The word “smart” has been a bit overused lately. It’s employed to describe everything from jewelry to writing devices and, of course, appliances. Above a certain price point, almost all appliances now offer some form of advanced, internet-connected capabilities. While a few of their features might seem a little silly today, appliance connectivity is only going to grow, and electrical contractors could benefit by becoming a resource for intelligent operations their customers might be struggling to understand.
According to Zion Market Research, connected appliances are in the middle of a growth cycle, with related sales expected to grow 17% per year between now and 2028, resulting in a $77.14 billion in sales in 2028, up from $33.46 billion in 2021. These big numbers track with the growing presence of the internet of things (IoT) in our lives, but they also include a broad range of new functionalities. It’s probably not surprising to learn that exactly what makes an appliance smart can vary, depending on who you ask. For some, simple internet connectivity isn’t enough to qualify a product for the term.
“The real smart appliance is something that will provide value to users or manufacturers, themselves—being smart would be beyond just having the ability to control remotely using an app,” said Henry Kim, director of appliance-maker LG’s ThinQ platform, which is the company’s networking protocol for connected devices. “The product itself needs to understand the environment it is operating in and provide contextual information back to users for a better experience and to the manufacturers to improve the product.”
Others, though, suggest a broader categorization has evolved over the last few years.
“There used to be more of a separation between connected and smart,” said Chris White, director of smart home and energy research for research firm Parks Associates. “Connected just meant you could control it remotely, but almost all connected devices can seem smart now.”
How companies decide to go to market with smart capabilities also has evolved, White said.
“Voice control was an initial push,” he said, noting early-on promotions touting compatibility with digital voice assistants from Amazon, Apple and Google. “Now there’s a broader push that’s more about home management than point-to-point control of individual things that’s born out of the idea of spending more time at home.”
White also sees a demographic split in what individual consumers are looking for when it comes to features for these products, between those seeking robust control—often younger consumers—versus often-older buyers looking for their appliance to simply get the job done.
“They’re like personality types, almost. People who like fiddling lean more toward control, and the others are more about automation,” he said.
In terms of features, Parks Associates researchers have found some specific capabilities that appeal, based on the appliance being purchased:
- Ability to adjust refrigerator temperatures remotely
- Ability to troubleshoot dishwasher problems and turn the unit on and off with a smartphone
- Automatically setting oven temperatures and cooking times by recipe and providing alerts if the oven door is left open too long
- Automatically choosing the best washer setting based on the current load
Getting in the door
Manufacturers have had some challenges building the market for smart appliances, according to Kim. Traction is building as companies have begun building their marketing efforts around broader themes that carry more meaning to consumers than gee-whiz descriptions of individual features.
“After many years of marketing and educating the consumers, we realized peace of mind and sustainability really drive consumer adoption for smart appliances,” he said, citing growing concerns regarding energy use as an example.
“As energy management becomes increasingly important, many consumers are looking for ways to improve energy usage,” Kim said, adding that “Smart appliances can definitely help by informing consumers how the products are being used.”
The IoT sensors built into smart appliances also enable capabilities that can address homeowner fears of random breakdowns. For example, Kim noted that LG’s ThinQ Care platform can provide smart alerts for scheduled maintenance and other notifications highlighting performance issues users might not notice that could be signs of trouble down the road. They also have a version for apartment owners and managers to help these property professionals track issues across multiple housing units. And these features are expanding beyond traditional kitchen appliances, with many water heaters now incorporating sensor-based leak-detection systems that alert owners about potential problems and shut the system down to help prevent flooding.
The consumer’s journey toward a smart home often begins with smaller IoT devices, according to Kim. These include security cameras and thermostats with obvious value propositions. Lighting has been another early market leader in home automation, White said, especially smart lamps, which can be seen as an easy one-off expense for curious consumers not ready to make the switch to a full smart-home lifestyle.
“Lighting, in terms of control, is on the lower end for smart-device adoption, with our latest data indicating about 6% of consumers own a smart lighting control system,” White said. “Smart light bulbs, on the other hand, are on the higher end of adoption, with about 11% of consumers owning smart light bulbs.”
Larger lighting control systems are more likely to be considered during broader renovation projects, White said.
“We see lighting as going in as part of a major renovation—once you get to a certain price point, they’ll throw connectivity into that,” he said. “Smart lighting may also be incorporated into a safety/security solution, where a camera or sensor device turns on the lights as a person approaches the door or as part of an automated scene that simulates a resident at home to deter burglars.”
Contractor revenue models
Predictive maintenance features, such as alerts to owners that filters need changing or notifications that settings might need adjusting, are one aspect of smart appliance adoption that could provide added business for contractors.
White said the latest heating, ventilating and air conditioning equipment offers a model for how this could work, in part because consumers are much less likely to attempt DIY solutions with their furnaces and condensers.
“HVAC is all over this, and I think appliances are not really there—they’re mainly focusing on control and automation,” he said. “I think they’re going to add the next piece that triggers truck rolls and gets a contractor.”
Additionally, many HVAC contractors are already in the maintenance contract business with homeowners, who often sign up for annual operating check-ups with their installation purchase.
“In HVAC, the contractors are selling the equipment. It’s almost like the business ecosystem needs to come around, but the technology is definitely there,” he said.
Electrical contractors involved in specifying or installing appliances also have a chance to build customer loyalty by helping get them connected. This might not be a direct revenue generator, but it could put your company top of the list for future calls.
“Contractors can help by getting things connected for the consumers,” Kim said, noting that this could mean a return visit in renovation and new construction projects. “The main issue is the broadband availability at the time of installation. In most cases, the internet is not available. If the contractor can schedule time with the consumer to help connect and educate them initially, consumers will enjoy using the appliances more.”
One app to unite them all
Beyond the initial setup, consumers also can become frustrated by the lack of a common platform among manufacturers, Kim said.
“Households do not have a single brand for all their appliances. This means the user has to have multiple apps that control the appliances, and generally the appliances do not work together to provide a seamless experience.”
This problem isn’t isolated to appliances; connected devices often only work on their own proprietary protocols, which can lock consumers into a single product line and require manufacturer-specific hubs. The lack of unified communications also makes creating a truly smart home more difficult, especially when shoppers have to dive into the fine print on packaging to learn whether a new Bluetooth product will work with Z-Wave products they’ve already installed. Manufacturers not associated with Apple, Google and Amazon also find this situation frustrating, and even those three big players have been seeking ways to encourage greater adoption of smart home products.
So, a consortium of manufacturers and the group behind the Zigbee protocol came together in 2019 to improve interoperability. Now called “Matter,” the group developed a protocol called “Thread” that should make introducing new devices into a home network easier—and could even make that network more resilient.
Thread incorporates existing ethernet, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth Low Energy standards along with the Thread networking protocol to enable crossbrand communications without the need for a central hub. Instead, this approach is mesh-based, which means each device on the network helps support the network as a whole.
Certain devices homeowners might already have in their home, such as the Apple TV 4K and HomePod Mini and Nest hubs, already have built-in Thread border routers. These routers—really, small radios—connect Thread-enabled devices to a home network. Border routers from different manufacturers also now can talk to each other, with the hope of creating a single, unified network throughout the home.
Matter-certified devices should begin hitting store shelves by early 2023. Kim said appliances won’t be included in the initial launch, but that adoption of the Thread protocol is in the works. This could be a big step forward for two important appliance constituencies: homeowners seeking to create their own truly smart homes and the contractors they call on for support.