Smart Home Tech and our Outdated Grid

14 November 2021

In my post Electrical Wiring to Build and Protect your Smart Home earlier this year, I started on the topic of home wiring and power to support general use, smart home technology and sustainability. As Debbie and I look to finalize our floorplan so we can move forward with the house build, I’m taking another look at the power to support our home.

As I’m still planning solar technologies, whole home battery back up and wiring infrastructure, I’m taking a look back at the entire power solution. Technology firms are pushing harder toward solutions designed to boost electrification and the use of renewable energy. Solar panels are becoming more common, like smart thermostats, but ROI is still seems out of reach for most home owners.

This has pushed companies building smart home products to develop new products and encourage customers to adopt more efficient habits through connected devices. Last month, Google announced a way to use renewable energy to power a home through Nest, and Tesla is continuing to build electric vehicles that people, like my mother, like to drive. A startup working to add smart technology to the energy grid has really caught my interest and I’m looking to incorporate them into our home design. As I mentioned in the article earlier, Span is doing some amazing things around power and sustainability in the smart home industry.

The reason I’m really excited about incorporating Span technology into our smart home is they’ve taken a common household element and made it smart. I’ve always been a “you can’t manage what you don’t measure” guy. And Span makes it possible to now intelligently manage the power consumption in your home. And they’ve added new elements I’ve been planning as well.

As I’ve covered before, the Span Panel gives the homeowner circuit-level control over their home’s electrical system. When combined with the company’s smartphone app, the system can analyze power consumption to the device level and identify consumption anomalies caused by malfunctioning appliances. Think of this like your automobile’s check-engine light. I’m excited by the decision to make consumer hardware for the entire home because it allows individual consumers to upgrade an integral part of the electrical grid without the help of a utility. Think about that, it’s actually pretty revolutionary.

In most homes, each electrical load, like a series of lights and outlets or a large appliance, gets one or two dedicated circuits with a set amperage. If the amperage is 20 amps per circuit and the device plugged into that outlet only needs 10 amps, there’s slack in the system. As we’ve done more home building research, we’ve learned building codes are designed around this.

But if you want to install a device that doesn’t run all the time, like an electric car charger, they would need a specific number of circuits and amps to be allocated for that device. Span’s panel lets you allocate extra amps to devices that need them, which means that as you electrify their home, they won’t have to upgrade their existing incoming electricity.
This is a problem people will run into wanting to install things like induction ranges or heat pumps, especially in an effort to eliminate fossil fuel use. Add in the electric car charger and they’re pretty much out of circuits for anything new.

The panel connects to your wifi network, and using the app, you can turn any circuit on or off with the touch of a button. The panel can also be integrated with solar panels, allowing it to track the amount of energy your home produces, and, if you have a grid-tied system, it will report how much power you’re sending to the grid. Finally, it can be connected to a whole-home battery, which means you can choose the circuits that the battery will power (like the ones controlling your refrigerator and freezer) and which will be shut off during a blackout.

The Span panel is the answer to many challenges. But it’s not for mainstream users as it has a premium cost over standard electrical panels (generally runs around $3,500). Due to the nature of the panel, the sales process is highly personalized, both because a customer has to use an electrician that’s certified to install the Span panel and because Span wants a lot of details about the home and the electricity provider. I have yet to go through this but my fear is that there may not be a certified electrician in the Amarillo area.
This past week, Span announced two new software features for existing panel customers and two new hardware products to help consumers make their homes’ energy systems smarter and to meet the demand for a more modern grid.

On the software side, Span now lets users sign up for a demand response program with participating utilities that lets those users decide how to reduce their home’s electrical load. Most demand response programs today are tied to HVAC systems in residential homes, which can stop air conditioning cooling during the hottest part of the day. I don’t know about you, but living here in Texas and working from home, this doesn’t work for me.
Span enables customers to select appliances, lights and more to participate in demand response. Although given how much electricity HVAC systems use, focusing on them is probably the most efficient way to reduce demand quickly. The other software feature will track the health of a home’s wiring as well as any appliances pulling electricity from the grid. Based on fluctuations in demand over time or analysis of a variety of users, Span will tell customers if their HVAC compressor is working too hard or their fridge is becoming less efficient over time. This is perfect for a “you can’t manage what you don’t measure” guy.
Both of these features are free, although, per Span, it’s possible they’ll charge for other software features over time.

Obviously this could be an expensive upgrade for homeowners, it’s a cheaper option than bringing a new electrical line into your home. And it doesn’t solve the larger problems facing our electrical infrastructure. But I see this as a good model for how to think about using electricity more wisely. I’m hopeful that new builds start adopting this and more existing homes get something like this installed.

Products like Sense can similarly analyze and report on your home’s electricity consumption by attaching sensors to the cables delivering power to your home from the utility. Obviously, this costs considerably less than Span’s solution, but they can’t turn circuits on and off, and they aren’t as accurate at identifying individual devices since they’re limited to analyzing consumption patterns. With Span’s product, you know precisely which circuits your electric range, clothes dryer, oven, water heater, and so on are utilizing because the Span panel itself controls those circuits.

The first new hardware product is Span Drive, a physical car-charging box for electric vehicles that will work with the Span breaker box to optimize charging times. The idea is that electric vehicles can’t charge at their full capacity on home electrical networks because they can’t pull enough amperage from the circuits without overwhelming them. Span Drive ensures that a car can charge quickly and pull as much as it needs by making sure the car charges only when the full amperage is available, which is especially useful when only a quick charge is needed.

Other features include …

  • Charge scheduling — you can charge your vehicle when your utility’s electric rates are the lowest
  • Dynamic charging speed — you can tap your home’s backup battery during a power outage
  • Wireless connectivity — wifi, Bluetooth and 4G LTE options to connect to your Span panel.
  • In homes that have solar panels installed, users will also be able switch from grid power to solar power to charge their EV.

The Span Drive will cost $500 and requires a Span panel. It will be available in April 2022.

There are other car charging options I covered in The Best Electric Vehicle Charger Options for Your Smart Home. And they have some app integration but nothing to compare with the Span electrical panel integration.

The second product is a new Span panel with an integrated meter box. It’s designed for installations where a home’s circuit-breaker panel and the utility’s metering device are combined. The new panel is essentially the same device as the first Span Panel, but this updated product is designed as a drop-in replacement for homes where the circuit-breaker panel and the electric utility’s metering device are integrated. Both the new and the original panel can also work in concert with a utility’s demand-response program to better match demand for power with supply, reducing consumption when demand is high and shifting it to times where supply is more plentiful.

As 40% of US homes, typically older ones, have these integrated boxes, this expands the number of potential customers for Span’s technology. As the meters have to be visible from the street for reading, this limits the placement of the boxes. And helps me with planning locations for hardware like the panel, storage batteries, point of entry for grid power, etc.

Span engineers are currently working on a new feature that will allow a Span panel to change the set point on the home’s thermostat, even an old analog thermostat, to reduce the HVAC system’s energy consumption. The plan is for the panel to talk directly to the HVAC system’s air exchanger if you don’t have a smart thermostat.

Span also announced a new partnership with Sunrun, which enables the nationwide solar-panel installer to offer its customers the option to incorporate Span’s electrical panels and EV charging product into Sunrun’s solar and battery-backup product offerings.

I’m seeing this as a great short- and long-term solution for our new home. As the hardware is engineered for smart home it’s an ideal fit for our plans. But what I also like is the software driven approach as this will allow updates and upgrades to the system over time without the expensive and time consuming rip and replace. I already loved the idea of installing a Span panel but now with the integrations with electrical meter and EV charging, this is a no brainer. Now it’s just a matter of designing the system and managing cost.

As I mentioned in the beginning, we’re looking to finalize our floor plans so we can move forward with the build. We delivered the last changes to our architect (hopefully) last week as I had to redesign part of the Office to accommodate more rack space for all the network, AV and media needs. Ironically, a lack of space for technology working on sports stadium and arena projects in the past had me re-evaluating our needs and thankfully so. The changes are minor but will take the architect some time and with the Holidays, we don’t anticipate the final plans until the end of the year or early 2022. In the meantime, we’re talking to builders about preliminary pricing.

The price of lumber has trended down but we’ve seen cost increases in other building materials. Debbie and I visited a couple of brick vendors this week and both shared with us that prices will increase on January 1st — and lead times are 2–3 months. But both also shared that we could order brick and let it sit on their lot for months, without paying for it — because if we decided not to use it they could sell it, no problem. Apparently many home builders are completing projects with “unclaimed” brick like this that new home owners are opting for to avoid construction delays due to supply chain challenges.

So, lot’s for us still to accomplish before we finally move in. Stay tuned for updates …

In the meantime, let us know what your thoughts are on home power, sustainability and management. Are the Span products something you’d consider? Is it risky to build a whole home power plan around technology being developed by a startup? Leave your comments here, DM us or email. Until next week …

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Seasoned professional sports information technology executive with a passion for out of the box solutions to complex challenges.