October 25, 2012
| by Steven Castle
Are connected smart appliances and energy management systems that can save us scads on our utility bills finally, finally going to be a factor in our homes?
GE plans as much—and is attempting to kickstart some interest with its own GeoSpring Hybrid Water Heater, which it says uses 62 percent less electricity than a standard electric water heater and can save $325 a year with its efficient technology that uses an air-source heat pump to help heat water.
Over 100 Sears stores in the northeastern United States are offering the GeoSpring appliance and a Get Connected Starter Kit (under $200) consisting of the Nucleus energy manager and an appliance module, in addition to GE’s connected thermostat. The in-store water heater also features a “Take Control. Get Connected” display that promotes the Starter Kit and thermostat.
The Nucleus energy manager can connect to the GeoSpring water heater via Wi-Fi and an appliance module. This will enable users to receive messages like maintenance alerts for filter changes and allow control of the appliance via an iPhone app. You can also control GE’s connected thermostat through the app. An app for Android-based devices is in the works.
I’m not sure people are going to flock to change their water heater set temperature via a mobile phone. John Desmarais, market development manager for GE Home Energy Management, says that while most people don’t even know how to set the temperature of hot water heater to an economical 120 degrees, doing so from a phone app resonates with them.
Don’t laugh. Users of connectivity systems being sold by service providers like ADT, Comcast and Verizon seem to like changing the set temperatures on their thermostats via mobile phone apps, especially if they want to heat or cool their home before they get home. Though how many times must you reset the set temp of your water heater? It could be just once or when you want to use the GeoSpring’s energy-saving vacation mode or switch from normal mode to a hybrid mode that uses the heat-pump technology.
Maintenance alerts sent to mobile phones may have far more use for people. And we must remember that this is GE’s first real stage of releasing its Brillon brand of smart appliances and energy management to the public. The Nucleus energy manager has previously been available only through utilities and their smart grid pilot programs, while the new GeoSpring Hybrid Water Heater started manufacturing earlier this year.
“We’re finding out how people want to control their ecosystems,” Desmarais says. “No where have you been able to see that ecosystem include any type of appliance connectivity.”
How The Systems Work
The Nucleus device looks like a plug-in module and simply plugs into an electrical outlet. It can communicate via Wi-Fi or wireless ZigBee technology to other devices on its network, like the appliance module, which in turn connects to the GeoSpring water heater via an Ethernet cable. The Nucleus can also retrieve energy usage information from a two-way communicating smart meter, which are being deployed for utility smart grid programs. However, that does not seem to be a focus of GE’s current marketing efforts.
“Our story is not centered on energy savings. It’s about getting connected and tying into your lifestyle,” says Desmarais. That mirrors the approach of the big service providers: get connected first—and by the way, you can also save some energy.
GE will potentially make more devices like light and lamp modules that can connect to the Nucleus available next year. As well as more smart appliances like dishwashers and clothes washers.
The 50-gallon GeoSpring heater is the first of GE’s smart appliances, and heats water economically with an air-source heat pump that uses warm air around the unit to help heat the water, The principal behind heat pump technology is that it’s easier and more efficient to “move heat” from one place to another—like from the air to the water—than to create new heat. Hybrid (meaning heat pump and electricity) and Vacation modes can help save a family $325 a year on water heating, GE says. The heat pump technology works best at 68 degrees Fahrenheit air temperature or above. If the air around the water heater drops to 45 degrees Fahrenheit, the heat pump turns off and switches to the standard electric mode, as there will not be enough heat in the air to heat the water. Vacation mode will lower the water temperature to 50 degrees for the duration of a trip and then automatically re-energize itself the day before the homeowner’s return.
Some states and utilities also offer rebates for efficient appliances like the GeoSpring. Some utility customers in Massachusetts, for example, can earn a $1,000 rebate through the end of the year, on the $1,199 to $1,299 GeoSpring appliance.
GE’s initial GeoSpring hot water heater touted demand response capability, which could turn off or turn down an appliance from a signal from a utility. Though that demand response functionality is not now being touted by GE in its new hybrid water heater. Electric utilities’ smart grid pilot programs have been testing such demand response programs, though their acceptance by households remain in question. (Industrial, facility-wide and commercial demand response is a growing market, however.)
Although a few smart and connected appliances like those from LG, Samsung, Wolf and Sub-Zero are on the market, the growth for smart appliances appears hampered from the slow and cautious rollouts of smart grid programs by utilities. That may well change as more smart grid programs come on line and protocols like the Smart Energy Profile (SEP) 2.0, which should be finalized this year and allows connectivity to IP-based networks. But GE does not appear to be counting on that yet.
This promotion may be a big test balloon for marketing smart appliances and energy management systems, and it could give GE a head start in linking smart appliances to home “connectivity” systems.
“We’ve been learning through consumer behaviors and actions and interrelated actions and doing a lot of research,” Desmarais says. “It’s an evolving market and an evolving technology. We want to drive adoption beyond early adopters.”
Steven Castle is Electronic House's managing editor. he has been writing about consumer electronics, homes and energy efficiency topics for two decades. He is also the co-founder of GreenTech Advocates