Appliance manufacturers have been concentrating on reducing the power consumption of their products since California's 1978 passage of Title 24, the landmark set of regulations that first mandated and codified energy efficiency standards.

But until now, manufacturers haven't concentrated too much on the question of when appliances are most likely to be operated. With the advent of smart grid technologies, that hopefully will change. We recently spoke to Warwick Stirling, global manager of energy and sustainability at Whirlpool, who told us about some of the challenges associated with wiring smarter appliances and some of the other important work that is taking place there.

Refrigerators: Fridges on average actually only consume about 70 watts, he said. (Fridges spike into the 200-plus range when the compressor kicks on.) The killer is the defrost cycle. The 10 to 15 minutes of defrost can consume 500 to 700 watts. "Now, the defrost cycle takes place whenever it (the refrigerator) needs it. That can be very expensive," he said.

With networking, appliance makers hope to shift defrost to non-peak times. In a sophisticated system, defrost cycles could even be synchronized with periods of intense output from wind turbines to conserve even more power.

Thermostats: Whirlpool doesn't make these, but there is more to thermostats than controlling temperature. You also need to look at controlling and monitoring humidity.

Dishwashers: 60 percent of the time, dishwashers get run at night, typically after dinner, which is past peak periods. Still, delay functions could push the dishwasher cycle deeper into the night to conserve power, or it could be synchronized with wind output. Most modern dishwashers are relatively quiet, so sleeping families shouldn't be disturbed too much if the machine is running at 3 a.m. (Some dishwashers already have these functions, but a lot of consumers either don't know about them or fail to make frequent use of them.)

Clothes dryers: The big kahuna. Nameplate (or max) power consumption can pop into the thousands of watts. Whirlpool participated in a time-delay trial with dryers in the Pacific Northwest. The company didn't see 100 percent compliance, but most consumers who participated did seem to appreciate the benefits of time-delayed dryers, particularly considering that time delaying can save $20 to $50 in energy costs. With time-of-use rates, the savings could easily escalate. With these dryers, the drum will spin during peak times, but the heating element is turned off.

With dryers, Whirlpool also needs to be careful not to lose the second-load effect. Basically, back-to-back dryer loads are efficient because residual heat from the first load helps dry clothes in the second.  

In a conceptually similar fashion, pre-heating on off-peak hours seems destined in some ways to become a feature of water heaters. Right now, water is heated to a steady temperature throughout the day. "You don't need that big tank of hot water," he said.

Stoves and Ovens: "Cooking is a category that is quite challenging," he said. Nonetheless, the company will conduct some trials this year, although he wouldn't divulge exactly what tack they will take.

Timing: The company has said it will make one million smart dryers by the end of 2011. Nonetheless, consumers won't really begin to see the full panoply of energy-efficient appliances in appreciable numbers until 2012.

Standards: The industry is worried. "Unfortunately, a lot of utilities want to pick their own standard," he said. The physical networking standard -- ZigBee, WiFi, Power line, etc. -- can probably be accommodated. Appliance makers can implement a few standards, as well. The worry revolves around the underlying communications standards. (NIST's new smart-grid standards chief John McDonald recently pointed out similar concerns). Stirling spoke favorably of Smart Energy Profile 2.0 more than once.

"Maybe we will get a decision by the end of the year," he added.