Connect Consumers to Connected Homes

By Mary Miller and Ruth Littmann-Ashkenazi, Sigma Designs

Some 70 percent of Americans have not heard of the smart grid, according to EcoAlign, a strategic marketing agency focused on energy and the environment. EcoAlign’s findings, published in May, underscore the need for education about energy delivery, demand management and pricing changes.

Even people who are aware of smart grid may oppose impending grid changes. Some homeowners who reject smart meter installations cite electromagnetic sensitivities, privacy issues and measurement inaccuracies as reasons.

Z-Wave Enabled RCS thermostat doubles as energy monitoring screen

Americans need to be educated. Every year, power outages cost U.S. consumers $150 billion, or about $500 for every man, woman and child in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Overwhelming demand for electricity during peak hours has caused power utilities to use blackouts and brownouts as load-shedding methods. New power plants are needed, but they are expensive and not environmentally friendly. Utilities need a smarter, more practical way to manage and respond to energy demand.

Smart meters, which are meant to measure home energy usage and provide feedback, offer one solution, but other ways exist to make smart energy a reality. Utilities and regulators must be sensitive to consumers who acknowledge the need for change but want to remain in charge. Here are ways to make that happen.


Home is Where the HAN Is


The smart grid extends beyond power plants, power lines and smart meters. It reaches into people’s most intimate venues, their homes, where it measures how much power people use and when they use it. During peak demand, consumption can result in blackouts or brownouts. To avoid these events, utilities must accomplish two goals. They must first inform consumers about which household devices use the most power and secondly develop a targeted way to shed load.

That’s where home area networks (HANs) come into play. HANs already are installed inside homes worldwide, connecting devices and appliances throughout the homes. They connect televisions to computers to lighting systems, garage doors, security cameras, and so on.

To energize the public about energy conservation, utilities must recognize HANs’ central role. Imagine you’re at work in your downtown office. The kids call. They’re home from school but locked out of the house. With a HAN, you can use the application on your smart phone to open the door for them. Once the kids are safe inside, you can use your computer to tap into the webcam and make sure they are doing their homework.

A HAN offers safety and convenience, but how does it relate to smart energy and the smart grid? First, a HAN can be programmed to conserve electricity when residents aren’t home. Also, a HAN enables a smart meter to communicate with every networked device within a home. All that’s needed is a gateway acting as a bridge between the smart meter and the rest of the network. One technology solving this problem is Z-Wave, which is embedded in a bridge that enables smart meters using Zigbee, another short-range wireless technology, to communicate with devices and appliances on the Z-Wave enabled network.

Once this bridge is established, it enables bidirectional communication: from utilities to consumers; from consumers to utilities. Utilities receive consumers’ consumption data and consumers receive information from utilities: real-time pricing, grid event notification, billing details and more. Consumers can view this data on their TV screens, smart phones, computer monitors and in-home energy hubs. Studies show that people who track their daily energy consumption have cut it some 15 percent.

This is good news, but it doesn’t guarantee widespread acceptance of smart meters and the smart grid. Utilities need broad-based public support for smart energy initiatives.


Power with Empowerment


Studies reveal that three benefits pique consumer interest in smart grid:

1. Home control via mobile devices,
2. Monetary savings, and
3. Greener living.


Customer turn-offs include higher and more complicated bills, complicated home networks, privacy infringements, and lack of choice.

Benefits get people talking about the smart grid.

Mobile Conveniences. According to a white paper, “Is Home Control Heating Up?” published in January by CABA CH-RC (Continental Automated Buildings Association Connected Home Research Council), consumers are most likely to embrace home control when it offers them peace of mind. It’s not surprising, therefore, that killer applications include mobile apps that keep consumers connected to their homes from afar. Home control via mobile devices gives consumers answers to day-to-day uncertainties when they’re away. “Did I turn off the stovetop?” “Did the cleaning crew lock the doors when they left?” With the right technology, a HAN can provide this information and act on a homeowner’s command.


SchlageLiNK Z-Wave remote home energy management app for the iPhone

Money Savings. Consumers want to reduce their monthly electricity bills. They’re not convinced, however, that smart meters are up to the task. In some regions,
electricity bills rose after smart
meter installation. Utilities must make energy smart and money-wise for consumers. This can be accomplished with an inexpensive, easy to use, and consumer-centric HAN. In other words: Do it yourself (DIY). Consumers can start from scratch or expand their networks as they see fit. Because utilities don’t need to dispatch installation specialists, consumers save time, money and manpower by deploying DIY HANs.

Green ” and Keen to the Grid. When consumers choose, configure and control their home networks, they are more likely to embrace a connected home and smart grid. That’s why utilities should consider leveraging DIY products. Consumers already have a strong bond with these products, many of which come from trusted sources such as Schlage, Trane, General Electric Co., Stanley, Black & Decker, Kwikset and Cooper Industries. If utilities form partnerships with these manufacturers, the 70 percent of Americans who have never heard of the smart grid will drop significantly and the smart grid will become part of everyday life.

Don’t Force their HAN. The DIY approach also will mitigate much of the smart meter pushback, which largely comes from objections to obtaining private consumption data. Consumers worry that smart meters will give utilities and possibly the government too much information about their habits or give utilities the power to turn off home devices.

Consumers want to control their own energy initiatives. This is already happening with networked devices such as lights and thermostats that can be controlled remotely via PCs and smart phones. Utilities should enlist DIY home control equipment manufacturers and citizens as partners.

The partnership might work like this: Consumers set up their HANs to respond in certain ways to certain levels of grid events, such as yellow for mild, orange for moderate and red for serious. Upon an e-mail or text notification of a yellow event, a consumer might click “agree,” automatically setting his thermostat to energy-save mode. Upon receipt of an orange alert, he might “agree,” thus choosing a previously programmed standby mode for the power strip that controls TVs and computers. For a red alert, the consumer can send the signal to shut off his pool pump and water heater. This method provides an easy user interface that engages users without compromising their privacy.


The Future is in Their HANs


For the smart grid to succeed, utilities must find ways to engage consumers. They must recognize that energy conservation begins at home—specifically in HAN-enabled homes. The future is in customers’ HANs.

Mary Miller is marketing director for Sigma Designs and the Z-Wave Alliance She has a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Louisville and has done post-graduate work at the University of California, Berkeley.

Ruth Littmann-Ashkenazi works in marketing at Sigma Designs. She has a master’s degree in business administration from Boston University and a bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.


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