Here’s how GE plans to make your older appliances smart

GE Appliance is sending out 20,000 Wi-Fi modules to let customers connect older refrigerators to the Wink smart home system, according to a Wink executive who will work with the appliance maker.

In an interview last month Brett Worthington, VP and general manager at Wink, let slip that the shipment would occur as part of a Wink software and hardware update that adds a ton of sensor capabilities. GE Appliance customers with refrigerators purchased after 2009 can plug the modules into the RJ45 ports on their appliances in order to connect them to the Wink system.

The RJ45 port is a networking port more familiar to routers or switches, but it can be found on newer appliances. Wink owners might be familiar with it, because they currently attach the Rheem connected water heater module to their water heaters the same way.

The GE Connect box won’t cover every model of fridge that GE has made since 2009 — only select models with the port. And so far, this is only a pilot program for those few households, with the goal of getting those 20,000 users to connect their fridges, register them and then tell GE what they think.

Wink will help build applications for connected refrigerators, and Worthington says the company has come up with a few ideas, such as virtual sticky notes that could remind people of their grocery lists or meetings on their phones — or even a note to a spouse or child about what is okay or not okay to eat from the fridge that day. Other ideas include notifications if the door is ajar or whether or not the ice maker is full. Worthington didn’t say much beyond that.

But the pilot is worth noting, not just because GE is such a huge player, but also because Whirlpool is teaming up to work with Wink and may also be looking for ideas for retrofits.

As I’ve said before, I’m a huge fan of smarter homes and smart appliances, but I’m a relatively frugal person who isn’t going to toss out my current dishwasher, refrigerator, oven or washer and dryer just so I can purchase one with Wi-Fi. And GE, which recently launched a line of new smart appliances, is well aware of that issue, which is why taking advantage of an existing port and attaching a module makes sense. It’s a strategy that Xiaomi seems to be following in China, too.

Meanwhile, I’ll wait to hear more from GE Appliance on this issue. I only wish I had a GE fridge with its own networking port. Sadly, it’s a Samsung, and I couldn’t see anything resembling an ethernet jack.