My first experience with household electrical systems came at a young age and has probably left me scarred for life.
I grew up in a home built in the early 20th century when electrical loads were few and not very complex. A small metal box in the basement with six screw-in fuses did the trick and when it didn’t, it was my job to go downstairs and replace them.
But as society embraced the “electric home,” more demands were put on these fuses. This led to innovation and the thermal electric circuit breaker, which brought a whole new level of safety and capability to the home. This basic technology has continued to evolve with ground fault interrupters and arc fault integration.
As I walked the aisles of the Consumer Electronics Show and International Builders' Show earlier this year, it seemed we were at another tipping point in how we design and build residential electrical systems. Manufacturers such as Schneider Electric, SPAN, and Siemens have begun to showcase a “smart energy system.”
No, that’s not what they call them—in fact, there doesn’t yet seem to be a name that anyone can agree on, and that’s a problem we need to solve if we are going to sell them to the public. Maybe there should be a contest to brand the next generation of electrical systems?
This pivot point is the result of a confluence of two unstoppable trends. One is the increasing complexity of what our homes do with electricity. The days of designing a residential electrical system for outlets, lighting, and a few 220 appliances are quickly fading. Today’s homes generate electricity, store energy, charge vehicles, need circuit protection, and demand that we have full remote control as well as autonomous controls that maximize the output and capture the value.
The second trend is the evolution of microsensors, solid state devices, software, and artificial intelligence. Applying these technological advancements to the changing needs of the home will usher in the next generation of electrical systems.
I spoke with all three companies mentioned above and have come away a real believer in this brave new world. For home builders, this offers the ability to further differentiate new homes from the sea of used product. We can create a whole new way to live in and manage our homes.
Homeowners in Texas recently were earning up to $150/day as their Tesla Powerwall systems automatically sold power and recharged at the most optimal times. Which home do you want, the one that pays you for your power or the one that drains your wallet?
Solid state breakers offer the potential to reduce the service load requirements, enabling remodelers to install new electrical appliances without upgrading the system. For builders, they could reduce the needed service level, reducing their costs. We can offer homes that are far more cost effective, resilient, and sustainable than anything available today. There are dozens of interesting benefits you can begin to visualize as you immerse yourself in these new technologies.
A few years ago, putting such a system together would have required the builder or electrician to become an electrical systems designer. You would have to patch a dozen individual components together and create the software to control the whole thing. But these systems are evolving quickly, and subsystem manufacturers are integrating more of the system.
Schneider Electric, for example, painted an exciting picture of the future with all of these major systems communicating with each other, being controlled remotely and eventually autonomously. Tesla already has integrated the entire energy production, storage, and management side of this. It’s clear that the next few years will bring an entirely new slate of offerings.
For a busy builder, this may just sound like another issue they don’t have time to address. But they aren’t using screw-in fuses today, so we all believe in building the best homes we can with the latest technology. It's time to sit down with these vendors to understand what’s possible and begin the planning required to build the homes of the future.