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Coming back home the other day, I realised I had left the freezer’s door slightly open all day. This got me thinking: could a smart refrigerator have alerted me of this? If the fridge could monitor its energy usage, it could send out alerts when this usage does not fit the usual pattern – when the appliance goes in overdrive or starts consuming much less energy than usual, or stops altogether. Any strange behaviour, within certain limits, and perhaps adjusted for external factors (weather, room temperature) could indicate a malfunction.

The fridge of the future is still there: in the future

I started researching the smart refrigerators offering: only premium brands offer such items, and they are significantly more expensive than their other top-of-the-range devices. Most importantly, they’re nothing more than a standard fridge with a touch-screen, effectively a tablet embedded in their door, or a camera taking snapshots of the contents. No mention of features that would monitor the fridge’s performance, energy usage, or that could help prevent little mishaps like a distracted person leaving the door open.

Then there is the question of the replacement cycle for such home appliances. Most people only replace white goods only when they fail and they often prioritise cost and reliability over smart features. Such an additional feature is not enough to justify the replacement of a refrigerator in good working order by a much more expensive one.

Smart home devices are not that smart

What if the smart feature could be added externally, to any appliance – and without breaking the bank? For the use case I had in mind, it’s all about monitoring energy usage, recording it, comparing the actual versus the history – not about knowing the contents of the fridge or updating the groceries list.

There is an increasing number of smart plugs or smart electric sockets on the market. Most only tell you if they’re on or off and allow you to flip the switch from your smart phone – e.g. Belkin’s WeMo. A few brands offer smart plugs that do monitor the energy usage, but it seems there is not much intelligence built into them: they provide a real-time read-out of the energy consumed by the device plugged into them, perhaps a historical view in the best case.

Turning old into new should not be difficult

It seems to me that the technology exists today to design smart electric sockets (or add-on plugs) that effectively turn the devices connected to them into fairly smart ones:

  • Identify your socket as your refrigerator and it will alert you if its energy usage seems off the charts, indicating a possible issue: open door, compressor about to give up, power failure.
  • Identify the socket as your TV and it will you tell you if you’re becoming too much of a couch potato.
  • Identify your socket as your floor lamp and you’ll be able to turn it on or off.

What other uses could you think of for such a socket? Personally, I can’t wait to see one of the big players in the smart home business realise you don’t necessarily need to redefine – and ask people to re-purchase – each and every object, from lightbulb to washing machine, in order to add a bit of intelligence. A truly smart plug would be much cheaper to manufacture and could be adopted a lot faster.

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