Given the extreme heat this summer and the general awareness of how fragile our power grids are, there is a growing consensus that smart homes should include some form of smart energy management component. Today that might be a smart thermostat that’s hooked into a utility’s demand response program.
But it’s likely that in the next decade it will also include some form of smart breaker box, smart EV charger, and perhaps solar or some form of energy storage. Controlling the entire system will be software that communicates with the devices in the home and back to the utility to ensure that the right devices get access to what might be a limited amount of power depending on the demand.
Building such a system is daunting. That said, thanks to new products from vendors such as Schneider Electric, Eaton, Leviton, Savant, and Span, the shape of a smart home energy management system is starting to emerge. Additionally, legislation passed under the Biden administration provides incentives for customers who want to replace “dumb” electrical infrastructure in their homes with smart options.
But for the average consumer, replacing an electrical system is a lot more daunting than swapping out a thermostat. So how should the average person think about making their energy infrastructure smart?
The first step is one you can take today. Begin by conducting an audit of your breaker box. Grab a friend or family member and station them at your breaker box while y’all are on a cellphone call together. Their job is to flip the switches while you go through the home seeing which outlets and appliances turn off when the power to that particular circuit cuts out. For each circuit you’ll generate a list of outlets and the appliances they control.
Keep that list by the breaker box and note any empty circuits or headroom you may have. Those circuits might come in handy if you want to install an EV charger, a heat pump, or an induction stove (all popular electrification projects). If you are in an older home and don’t have headroom but want to install some of these devices, your options will likely include an upgrade to more amps on your electric line and box.
Doing so can be expensive, so if you’re conservative you might be able to get away with replacing the old box with a smart box that can help spread the load in a way that lets your electric vehicle charge only at night, when other devices aren’t in use. Obviously, this will only take you so far.
If you’re looking for a smart breaker box, there are a few flavors. Products such as Sense or Emporia devices install inside the box and share data about energy consumption but don’t let you take any action. I’ve installed these and found them pretty frustrating. Even if you knowing that your fridge uses 500 watts a day, it’s not like you’re going to turn it off.
You can also buy smart circuits that have the ability to turn off and then back on, allowing a homeowner the full ability to manage a load. Consumers can buy an entirely smart breaker box or a few smart circuits, but most of these use proprietary software to manage the loads. There are also some open source options, for extreme DIYers.
If you want to get a sense of how a more futuristic smart home energy management solution might feel, you can start with SmartThings Energy, which uses data from your smart meter and electric rates to show you how much power your supported appliances are consuming. If you have Samsung appliances you can put them into Power Savings mode in the app to try to eke out some savings.
It’s not perfect, because we don’t have any clear standards for communicating between different appliances’ energy use and the breaker box software. But we’ll get there. In the meantime, think about your energy audit, and plan ahead for new appliances that may be all-electric and hopefully a little smart when it comes to energy use.