We live in an age where just about everything can be "smart." Your TV, lights, refrigerator and even your pet's food dispenser can all be controlled wirelessly via an app on your phone.
But how exactly can energy be smart? With a Wi-Fi or Bluetooth connection, new products allow you to monitor and control the circuits of your electrical panel from your phone.
You can switch circuits on or off, monitor each circuit's energy usage and set automations. This might not seem all that valuable at first glance. But add some solar panels or a solar battery to the mix, and things get even more interesting.
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"This basically gives the homeowner or end user the ability to control their energy in their home by controlling their circuits and being able to view their energy usage," Nicole Madonna, vice president of product management for power with Savant, one of the companies producing this technology, told CNET.
What is smart energy?
Smart energy is like having a remote control for your electric panel, except you can use that remote control from anywhere and it can do more than just turn something on or off.
"You can actually control a dedicated load at the panel level. You can do that at the plug level," Mathieu Buscaylet, connected devices business manager for the home and business distribution with Schneider Electric, a company specilaizing in digital automation and energy management, told CNET.
Most smart energy systems are designed to do three things: help you save money on electricity costs, optimize your solar panels' output and provide you with a visual of your home's energy consumption. But you'll need an electrical panel upgrade.
You can either connect a smart energy module to the individual circuits on your existing electrical panel, or you just replace your entire electrical panel with a new smart panel.
No matter what type of system you go with, you'll essentially be able to control all the energy loads in your home from an app on your phone. You'll also be able to see real-time and historical data on your energy use.
"It gives you the insight and understanding of what your energy behavior is," Randy Johnson, a senior manager of inside sales at Span, told CNET. "If you don't have an understanding of what you're doing in the home, how can you possibly find those savings?"
What are the benefits of a smart energy system?
The biggest benefit you'll see with smart energy is having a system to help you manage your energy usage efficiently, with the end goal of saving money on your electric bill.
But you'll likely see more benefits if you have an electric vehicle or solar panels -- or both. Here are some of the benefits you'd see with smart energy.
Some people don't perform best when under a lot of pressure. The same can be said for your home's electrical system. You don't need to run everything at once. And it's not efficient to do so. Even things that are plugged in but aren't turned on are sometimes still sucking up power. By turning off circuits that you're not using, you'll become more energy efficient and save a little money over time. Most smart energy systems will allow you to automate this. You can shut off everything you won't be using while sleeping, and then they'll be turned back on in the morning.
Avoid peak time of use rates
Most smart energy systems are designed to help you be as energy efficient as possible. This includes accounting for peak time of use rates, when some utilities charge more for electricity during hours of high demand. Smart energy can help you find the cheapest times to charge your EV, run the dishwasher or even make dinner.
Optimize your solar
If you have solar panels with a solar battery, a smart energy system can help you get the most out of your electricity production. A solar battery essentially gives you a reservoir of energy that can be used to store and remove energy as necessary. Smart energy systems work with the battery by pulling energy from storage and pushing it to wherever it's needed the most, whenever it's most cost-effective to do so. Things like charging your EV or running your AC off solar might be be much cheaper than buying energy from the grid. It's all about correctly allocating your energy to get the most bang for your buck.
Monitor your energy consumption
It's one thing to hear about how much energy our homes use in a day, and another thing to actually see it. Smart energy systems monitor your energy consumption and provide you with real-time data on how much electricity you're using on the circuit level. This gives a visual representation of just how much energy you're using and where you might be able to cut back a bit to save some money. You'll also get historical data showing you a visual of your energy usage over time. This can help you get a better idea of how much you're spending on electricity, what you're spending it on and at what times of year it's at it's highest.
Alerts you if there's an electrical issue
Safety features might not be top of mind with a smart energy system, but you'll be happy you have them if an electrical issue starts to develop. If your system detects an electrical surge or dip, or anything that seems a little fishy, you'll be sent an alert. This can help you address any household electrical issues early.
Who makes smart energy systems?
Smart energy is still something of a niche product, so there aren't too many players in this field yet. From what we've seen, there are three main companies that make smart energy systems. Some companies, like Savant Power, will make modifications to your existing electrical panel by installing power modules on individual circuits.
"This is a really modular system. You could install modules on a couple of circuits that maybe consume a lot of power that you want to be able to control or monitor specifically," Madonna said. "Or you could do your whole panel with every circuit to give that full insight and control."
Other companies, like Span and Schneider Electric, will replace your existing panel with a new smart panel. Whichever method is more beneficial to you will depend on your situation. And all of these companies have designed products that will work with your solar panel system.
You won't need to replace your existing electric panel with Savant Power Modules. Instead, Savant Power Modules are small box-like modules that connect directly to individual circuits in your electric panel. These modules are easy to wire (for an electrician) and sit right in between your circuit breakers. This is ideal if you're interested in monitoring a few circuits, like any major appliances or your EV, versus having to replace your entire electric panel. Not every circuit needs to be "smart," just the ones that matter to you.
Savant offers a range of power modules available, capable of monitoring any circuit up to 60 amps (240 volts). And the modules are compatible with the majority of large panel manufacturers. The price is relatively reasonable, with different modules ranging from $120 to $240. If you're looking to get the complete Savant Power package, the company also offers a whole home battery backup and an EV charger.
Schneider Electric has been making regular electrical panels for a long time, and is one of the largest panel manufacturers in the world. You might even have a Schneider panel in your home right now. Schneider Electric's smart panel, the Schneider Pulse Panel, replaces your entire existing electric panel to give you full control over all the electrical circuits in your home.
If you're interested in turning your entire panel smart and not just a few circuits, this is one way to do it. And since this replaces your entire panel, you won't have to worry about not having enough room to install something on an existing panel. Schneider also offers a home battery, inverter and EV charger.
This can get expensive, however, and pricing for the Pulse panel varies.
Span is a relatively new company joining the smart energy management industry, but it's already making a big splash. Like Schneider Electric's smart panel, Span replaces your existing panel with a smart one. We also like the sleek and modern look of Span's panel. And it's stackable, meaning you can install a sub-panel if needed.
These panels can get pricey, though. A Span panel starts at $3,500, before taxes, shipping and installation. Span panels take 3 to 8 hours to install.