Smart Appliances of Minds of Their Own

By Bernie Woodall

Jerry Brous's clothes dryer is smarter than yours. And his water heater has a mind of its own. So will yours, in about 10 years' time, say power industry experts.

"Smart" appliances like the ones Brous has in his house on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington are built with computer chips which allow them to communicate, via the Internet, with the local power company.

Based on boundaries set by Brous on a Web site devoted to the test program run by the federal government in coordination with local utilities and several participating companies, his appliances shut down, turn on, or take a break when electricity prices or strain on the power grid are high.

"It's really easy to set up," said Brous, 66, who lives in Sequim, Washington, with his wife, Pat. "And once you set it up, all I have to do is look on the computer to see how much electricity I'm using and I can adjust my setting any time I want."

The Brouses are participating in a test program in Washington and Oregon run by the U.S. Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. Their house has been outfitted with a "smart" dryer, water heater and thermostat for heating and cooling.

"I figure we've cut about 15 percent from my electricity bill," said Brous.

Individual savings add up, which can help keep down the need to build more expensive power plants and transmission lines, as well as cutting back on greenhouse gases that cause global warming, said Rob Pratt, director of the GridWise test in which Brous is participating.

What differentiates the Pacific Northwest experiment from similar energy-efficiency tests is the connection with local utilities that guide energy use, said Pratt.

A key component is a "home gateway," or small computer made by Invensys Plc. (ISYS.L), that rests between the Brouses' computer and their broadband connection.

"It grabs messages from the Internet (about power use and power prices) and sends signals to the smart thermostat and load controller for the water heater," said Pratt.

Sometimes, the signals to save power send the temperature in his house too low, Brous said.

"Once in a while, I override them," said Brous. "I did that a lot more in the beginning. I can change that on the computer. I just hook up with their Web site and change the settings. It's really easy."

The power company can send a cue for the dryer's heating element to take a break when the power grid is strained.

"I don't even notice when that happens," said Brous, who says that the dryer's tumbler keeps tumbling as the energy-sapping part of the appliance pauses.

The water heater and heating and cooling system also can take breaks at times of heavy energy use. But the element that is more likely to save energy is the cut in costs.

The interconnection with the utilities includes price reports that tell the Brouses when it will cost them to keep appliances running hard.

"I've shown this system off to just about everybody who comes to the house," said Brous, a retired transportation manager for U.S. Steel. "Everybody wants it. So I think it's going to be commonplace one day."

Within 10 years, power grids passing information back and forth with smart home appliances may save enough energy during peak electricity demand to keep utilities from building expensive substations and major transmission lines, said Pratt.

There was a day when homes with color TVs or push-button telephones were cause for neighborhood celebrity of the kind now enjoyed by Jerry Brous.

But having a smart dryer connected to the Internet will be so ho-hum in a few years.

"The concept of automated interactive communication and control is extremely powerful, and many believe that networked intelligence will eventually come to dominate daily life," said a report on trends in energy efficiency by the Electric Power Research Institute.

It costs about $1,000, on average, to outfit a home for the GridWise study, but that cost includes the price of research unique to this study.

Within a few years, as the technology becomes common, that cost is expected to drop to $200 per customer, said Pratt.

Copyright 2007 Reuters Limited.

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