Before this year’s COVID-19 stay-at-home measures turned business meetings and family gatherings into smartphone conference calls and video conferences, your electric appliances were on the bandwagon of internet-connected energy.
If that makes your gadgets and gizmos sound almost human, well, in some ways, that’s exactly what’s happening.
Talking to a computer isn’t just for Captain Kirk on “Star Trek” anymore. Surveys show about one in four American adults owns a smart speaker or technology such as Amazon Echo, Google Home or Apple HomePod.
We can ask Alexa or Siri to tell us the weather or how to save money on our electric bill.
Appliances you control from your phone aren’t just luxury items anymore, says Brian Sloboda, director of consumer solutions with the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.
“Two years ago, when you would buy a smart appliance, you were really buying a high-end product,” Brian says. “Now, they’re in the middle. More and more appliances are smart, and they have come down in price. It’s everything from lightbulbs you screw into your table lamps, to your microwave, to your washing machine, to your thermostat that you can control through a voice assistant or apps on the phone.”
Brian says those internet-connected devices not only can make you more energy efficient, they can help you take advantage of your electric service in ways you never dreamed possible.
If your machines are acting more like people, you also should take precautions to protect your security and privacy. Smart speakers are on and listening in all the time.
Brian advises you to get in the habit of reading the fine print that comes with instructions and app downloads so you know how your personal information is being used.
As part of his full-time job at NRECA, Brian keeps up with appliance developments. He recently brought a high-tech device into his home.
“My washing machine sends me an email every month telling me how much electricity it has used,” Brian says. “It gives me tips on how to save energy. It suggests I could wash the clothes in cold water to save energy. It will gently tell you that rather than washing a small load, it’s more efficient to let the clothes accumulate.”
If all that sounds a little creepy, smart speaker manufacturers and marketers understand. They try to encourage customers to get more familiar with their devices. They want you to ask your smart speaker to tell you a joke or play music.
Brian says studies of how people might use voice-activated devices to manage their energy use show owners like to make those personalized connections.
“Consumers in these focus groups refer to Alexa as their friend,” he says. “They start to give them human attributes. They really do refer to Alexa as ‘she’ rather than ‘it.’”
While apps and speakers can help you use energy more efficiently by alerting you to lights on in rooms you’re not using or suggesting you clean the filter in your washing machine, Brian says smart thermostats offer some of the biggest potential energy savings.
Heating and cooling are among a home’s top energy users. High-tech thermostats are becoming easier to use and more innovative. These days, they not only can change temperatures for daytime or nighttime, but can track your phone as you leave the house or move from room to room, figuring out your habits and making adjustments based on your lifestyle.
Before buying a smart thermostat, Brian suggests learning about it to make sure it is compatible with your heating and cooling system. Check with your electric utility, which may have an energy management program with a recommended model or even rebates.
Brian expects smart technology to get even smarter. Utility groups are involved in studies where people describe their values—what is important to them—to their apps and speakers, which respond accordingly.
If saving money is the most important thing to you, your lights might dim in a part of the room you’re not using. If comfort is your priority, the temperature will stay within a certain range. For those especially concerned about the environment, the dishwasher might delay its start until renewable power is available because the sun is shining or the wind is blowing.
Along with all those benefits comes the need for precautions: Anything connected to the internet can be hacked. That could be a home security system, a baby monitor or a TV.
The first safety step Brian suggests is to change the password on your devices, which come with easy-to-crack passwords such as “1234” or “password.”
He says to check regularly for software updates and install them. They often add protections from the latest cyberthreats.
In addition to security, pay attention to privacy. Many interactions with the internet will collect information on you.
A smart speaker is listening to everything that goes on in your home all the time. Reading those tiny-type agreements before you click “accept” might seem like an unrealistic pain, but they generally will tell you what kind of protections are in place to keep your personal information private.
Brian also recommends getting involved in online communities about your internet devices so you can know more about privacy, security and how to get the most out of your smart technology.
“All of these devices generally have some sort of online community for people to engage in and learn from each other,” Brian says. “Folks love talking about their devices—whether it’s a car or a doorbell. People love talking about technology, and they love showing off the things they’ve figured out.”
Brian says new technology is a way to bring people closer as they make better use of their electricity.
“We sometimes look at smart technology and we think it is meant to isolate us, but you can really turn it around and go to in-person meetups or engage online to share tips and tricks,” he says. “I am a real big believer that technology can actually bring us together.”