General Electric may soon release water heaters, energy dashboards and a suite of appliances that can take orders from utilities or homeowners to shut down when power is most expensive.

But before they hit stores, a critical aspect of the marketplace will need to emerge – the communication standard from which those devices will be getting their orders.

"Some of the early hardware we're building has three radios in it," is how GE's David Najewicz put it Tuesday at the ConnectivityWeek 2009 conference in Santa Clara.

Najewicz is external technology programs manager for GE in Louisville, Ky., the home of a Louisville Gas & Electric pilot project that's testing out GE's appliances' ability to respond to the utility's signals to turn down power during peak demand times.

That project also includes smart meter communications from Trilliant, home power monitoring systems from Aztech Associates, smart thermostats made by Energate, and load control switches made by Entec (see The Smart Home, Part II).

GE is working on putting together other utility pilot projects, and expects to have a suite of appliances – refrigerators, stoves, dishwashers, washers and dryers – as well as a home energy management module, in multiple pilots this year, he said.

Whirlpool has also set a goal to make its appliances "smart" by 2015. The appliance maker was part of the 2006 GridWise pilot project in the Pacific Northwest conducted by the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (see The Smart Home, Part I).

But the current uncertainty over whether ZigBee, WiFi, another wireless communications standard or perhaps cellular or powerline carrier will become the dominant mode will be a clear impediment to rolling them out to stores.

Right now, GE is making those test appliances with a couple of different communications options, including "ZigBee, of course," as well as a module that can translate a powerline carrier signal to ZigBee, Najewicz said.

It's also making a module to communicate with Radio Data Systems communications from startup eRadio, he said (see The Latest Players in Smart Grid: Radio Stations).

GE is also looking at the U-SNAP Alliance model as a way to adapt to that uncertainty, Najewicz said. That's an alliance led by Radio Thermostat Co. of America, which is building thermostats with empty ports that can accept radios for a variety of communications. The group, which also includes smart meter maker Sensus, is seeking other members (see U-SNAP: Modular Home Energy Communications).

But moving from pilot projects to department stores will require that the roster of communications technologies be narrowed down to a handful, he said.

"We're hoping this will settle out, and settle out soon," he said.

Also critical for consumer adoption of smart appliances will be some sort of utility incentives, he said. After all, putting smarts in appliances costs money, so utilities will need to give those who buy them some kind of clear indication of the savings they can expect from them, he said.