Is it smart to invest in smart technology?

By Jonathan Susser | June 5, 2017

Approximately three-quarters of Americans have smartphones, but other forms of smart technology are growing in popularity and look to be on the rise in the next few years. Smart technology offers users more control, freedom and security over their devices and can improve the environment, energy use, comfort and safety. Consumers can operate smart appliances and electronics remotely with a smartphone, tablet or voice command, and the devices can send alerts about an action being completed (e.g., the dishwasher cycle being complete) or a potential issue (the refrigerator door being open). Smart devices are also able to communicate with each other to create a larger network.

What does “smart” actually mean, though? There are different opinions on what makes a technology smart. To some, smart refers specifically to a technology that can be controlled remotely and can learn the behaviors and patterns of users, adjusting accordingly. The Nest thermostat fits this description. Another view is that any technology with Wi-Fi capability is smart. These electronics and appliances may not be able to learn, but they still offer the convenience of being operable from afar. The latter definition is more common, so we will use it for this article.

Examples and Uses of Smart Technology

A number of technologies are getting smart and hitting the market, including light bulbs, hot water heaters, refrigerators and washing machines. Smart thermostats are also becoming increasingly popular, with models from Nest, Ecobee, Honeywell, Schneider Electric and more.

With traditional “dumb” thermostats, residents have to manually adjust their home’s temperature at any given time. Programmable thermostats offer more oversight and allow users to set temperatures for different times of the day; Wi-Fi programmable thermostats then allow control while away from home. Smart thermostats go one step further. They provide additional flexibility and give users the ability to remotely control temperatures and monitor energy consumption. As noted earlier, certain smart thermostats can even learn residents’ behaviors over time and change temperatures accordingly. Smart thermostats also record a lot of data, so if you like to crunch numbers and look at energy performance, they may be the way to go. However, they can require a large upfront investment.

One important thing to remember about all smart devices, though, is that they are not guaranteed to save you energy and money. Their primary benefit is convenience, by taking some of the hassle out of having to physically interact with the unit. With additional control and flexibility, these devices can also improve comfort, but alone they do not automatically enhance energy efficiency. In other words, installing a smart appliance will not guarantee lower electric bills. To get the most out of your device, be sure to do your research and consult the owner’s manual.

Utility Benefits

In addition to making life easier for users, smart technology can also benefit electric utilities and improve grid operation through demand response. For example, if energy demand is high, utilities can signal to smart appliances to reduce energy use or shut off completely for a brief period. Adding up this ability over many homes can result in a much more efficient and reliable energy supply. Utilities can also tell appliances to run during off-peak times, when demand is lower and electricity cheaper to produce.

In certain regions of the country, the growth of solar energy has actually created an excess of electricity during the day, when the sun is shining. In other words, the amount of available electricity is more than demand. This is problematic because it can overwhelm the grid, but with smart technology, utilities can tell appliances to turn on and consume electricity, taking some off utilities’ hands. Additionally, by running on renewable energy during the day, these appliances (e.g., hot water heaters) may place less strain on the grid at night.

With smart technology’s utility-side benefits, certain utilities encourage the purchase of such devices. For example, a utility might sponsor a particular brand of smart thermostat or may offer incentives for installing one of any kind.

A related utility-owned option of smart technology is the smart meter. A typical residential electric meter measures how much electricity is coming from the energy grid, or how much electricity a household is consuming. This information is then used to determine the electric bill. A smart meter, however, has additional capabilities that enhance convenience, customer service and control. Smart meters can both receive information from the grid and send information back to the utility, thereby maximizing the reliability and affordability of electricity. This function can help utilities know the status of power distribution. For example, consider a power outage. Traditionally, when the power goes out in a region, a utility has to figure out who is affected on a house-by-house basis, usually by having utility trucks driving around and speaking with individual customers. A smart meter, though, can tell a utility that it is not receiving power and streamline the process of getting things up and running again.

For more information on smart grid technologies, join us for our 2017 Smart Grid Webinar Series.

Smart technology has the ability to change how both residents and utilities interact with appliances and the energy grid. For residents, the main benefit is additional convenience, as well as the potential for improved comfort and energy use. For utilities, smart devices can lead to more reliable and safer energy delivery. It looks like smart is here to stay.