The recent spate of announcements about smart appliances at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) shows that we still have much to learn about the really important enhancements that matter for intelligent energy use. Enabling selected devices to be “grid-aware”, that is, capable of receiving price signals from utilities, has some value in areas where dynamic pricing is in use. Enabling all devices that use electricity to communicate data about their status – in other words, connect them to the evolving Internet of Things (IoT) will have value to consumers regardless of electricity price structures. But while smart appliances generated a lot of buzz at CES, from an energy intensity perspective, we still get the most energy savings from improving residential and commercial building envelopes.

I live in an area that has flat electricity rate tiers, and my utility isn’t sending price signals down the wire. Smart appliances won’t have much appeal for me from an energy savings perspective, and it’s easy to control the operations of my dumb appliances (including turning off the ice maker) on peak demand days.

Device connectivity in an IoT scenario holds more interest for consumers like me. When my refrigerator’s compressor failed, it was costly to replace spoiled food. Grid awareness is nice, but a smart refrigerator would alert me to a malfunction and proactively contact my preferred appliance repair service with diagnostic details so I can schedule a once and done repair visit. This Internet connectivity has value to me, but not in energy savings.

My dishwasher can easily be scheduled to run outside of set peak demand times, and grid-awareness is irrelevant when listening for non-existent price signals. I can manage its operations on the few peak demand days where it financially counts. What would make this a smart dishwasher? Performance diagnostics. Telling me that something is failing, and verifying that the failing component is still under warranty would be welcome information.

The microwave oven can be programmed to record voice memos to serve as reminders for future appointments. In 10 years of ownership, this feature has never been used. A calendar timer supports this capability. If I power down my microwave during periods of non-use, I have to re-program in time, am/pm, and month, day and year just to boil water. This feature forces the 24 X 7 consumption of electricity to avoid the annoyance of constant re-programming for a device that gets daily but occasional use. How dumb is that, and how did this get an Energy Star rating?

However, installing smart appliances in homes with single pane windows, inadequate insulation, and dark roof surfaces is akin to putting the cart before the horse. Smart appliances can make small contributions to reducing electricity, but only in areas with the right pricing structures. From a Smart Grid perspective, we’d do much better to construct and retrofit residential and commercial building stock that reduces the energy intensity of HVAC requirements, and then focus on calibrating energy use in appliances and receiving meaningful performance diagnostics data.