Whirlpool Corp.

has pushed up its self-imposed deadline for getting "smart" appliances on the market, saying Monday that it will make one million smart dryers by the end of 2011.

That's four years ahead of the previous 2015 deadline the Benton Harbor, Mich.- based appliance giant had set for having smart appliances for sale. That could put it in closer competition with fellow "white goods" manufacturer General Electric, which has announced a broad ranging set of smart appliance goals.

Smart appliances will contain energy-saving functions, such as being able to be shut off when utilities are facing peak demand or rescheduled for off-peak use. They may also include lower energy settings, like no-heat spin cycles for dryers.

Smart appliances also will need to be able to communicate with utilities or customers, via digital networks in the home that may be keyed to utility control or customer presets to take advantage of variable electricity pricing schemes being considered by utilities (see Utilities Mull Price Points, Policies for Home Energy Management).

Whirlpool did not specify just what functions its smart dryers would have, but it did say they should be able to save their owners about $20 to $40 a year on electricity bills that have variable pricing. And one million dryers will be about one-quarter of the company's overall dryer production, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Whirlpool put prototype smart appliances into one of the first smart grid pilot programs, the 2006 GridWise project in Washington state conducted by the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (see The Smart Home, Part I).

As for GE, it wants to start selling smart water heaters in November, the Wall Street Journal reports, and has plans to sell smart thermostats and a home energy management system to control them next year.

It hasn't yet set a date for its other smart appliances to hit the market, but expects them to cost only about $10 more than traditional appliances when they do (see GE's Smart Appliances: Smarter With GE Home Energy Manager).

Dryers are one of the most energy hungry appliances in the home, so they're likely to be the focus of many appliance makers' goals for more intelligent controls (see Dry Your Clothes With Half the Energy).

Samsung, Panasonic and LG have also discussed bringing smart appliances to market. But be warned - smart appliances have been talked about for more than a decade, yet haven't been able to make the leap to actual production and sales.

But that's changing with a big push by utilities to bring two-way digital communications to their customers, primarily through smart meters being installed in the millions across North America and Europe (see 8.3M Smart Meters and Counting in U.S.).

It's also getting a big boost from the $3.9 billion the DOE has promised to give out in smart grid stimulus grants. Whirlpool did say Monday that its one million smart dryer goal is linked to that grant program, though it didn't immediately respond to request for more detailed information (see Green Light post and DOE Issues Rules for $3.9B in Smart Grid Stimulus Grants).

But for both appliance giants, many uncertainties remain on the road to a smart appliance future, such as how they'll communicate with utilities and customers to save energy, as well as how their extra costs might fare with customers.

Linking smart meters to home energy management systems is the domain of startups such as Tendril Networks, OpenPeak, Control4, Greenbox Technology, Onzo, AlertMe and dozens of others, as well as new efforts from Google, Microsoft and Cisco (see stories here, here and here).

But which communications standards – among them ZigBee HomePlug, WiFi, Z-Wave, WiMax, FM radio, powerline carrier, or a host of proprietary wireless systems – will end up ruling the market presents quandaries for appliance makers (see The Smart Appliance: Waiting For the Market to Choose Communications Standards).

For its part, GE is working to integrate Tendril's home energy management software platform used by utilities to work with GE's appliances (see GE, Tendril Team Up on Smart Home Technology).

It's also a member of the U-SNAP Alliance, a consortium of companies looking at making devices that can have communications modules "snapped" in and out depending on which technologies are in use in different utility territories (see U-SNAP Gets Google, GE, Utilities to Support Modular Smart Grid Comms).

The federal government is working on setting interoperability standards for these communications networks of the future, and released its most recent report on that process last week (see Smart Grid Standards Roadmap Unveiled).


Interact with smart grid industry visionaries from North American utilities, innovative hardware and software vendors and leading industry consortiums at The Networked Grid on November 4 in San Francisco.