Smart appliances are being hailed as the new technology to make our lives easier. Are they just technological gimmicks or do they have a place in our homes?
Many of us will soon be opening our doors, and indeed our homes, to smart appliances, embracing smart refrigerators, cookers, washing machines, vacuum cleaners and other smart technologies in an effort to make our everyday lives a little easier.
The 'smart' in smart appliances can refer to one of two aspects of communication with any given appliance; first the interaction with an existing smart device such as a tablet or smartphone to allow a homeowner to control the smart appliances remotely, and secondly with the smart grid itself, responding to utility signals that provide consumers with reminders to use periods of lower-priced energy.
Smart appliances have been designed to allow consumers tighter control over appliances and to effectively shed or reduce domestic usage of energy, reducing bills and helping to achieve energy reduction targets.
There are many consumers who see the interrogation of their appliances by the smart grid - for example switching freezers off for a predetermined amount of time to help reduce energy spikes - as an intrusion and an exploitation of privacy, so consumers are able to opt out of interrogation from the smart grid. However, by restricting this communication with both regular and smart appliances, homeowners will not reap the full benefits of reduced energy management.
As with many green devices, smart appliances still represent the more expensive choice. So in China and the UK in particular, where consumers are more likely to opt for the lower-priced option, adoption relies mostly on consumers viewing a smart appliance as long-term investment that will pay for itself over time. The smart appliance market is driven largely by pricing, environment benefits, energy efficiency, potential of the smart grid build-out and government subsidiaries, which are available through US schemes like 'Cash for Appliances' for consumers looking to integrate smart appliances into their homes.
Good, clean fun
Smart washing machines are predicted to bring in the lion's share of the smart appliances industry, dominating 23 per cent of the market by 2015. Although 'smart' washing machines, with the ability to detect load weight to sense the least amount of water for an optimum wash, have been around for some time, communication interfaces are really propelling this area of the smart appliance market forwards.
Smart washing machines can now self-diagnose via a Wi-Fi connection, reducing the amount of call-out visits from the manufacturer. Consumers will be able to monitor the overall status of a wash and monitor the cycle so they can remotely adjust the pre-set cycles or levels of fabric softener accordingly.
Jason Rodriguez, CEO and director of Research at Zpryme Research & Consulting, who produce a series of consumer research publications called Smart Grid Insights, sees smart washing machines integrating a host of new features to make consumers' day-to-day lives easier. "Steam technology, specialty fabric cycles, advanced vibration-reduction technology and washer-dryer communication will deliver great performance and convenience for the consumer in future smart products."
In response to smart meter roll-out, US appliance company Whirlpool has committed to making all of its electronically controlled devices capable of receiving and responding to smart grid signals by 2015. With new smart appliances, consumers will be able to shift their energy consumption to off-peak times, and a home energy management device will read appliances and signals from power companies to optimise energy use. The company has partnered with Tendril, who will provide the back-end technology infrastructure to support smart appliances, including a range of connectivity-enabled services and applications to enable communication between appliances, consumers and energy providers.
Ice, ice baby
Refrigerators may take a back seat to washer dryers in terms of market share, but the remote access development surrounding this appliance is where the real innovation is taking place.
By 2015, sales of smart refrigerators are predicted to top $2.5bn, representing 17.7 per cent of the global household appliance market, with the US's predicted 36 per cent market share dominating. Futuristic living in the style of 'The Jetsons' is predicted with the development of cutting-edge smart refrigerators, with retailers aiming to manage our entire culinary experience. Dubbed the 'food management system', smart fridges are beginning to tell us what we should be eating, when we should be eating it, and how it should be prepared.
LG's Smart ThinQ range, including features such as smart grid, smart diagnosis, smart access, smart adapt and food management, is spearheading the innovations in how smart fridges communicate with consumers. Their new smart fridge features smart manager, a food management system which links up with your smartphone to check the food items stored inside. At the touch of your iPhone, a consumer can catalogue the location, expiration date and number of items stored in the fridge from a remote location, for example in the supermarket, meaning shopping lists will be an inconvenience of the past. A freshness tracker allows users to enter various fresh food items without an expiration date, such as fruit and vegetables, to access a suggested expiration date.
Users don't even need to brave the aisles of the local supermarket, as the LCD screen, which can be synced to your smartphone, will allow all shopping to be accessed and delivered by an online shopping service. Alternatively, shopping receipts or product barcodes can be scanned directly into the fridge's LCD screen.
Though some may find a refrigerator masquerading as a nutritionist a little disconcerting, those who don't mind entrusting their diet plan to an appliance can enjoy the benefits of family profiling. Smart fridges can now recommend recipe suggestions based on the contents in your fridge as well as an individual's gender, age, weight, height and BMI, helping you to lose weight and maintain a healthy diet.
As with washing machines, diagnosis software will make our lives easier by remote monitoring of our appliances for minor faults that previously would have needed a time-consuming maintenance call out. In the event of a problem, the system detects then triggers a series of signals that the manufacturer's service centre uses to determine faults and errors, and decides whether a service call out is necessary. Minor issues, such as a door left open or the icemaker failing, can be sent as an alert directly to a user's smartphone to remedy.
Cooking up a storm
Innovation in smart cookers centres on the concept of achieving professional grade cooking for a fraction of the energy cost. A breed of cookers that takes into account the electrical cost of cooking can now advise on the cheapest method of preparing a particular meal which, coupled with communication with the smart grid, could slash energy usage.
Ovens can now use sensors to monitor the cooking status of food, adjusting the time and temperature for perfectly cooked meals. Alarm warnings automatically sound if food needs to be stirred or flipped, and several separate items can be cooked at the same time without having to adjust the heating levels.
The Smart ThinQ range oven uses infrared technology, which allows food to be cooked faster while using less energy. As with every other appliance in the range, consumers can monitor cooking settings via their smartphone. Every cooker comes complete with LG's Smart Adapt function, which features apps such as pre-programmed recipes that consumers can download and send to their oven to follow.
A promising smart future
With growing numbers of smartphone users, the smart appliance market is predicted to almost treble from $3.06bn to $15.2bn by 2015. This is a bold prediction considering 90 per cent of the UK admitted they were unfamiliar with smart grid technology in a recent survey by business and consumer research company Ipsos. So is it up to the government to educate the public on how they can take advantage of the benefits of the smart grid?
"Governments must do more to inform citizens not only about the long-term effects of saving the environment, but more notably the money-saving opportunities of transitioning to the smart grid," states Zpryme Research's Smart Insight report into smart appliances. "They have to talk to consumers and get the message out there by advocating at both a national and grassroots level. Also, get the consumer involved - active participation of consumers is essential for making the smart grid successful."
Some consumers believe that smart appliances are becoming too complex and gimmicky. But Whirlpool developers believe users don't want to just monitor and manage energy, they want to be able to control functions on their appliances as well as home management functions, which extends to security systems and water and temperature management. According to a recent survey conducted by the Whirlpool, 78 per cent of participants would consider monitoring their household's energy use, indicating that consumers are becoming savvier and recognising the benefits of smart appliances.
"With millions of smart meters being deployed by utilities across the globe, the stage is being set for a more intelligent energy future," says Rodriguez. "This is one in which vehicles, mobile technology, home appliances, and devices on every cog of the smart grid ecosystem can 'connect' to one another to ensure seamless efficiency and power management.
"Understanding where and how to enter the smart grid space is now no longer reserved only for major utilities and energy industry blue-chips." *