Angela D. Harris

The modern U.S. electrical grid is one of the largest machines in the world and it’s learning to talk. As it learns to talk, it teaches other physical entities to communicate and together they intend to preach the gospel of efficiency to all, no matter the cost.

Let me explain.

No, there is too much. Let me sum up.


The physical world has been talking for quite some time. Advances in diagnostics, software, and indicator lights have taken everyday machines and given them the ability to communicate. A car will tell its owner when it needs oil or when its engine has a problem. At the repair shop, it will tell the computer what is actually wrong with the engine via a fault code.

Communication is prevalent in household appliances as well and its sophistication continues to increase. In the HVACR industry, for example, there are indicator lights and system fault codes being used in self diagnostic features on many new units. Much like the car, these units are able to indicate their need for maintenance and system repair.

Although communicating, these machines are far from sentient. Programmed to respond to a certain set of conditions, many would argue that they aren’t even really talking at all. And in essence they might be right if the Internet didn’t exist.


Moving to a new age in communication, the Internet has been to the Industrial Age what the printing press was to the Agrarian Age - a game changer. Don Tapscott, noted author, chairman of think tank nGenera Insight, and one of the keynote speakers at the 2010 Honeywell Users Group (HUG) in Scottsdale, Ariz., suggested that the Internet is inspiring what he calls the Age of Networked Intelligence.

What once was the Information Superhighway broadcasting information to anyone with access is now a complex super computer that receives input from users all over the world and responds intuitively to this input. It is a platform not only for users to connect, but for machines and other programmed entities to be connected to. Once there, software allows communication between these machines and control of them via the user or user programmed interfaces.

“This ain’t your daddy’s Internet,” said Tapscott. “The physical world is becoming smart and it is able to communicate.”


The U.S. electrical grid, a large machine, has some of the greatest potential to communicate to its users - the general population of the United States. Another keynote speaker at the HUG conference, Daryll Fogal, vice president of Engineering and Technology for Honeywell Building Solutions, suggested that what the grid might say in the coming years is, “Let’s not have enough electricity.”

This statement is the result of efforts to put a cap on the peak of electricity usage. Many utilities already use service interruption towards this goal, but many customers opt out despite incentives and discounts. Using funding from the U.S. Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Agency to step up their game, other utilities are now beginning to install smart meters that communicate the cost of electricity production to consumers. In time, this will allow the utilities to establish a premium pricing tier that continues to provide customers with electricity, but during the peak, that electricity is going to cost significantly more.

Energy efficiency and resource responsibility are good, and it has been proven that what is measured usually improves, however, how are folks going to be comfortable at home or at work if it becomes too expensive to run the HVAC system? What happens to your customers if the industry’s comfort priority shifts to efficiency?

Don’t forget that comfort has been the HVACR industry’s priority for numerous years. In the near future though, contractors will not only be comfort consultants but they will also be energy efficiency consultants. Reaching far beyond SEER and HSPF, every contractor will work to find a balance between comfort and cost. This is not necessarily a new battle for the contractor, but with machines having a lot more to say, the stakes are likely to get much higher.

Publication date: 07/19/2010