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Smart Energy in the Home: How MCUs provide an Intelligent Solution

We read countless articles about the Smart Grid, Smart Meters, and the vast industry with an awareness toward building the next generation of infrastructure. From generation to transmission and delivery, right up to that new meter installed outside any business or home, many Smart Energy improvements are benefiting electrical providers – especially at times when overburdened power grids have historically forced them to pay premium rates.

However, there is another story that might be even more interesting to the millions of consumers of electrical services, and that’s the story behind the final endpoint, where the energy is being delivered. There has been some creative thinking dedicated toward making new types of devices, such as smart thermostats that communicate with the new smart meter, and with which an energy utility can control power within commercial and public buildings, or even the millions of residences across the globe. Such ability would allow complete delivery and control of the power that the consumer is paying for to be controlled even after it has been delivered. For instance, on a day in which the grid is highly impacted, our friendly neighborhood power company can decide to remotely adjust your heating and air conditioning units to help soften the load and control demand, whether it’s desired by the public or not. From that perspective, it’s absolutely certain that such a scenario works for the infrastructure system. Yet, what if the weather is very cold and the consumer has forgotten that they signed that little waiver in their agreement with the utility company pertaining to the smart thermostat they gave up the right to have control of over the temperature in their own buildings – even though the same consumer may have originally believed that it’s for the betterment of the whole? This type of scenario is what one might term the outside-in approach, or even the utility-controlled approach. Once started, where does it all end? Indeed, consider water heaters, air conditioning, lighting, or even these emerging smart appliances. In some ways, it can feel like a sci-fi movie in which a powerful Big Brother is continually watching and controlling! Of course, we shouldn’t heap on too much gloom and doom – but it certainly won’t hurt to keep a sweater handy.

There is an additional model which is an interesting approach, and that’s the inside-out model, in which technology is implemented inside the building to help achieve both goals. In effect, the inside-out model would measure all energy use inside the exterior wall with the smart meter, but allow all final usage decisions to be made by the folks inside that wall who pay for what they use, yet still retain control of the decision as to how much to use and when. Now both of these methods are still being accomplished to some extent with similar technology, but apply the process somewhat differently. These applications are supported by smart little microcontrollers that have clever embedded capabilities to monitor, alert, notify and advise both the end customer and utility services when power usage is at peak load, or when usage is detected during more expensive periods during the day.

Let’s say that you’ve got a new clothes dryer, and it’s smart enough to use the MCU real-time clock and communicate wirelessly with the external meter. This dryer, being so smart, advises when doing a load of clothes is both grid-smart and cost-wise. During the middle of the day, rates can be at their highest and the dryer flashes a warning notification to that effect. After 9:00 p.m., however, this smart dryer advises that it can dry the same load of clothes for $0.50 less, clearly displayed on its instrument panel. In effect, the dryer becomes a helpful power adviser. Multiply that by how many loads of clothes a busy family dries each month and it quickly adds up to a significant savings off the family power bill.

Look at a new smart water heater with a microcontroller that works on a cycling function. Basically these water heaters are large batteries that hold heat for 1-2 hours and don’t need the full heat blasting always on, or even leveraging an instant on feature or something pretty close to what is an acceptable time to wait for a hot shower, let’s say five minutes. Now by implementing a microcontroller with a RTC feature, that same water heater can be cycled through timing sessions to keep the water hot and ready but reduce the energy used by 30-40 percent. Additionally, how about all those vampire electrical devices that relentlessly drain little bits of power all day, all week, all year, hour on the hour? There may be several perspectives as to just how much energy is wasted with these types of devices, but when that power bill hits at the end of the month, people look at it and wonder, “Where did all that power go?”

This is, of course, only a sample of where leveraging clever little devices using microcontrollers, such as the Z8FS040, can save us huge amounts of otherwise wasted power which, if saved, can yield savings benefits all across the new smart grid. If we’re listening, we’re noting that the world is in a big buzz about usage awareness and self-correcting power usage behavior. Today’s microcontrollers are like an army of mighty energy warriors that protect us from wasted energy in many ways, including their ability to sense usage in a multi-level manner, whether the application is motion sensing, power sensing, metering and monitoring; they’re always on watch and ever-effective at helping achieve good power utilization. Microcontrollers indeed offer a wide range of capabilities to manage not just one function but several important tasks all at once, making them suitable as very agile solutions. Many now are being tailored for specific energy-saving tasks that optimize millions of devices in use everywhere today, such as motors, pumps, and fans that run for long periods of time (whether they’re really needed or not). Picture an example of how microcontroller-driven smart solutions can temper the energy usage of digital signage that would otherwise continually run when no one is present. Or, imagine how a smart MCU solution can inject energy savings into the escalator at the Mall. The new age of energy on demand is simply accelerating with more of these intelligent methods being applied, even where it affects the preventive – and therefore proactive – maintenance of these same intelligent systems.

So how do all of these clever new systems get enabled? Well it’s your home-town developers and engineering heroes who are paving the way. These creative and talented folks spend hours coming up with new visions and ideas for utilizing microcontrollers to add the next level of optimization to the new and existing items we all use throughout our lives. Whether they exist in the factory, our schools, or in our homes, most everything we touch or gain a benefit from came from the mind of a dedicated engineer that is always raising the bar to the next level. At the end of the day, the phrase “Smart Grids start with Smart Folks” increasingly applies to those who are not only creating, but intelligently using the brighter ideas and solutions we build every day.

Figure 1: ZMOTION Module, an example for enabling fast motion sensing to save energy.