Standards Hurdle Looms for Smart Appliances

Getting the standards worked out for smart appliances — dishwashers, microwaves and other devices embedded with communications technology — could be one of the biggest challenges facing the smart grid today. For the official in charge of coordinating the standards process at the National Institutes of Standards and Technology (NIST), George Arnold (one of our Top 15 Smart Grid Influencers), getting the standards established for connecting smart appliances in homes is key and something he’s hard at work on. “It’s a serious problem,” Arnold told us in a phone interview about the variety of conflicting standards currently in the works for connecting smart appliances in homes.

Here’s the issue: There’s several wireless standards, like Zigbee and Wi-Fi, and then there’s “half a dozen” standards around communicating over the powerline itself, explained Arnold. Appliance makers like Whirlpool, which says it plans to produce 1 million smart clothes dryers by the end of 2011, will likely only be choosing one or two connection standards to keep the cost of its devices low enough. But few of the standards are interoperable, and some even interfere with each other within a building, said Arnold.

What the NIST doesn’t want to happen is for the appliance makers to just pick their own standard on their own terms, said Arnold: “There needs to be some sort of coordination.” Consumers will want to buy devices that can connect in the same manner whether in New York and California as well as work with other devices, like a smart meter or a home energy management product. While high-end homes can solve an interoperability problem with gateway products, most homes will need appliances to be simple, to just plug and play. If the problem persists, the benefits of the energy savings of these devices could be wasted, said Arnold.

That’s why Arnold has flagged smart appliance standards as a problem to solve in his working groups going forward. At a smart grid standards meeting last month Arnold reportedly “threw down the gauntlet,” as the EETimes described it, and told an audience that if the industry doesn’t work out a standard for smart appliance connections, NIST might end up picking one. Industry, of course is never keen on government picking technology winners, so the statement reportedly caused quite a controversy at the meeting.

Whether the choice ends up in the hands of NIST, or the free market decides on its own, the issue is an important one that we’ll be following closely. The Obama administration has called for the installation of 40 million smart meters and is spending $4 billion on smart grid technology. If those funds and that effort results in technology that isn’t interoperable and that consumers don’t embrace, it will be a big failure.

Image courtesy of Whirlpool