The electric grid needs to get smarter, but do your appliances?

Appliance makers need to walk a fine line between improving energy efficiency and overcomplicating everyday gadgets we need for simple household tasks.
Written by Heather Clancy, Contributor

Those of you who prefer just simple on-off features for your everyday household appliances be forewarned: you may have fewer options for dumb appliances in the near future. Appliance maker Whirlpool is embracing the notion of the smart grid with four appliances that will be introduced over the next 18 months -- a refrigerator, dishwasher, washer and dryer.

Its ultimate goal is to make "many" of its appliances "smart" by 2015.

According to the company's global director of energy and sustainability for Whirlpool, Warwick Stirling, the idea is to be able to get a household-wide view of how your appliances are performing. So, for example, you could see the impact of running the dryer and the dishwasher simultaneously. Appliances should also be considered in the context of other technologies, including lighting, electronics and entertainment.

A worthy goal, certainly, given that many homeowners are trying to get a better handle on their energy consumption. But I just have to point out that my experience is that the "smarter" a piece of technology, the more problems it causes when it decides not to work properly. Think of all the diagnostics that now get run on your car when you bring it for service and contemplate what happens when one of those circuit boards goes haywire.

Mind you, I love that the "maintenance minder" in my car, which is one feature that Whirlpool would extend into these appliances. Imagine a dryer that reminds you when the lint basic is full. Or when certain service functions needs to be handled. Instead of receiving a gazillion pieces of direct mail, you'll now receive alerts on your home management dashboard!

Not to pick on Whirlpool, because I have to admire the innovation it is bringing to your kitchen and laundry room and I personally really like their products. I will disclose that I own several in my newly renovated kitchen. The question is, how eager is the average homeowner to read a more complicated owner's manual? My husband is ready to tear his hair out with the current generation of appliances we have, and he can't afford that.

Whirlpool reports that a study it conducted in conjunction with Harris Interactive shows that 78 percent of consumers are interested in monitoring their household energy use.

Will smarter appliances be better for energy consumption and energy efficiency? Probably. Will they be more prone to break down and require sophisticated repairs that your local appliance repair person might not be able to handle? Probably. The trick will be making sure the energy savings are worth the premium you might have to pay for sticker prices and for repair services. And that they are so easy to use, that my technophobe husband won't barge into my office every time he needs to preheat on our combination convection-microwave oven.

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