do with that information (for example, send an email alert or a text message to a cell phone) based on the owner’s preferences.

For manufacturers, Tuck said, having a cloud-based middleman keeps them out of the software-engineering business. It’s also giving appliance makers new freedom to consider Jetsons--like features and conveniences. Self-diagnostics, internal firmware updating and remote operational monitoring are all now being discussed.

“These guys have pages of ideas of what they could do if they could network their devices,” Tuck said. “We offer a very secure, stable way to write their applications.”

And, as technology moves forward, some of those applications will enable appliances to talk with each other, as well as with their owners, Tuck said. Especially as electric vehicle charging equipment begins showing up on garage walls, users—and utilities—increasingly will be looking to coordinate usage to prevent, say, simultaneous car charging and ice making.

Hurry up and wait
So, when can consumers expect to see their local big-box store stocking such features in their appliances? Stirling said his company will begin marketing smart versions of its products in mid-2012, and it will focus on its core Whirlpool-brand offerings first (the company also manufactures appliances under the Maytag, KitchenAid and Jenn-Air brands, among others). The ongoing deployment of smart meters will help, with utilities possibly implementing time-of-use rate plans and even purchase incentives spurring interest further, but he said the urge to connect may prove an even bigger motivator for consumers.

“We’re very optimistic about the technology and the space,” he said. “I don’t see explosive growth, but I do see a movement. I think consumer expectations have changed. Now consumers expect things to be connected. They expect their refrigerator to be connected.”


ROSS is a freelance writer located in Brewster, Mass. He can be reached at chuck@chuck-ross.com.