The next appliance to go in your kitchen or laundry room may not get out of the house much, but it will at least talk to the outside world. The next generation of "smart" appliances will likely connect to your phone, negotiate rates with the power company, and even communicate with other appliances.
Smarter Than the Average Appliance
For years, appliances toiled without companionship, just disconnected boxes hidden away in kitchens and basements. That's all about to change. Manufacturers are starting to build home appliances that interact with their owners and with each other, letting consumers know when to buy new milk, customizing a wash cycle to remove grass stains, and remotely telling repairmen that something needs to be fixed.
The first wave is already here. Samsung refrigerators feature touchscreens that can keep track of the food in your fridge and find recipes to match that inventory. And like tablets or smartphones, these fridges can also run apps and hook up to social media networks. In the laundry room, some washers can download new cycles from manufacturers to tackle the most specific of stains. The latest GE top-load washer even preps its matching dryer for the load it's about to receive, creating a custom cycle that won't overdry your clothes.
What's the Diagnosis?
Customers who always just push the Normal cycle on their washing machines may not want touchscreens or smartphone connectivity built into their white goods, but that doesn't mean the smart appliance revolution will leave them behind. In fact, one might already be in your home. Like a school kid who aces tests but never raises his hand in class, many smart appliances hide their intelligence, preferring to pipe up only when something goes wrong.
Many of LG's recent appliances, for example, include a feature called Smart Diagnosis, which can streamline the process of repairing an appliance. If something goes wrong, owners can find out what's wrong by calling LG customer service, and holding the phone up to a tiny speaker that plays an audible diagnostic code. If the problem is minor, like a clogged vent or water filter, owners will get instructions on how to fix it on their own. If something has really gone wrong, the repair team will already know what needs to be fixed when they arrive.
At this year's CES, LG debuted an updated version of Smart Diagnosis that sends repair codes directly to a smartphone, allowing users to summon professional help with the push of a button. Whirlpool and other manufacturers are testing similar systems.
Save Energy, Save Money
While the current crop of smart appliances might save you time, they'll really get exciting when they start saving you money. The key to that savings is a smart electrical grid, one that can communicate back and forth with consumers, utility companies, and even the appliances themselves.
In communities where a smart grid is implemented, utilities can charge different power rates from hour to hour, based on demand. Smart appliances could fetch real-time pricing info from the smart grid and run their cycles at optimal times. For example, on a hot day in southern California when everyone's AC is blasting, your dishwasher may tell you that it'll be cheaper to run a load overnight, and turn itself on when the time is right.
Such technology isn't that far off. In fact, Whirlpool plans to beta test a whole suite of smart grid-equipped appliances in Chicago this spring. They were on display at this year's CES, complete with a smartphone app that allows users to track energy costs and manage electricity usage remotely by adjusting settings like refrigerator temperature.
Over the next few years, prepare to see more and more appliances that want to communicate with the world outside your home. Some of them will be obvious, sporting touchscreens and internet connectivity, while others only want to let their makers know when something has gone wrong. If you live in a city with a smart grid, you'll likely meet an appliance that wants to save you money.
As with any nascent technology, the field is wide open, and there are plenty of questions about how this emerging category will fare.
Over the next several weeks, we'll explore smart appliances from every angle. What road has the appliance industry traveled to get here? How will these new machines improve our lives? How will they impact our economy? Check back every Monday for a new article in our series.