Whirlpool is taking a new step in bringing “smart,” digitally networked appliances into the mainstream -- it’s actually putting them on sale.

Over the past month or so, the Benton Harbor, Mich.-based white goods giant has been selling a refrigerator, a dishwasher and a washer/dryer unit equipped with its 6th Sense Live technology, which allows each appliance to be turned on, link up to a household Wi-Fi network, and show up on customer smartphones, tablets and PCs.

Whirlpool has also launched its My Smart Appliances app, available for iTunes download for iPhone and iPad users, or via the web for other mobile devices or PCs and laptops. The app allows customers to view each appliance to see when it’s running, how much power its using and how much it costs, along with controls to schedule wash cycles, alert users when the fridge door is open or the dryer is clogged with lint, or tell users to email the repairman when maintenance is due.

The idea behind networked appliances is far from new, of course -- all the big white-goods companies in the United States, Europe and Asia have been testing smart appliances in utility pilots, as well as promising to bring the latest generation of CES showcase prototypes to market soon. Whirlpool is among the first in the United States to take a crack at getting customers to buy in to the networked home vision with real live commercial products, however.

While it’s only rolling them out in the Chicago area right now, it’s targeting California by this summer, and has built in energy data support that could cover about 80 percent of the country, Warwick Stirling, Whirlpool’s global director of energy and sustainability, said in a Wednesday interview. And, while Chicago-area utility Commonwealth Edison is a big partner in its initial rollout, Whirlpool is also targeting markets where utilities aren’t yet ready to support smart appliances as grid assets or customer engagement tools, he said.

Indeed, “The energy piece is an interesting story, but not the most compelling one for the consumer,” he said. That’s because these new appliances are first and foremost consumer goods, making features like remote control and visibility, as well as ease of networking and use, far more important than energy savings, Stirling said.

First of all, unlike home HVAC systems, which account for the majority of household energy use, Whirlpool’s washers, dryers and fridges don’t use that much power as a share of total household load, he said. (Heating and cooling can also be adjusted in tiny amounts over lots of homes to yield big aggregate effects for utilities, while refrigerators and washer/dryers are mostly either on or off.) 

Secondly, Whirlpool expects its new smart appliances, now limited to a few top-range models in each category, to cost $100 to $200 more than their non-networked equivalents, he said. That’s not too much of a premium for a $550 dishwasher or $1,500 luxury refrigerator, but it’s still significant, indicating that wealthier consumers will be the first target customers. And those customers are going to want the full range of real-time, remote control and monitoring capabilities to play with that they’re used to from their other iPhone apps.

Partners, Features for the Networked Appliance

Whirlpool’s My Smart Appliances apps will also include core energy use and pricing data, however, he said. To get there, the Michigan-based appliance giant has enlisted a couple of interesting technology partners, both to deliver accurate energy pricing data and to manage the system in the cloud, he said.

The first partner, San Francisco-based Genability, has collected utility rates across about 80 percent of the United States, and is making those available to Whirlpool smart appliance owners via its iTunes and web apps, he said. Customers thus get day-ahead and hourly prices for the power they’ll be using, along with lists of other rate plans available in their area, and can compare that against each appliance's power-use characteristics, as well as “eco”-settings and other power-saving options, to manage their energy spend, he said.

Most homeowners don’t see much difference in their day-to-day energy rates, but markets from California and Texas to Canada’s Ontario province are pushing time-of-use and peak pricing rate plans to their residential utility customers. The bigger the spread between on-peak and off-peak electricity prices, the greater the incentive to switch laundry time from afternoon to evening to help mitigate peak power demand on the grid.

Whirlpool is also working with Redwood City, Calif.-based cloud services provider Arrayent, which is providing the platform to aggregate and control all these smart appliances, he said. “We go from the Arrayent platform down to the app” to smooth out the complicated set of IT functions going on in the background as customers turn on their new dishwasher or fridge, open an app on their iPhone or laptop, find the devices via the home’s Wi-Fi network, add them to the network, and see them show up on the screen, ready to be played with. That’s a lot harder to do than it sounds, and we shall see how smoothly the process goes for new Whirlpool smart appliance buyers.

As for the high-end nature of Whirlpool’s first foray into networked appliances, smart thermostat startup Nest has shown that it’s possible to get homeowners to spend hundreds of dollars on sleek, well-designed home energy connectivity and control. At the same time, the list of failed attempts to bring “smart” appliances to market stretches back to the late 1990s, indicating that the industry hasn’t yet found the winning formula.

On those lines, Stirling noted that Whirlpool’s new appliances don’t have on-board touchscreens where customers can type in what’s in their refrigerator, or other such “gimmicky” features, mainly because the company sees no need for a second screen when everyone has a smart phone. But it is experimenting with ideas that make use of its always-on connectivity, such as downloads that can tell the washer and dryer how to treat newly purchased clothing, or recipes that come with oven presets, he said.

All this connectivity presumes that homeowners have a Wi-Fi network up and running, Stirling noted. That’s an important difference between Whirlpool’s new effort and a lot of other home energy and automation systems on the market that have chosen low-power wireless technologies like ZigBee and Z-Wave. That includes a host of devices built to interact with the ZigBee home area network (HAN) radios inside most of North America’s smart meters, as well as home security and automation-plus-energy offerings from big broadband providers like Comcast, AT&T and Verizon.

“We went with Wi-Fi because we don’t need a gateway, or the complexities of a gateway” that ZigBee- and Z-Wave-based systems require to talk to other devices on the household Wi-Fi network and the internet at large, he said. Whirlpool has tested the appliances in Europe and the United States, and is testing about 150 smart appliances with a big utility in Brazil, he said, though he wouldn’t provide further details on the projects. 

In Chicago, however, Whirlpool and utility Commonwealth Edison are testing out a bunch of public propositions on the consumer engagement and grid-facing fronts, Stirling said. On the consumer front, the partners are testing different product and service offerings, both to get customers to sign up for utility-facing programs via their My Smart Appliances apps, and then to maximize their return on efficiency savings, utility rebate offerings and the like, once it’s established.

For ComEd, the value of establishing that two-way, real-time connection extends beyond peak pricing and demand response, and into a broader world of treating its customers like consumers, rather than ratepayers. At the same time, Whirlpool is also working on different channels to market, including a partnership with home builder KB Homes and new plug-in vehicle market entrant Ford to build a net-zero home that balances car charging, appliance use and other household energy factors.