Crystal Ball Gazing At A/C’s Future

August 8, 2002
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On July 17, Carrier Corporation celebrated the centennial of Dr. Willis Carrier’s invention of an air conditioning system to cool a printing press in Brooklyn, NY. Many consider this to be the birth of modern air conditioning. Today, owners of the more than 92.5 million American homes that use air conditioners, or 80% of our population, have this invention to thank.

Looking to the next century, imagine if an air conditioner was smart enough to tell how efficiently it is running, shut itself off when energy use peaks, and/or perform diagnostic tests without the home or building owner having to call the local utility or service company. Tomorrow’s smart appliances will have a big impact on home energy use, and the ability to keep cool all summer.

Air conditioning systems alone account for 30% to 40% of home energy use today, and can burn a hole in the wallet, too, depending on demographics. Texas has the highest number of air conditioned homes in the United States (6.3 million, or 90% of its population), while in Florida, 95% of homes have air conditioning. Both states pay up to $2 per day per person in air conditioning bills, based on a national average set by the U.S. Department of Energy, compared to a relatively meager 43 cents per day per person in temperate New England.

Regardless, as summer temperatures continue to soar, people across America are looking for ways to beat the heat and save money on their energy bills. One of the smartest ways to do that is by putting technology to work managing home energy use.


Manufacturers are making great strides in building energy efficiency into individual household appliances. The next giant step is to apply Web and wireless technology to the entire home — along with voluntary measures to conserve energy.

Some appliance manufacturers are already testing Web-enabled air conditioners. Instead of wasting energy by cooling an empty house, consumers will be able to adjust room temperatures remotely using a cell phone. The system will also report real-time fault codes and alert field technicians to order replacement parts before they fail. It may sound a little like a Hollywood sci-fi thriller, but it’s much closer to reality.

Another voluntary energy conservation measure would conceivably allow utilities to adjust home thermostats during periods of peak energy demand, or during power emergencies, with the consumer’s prior approval. So, utilities could be enabled to increase the temperature setpoint up or down without causing the homeowner undue discomfort. The homeowner would be able to override the utility’s setpoints and gain access to real-time, personalized information on energy consumption, rather than have to wait a month to get the energy bill.

Some utilities already have homeowner consent to shut their air conditioners during time of high area energy consumption. In turn, the homeowner receives a lower kilowatt-hour rate.

Wireless home energy management systems could also have a big impact on energy bills. Energy costs could be reduced by 35% by applying sophisticated energy-efficient measures, like linking water heaters to air conditioners and other appliances.

This is just the start; wireless technology provides enormous opportunities for using household appliances more wisely. Simply regulating temperatures during peak demand periods could save Americans 15% on their energy bills, as some air conditioning manufacturers across the United States are beginning to realize.

Adjusting home thermostats on critical energy use days could save roughly one megawatt of electricity for every 1,000 homes. So if just 45,000 families participated in a voluntary energy conservation program over the next three years, it could save the same amount of electricity produced by one small power plant.


Beyond the Web-enabled air conditioner, here are other ways wireless technology can help conserve energy in the home:

  • Wireless meters can be used to monitor energy use remotely. A utility company in Washington state has outfitted 1 million homes and businesses with automated meters, and is piloting a “time-of-use” pricing option — higher during peak times, lower during off-peak hours.

  • The Web can become a portal for energy savings and by-the-minute energy-related information. Utilities and government agencies could have websites that provide online energy estimators, graphs indicating energy supply vs. demand, and alerts on where blackouts will roll next.

  • Web-enabled refrigerators and dishwashers will become a portal for all sorts of consumer information, including tips on energy conservation.

    John Swainson
    Ultimately, technology is taking us in the direction of a fully connected home, where every appliance and electronic device will be able to exchange information via the Web through a central hub. Agreed standards on appliances will enable a new freezer, dishwasher, or other device to plug into the home network at the same time the home is equipped for power and water.

    Over the last century, we’ve come a long way since Dr. Carrier’s first cooling unit was installed in Brooklyn. Looking ahead, smarter appliances combined with conservation-minded utility companies and government agencies can help us stay cool well into the next century.

    Swainson is general manager of IBM’s Application & Integration Middleware Division. He has global responsibility for strategic middleware technologies (Web application servers, e-commerce servers, transaction systems, application development tools, and new speech-based technologies).

    Publication date: 08/12/2002

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