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Whirlpool's New Connected Appliances Simplify the Smart Grid

No smart meter needed

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Smart appliance platforms aren't just about tech for tech's sake. Some can actually save you money, help out an overburdened electrical grid, and make household chores easier.

Whirlpool's 6th Sense Live suite of home appliances falls into that category. It's the appliance giant's first major foray into connectivity, and we're pretty impressed with the new functions the company added to a dishwasher, washer, dryer, and refrigerator.

Most smart appliances we've encountered so far trade on novelty—adding Twitter and Pandora to a refrigerator door, for example. Whirlpool took a slightly different tack. 6th Sense is primarily about saving money and energy, and it does so in a very unique way.

But, first, it's time for a short lesson on how utility companies operate. Local electrical grids have times where demand is high, and times where demand is low. Too much demand causes service interruptions—like the brownouts that happen when too many people run air conditioners in the summer. And too little demand means that utilities are generating electricity that nobody wants to buy.

Rather than building more power plants to run during peak hours and shutting them down during off-peak hours, utility companies often rely on what's called "dynamic pricing." That's when energy prices rise and fall in real time. It's more expensive when demand is high, and cheaper when demand is low. Think of it like parking: At a baseball stadium, lots of people want to park nearby, and prices are high. But in a sparsely populated suburb, parking might be free.

Appliances equipped with Whirlpool's 6th Sense Live can automatically run when power is cheapest. Just press the Smart Grid button, and your dishwasher will start in the wee small hours of the morning, or your refrigerator will defrost in the middle of the night.

Other appliances can do the same thing, but they require a connection to a smart electric meter. Most homes don't have smart meters, and local utilities have been slow to roll them out. Whirlpool's 6th Sense Live, on the other hand, connects to an online database of energy prices. Depending on the utility company, some prices are even updated in real time.

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The Whirlpool WFL98HEBU washing machine's smart grid control screen.

The savings aren't dramatic, but they're there: At our labs in Cambridge, MA, energy prices that are as high as 14 cents a kilowatt-hour during peak hours can be as low as seven cents off-peak. Running a dishwasher at night, for instance, would slash its energy bill in half.

Because 6th Sense Live requires appliances to have an internet connection, Whirlpool's also added remote control and diagnostics. With the Whirlpool Smart appliance app, users can check how long before a wash is done, know when it's time to order more dishwashing detergent, or turn down a refrigerator thermostat while on vacation. They can also get an alert during a power outage, or if an appliance needs service.

The setup isn't perfect. Depending on your router, it can be a bit difficult to connect appliances to the internet for the first time, and menus on the washer and dryer are hidden away in LCD screens. The app currently only runs on iOS, which is a major issue for Android or Windows Phone users.

Most importantly, these appliances cost a little more than their less-smart equals, and your energy savings likely won't make up the difference. But it's important to note that the Whirlpool 6th Sense Live program is aimed at early adopters—the folks who would buy something for its novelty regardless of price. As with all consumer goods, the price will likely come down over time.

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