March 21, 2012
| by Steven Castle
When we think of home networks, we often think in terms of Wi-Fi or wired Ethernet connectivity, or maybe mesh technologies like Z-Wave or ZigBee. The same holds true for home energy management networks that send energy usage data around and allow you to turn on and off components to save energy.
But there is another way to connect devices and shoot all that info around a house, and it’s being promoted by a company called Asoka. That way is in your home’s electrical powerlines.
That’s right: The high-voltage wiring in your home can be used for networking—and in Asoka’s case, to create a plug-and-play home energy management network.
Sending data signals over powerline has been done before, of course. X10 products operated over powerline. So does lighting and other control systems from companies like PCS (Powerline Control Systems), as well as nearly 200 products from HomePlug Alliance members. (DLNA has also adopted HomePlug AV powerline networking standards for connected TVs and other DLNA-compliant devices.)
Many systems can operate quite well over powerline, especially if signals aren’t interrupted by jumping over phases. UPB (Universal Powerline Bus) and other technologies have improved this greatly in recent years.
Asoka’s Home Energy Management Service, which it is marketing to big service providers and utilities worldwide, uses simple plug-in modules, one of which is wired to a home’s broadband router. You simply plug a device into the PL7667-MST (master with Ethernet connection) or PL7667-ETH PlugLine 500 Mbps Ethernet adapter, and you can track the energy usage and control whatever is plugged into it. The ETH PlugLine sends and receives its signals from the MST master via powerline, and the master is connected to the broadband router to deliver that info to a web-based interface. It all makes for a pretty simple set-up, and with the web- interface you can set times for the connected devices to be turned on or off.
Asoka says it has about 1,000 homes in Switzerland, served by Swisscom, using the systems, and expects to rent its products to 3,500 homes a month. The company reports 120 to 125 Mbps continual throughput over powerline.
“It’s a compelling model,” says Asoka president and CEO Eric Grubel. “We can go to service providers in the market, and if they’re using PLC [powerline communication], why not use an energy management one?”
He says service companies can reduce costly truck rolls with the ease of installation provided by the plug-in modules.
Grubel says the company is in discussions with U.S. utilities including Southern California Edison, Con Edison and others. He also said Asoka may be a part of AT&T” title=“AT&T”>AT&T’s second phase of its much-expected home automation/energy management system, which is yet to be rolled out.
The Problem with PLC
The problem is, the U.S. networking market—whether for simple broadband sharing or home energy management—is geared toward Wi-Fi and technologies like Z-Wave, which is used by big services providers ADT, Comcast, Verizon, Vivint, Alarm.com and others for home connectivity/basic automation and energy management.
PLC just isn’t on most U.S. consumer’s roadmaps. Powerline communications technologies are much more popular in Europe where high densities can cause Wi-Fi conflicts, Grubel says.
Asoka is also looking to solve problems with MDUs (multiple dwelling units) that have multiple meters either out of range for wireless ZigBee communications or in concrete closets that disrupt wireless signals.
Grubel says a Swiss utility is even looking at Asoka’s powerline system as a way to make money. It would provide the plug-in devices free of charge, then offer a rate plan to use those plugs to communicate with a two-way communicating smart meter or Internet to shut off those devices in the case of a peak load period. (This is called demand response, or demand-side management, and utilities are testing it out in many pilot programs.) If they can shut off a bunch of devices, they can turn around and sell that power at a higher rate, says Grubel. (Though in the United States, there would be some regulatory hurdles to clear to do that. Not to mention the accusations of price gouging that may erupt.)
Asoka is talking with service providers and utilities now, and foresees big retailers getting involved in offering such services as well.
“Our goal is to make that non-Ethernet device about the cost of a light timer. When you see that, you’ll see mass deployment,” Grubel states.
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