It’s long been known that an energy audit is often the best place to start before making energy-saving home improvements. An energy audit can help identify the most cost-effective energy efficiency upgrades through a careful evaluation of a home in its entirety. This usually starts at the building shell, working inward to the individual appliances such as air conditioning, water heaters, and lights.
Ironically, the gateway to the majority of the home’s energy consumption, also known as the circuit breaker box or electrical panel, is rarely assessed. One might ask why, however, the reason is quite simple; this “dumb metal box” hasn’t really changed much in the past half-century.
The electric panel and circuit breakers have only served a couple of key purposes, including distributing a home’s electricity to loads and protecting from overcurrent. These features are critical to the functionality and safety of our homes but provide no real insight into our consumption habits nor give us any control over how our home uses energy.
While an energy audit may do a great job of baselining our consumption and suggesting upgrades, how do we ensure that our homes continue to run efficiently and that we maximize the usefulness of these upgrades over time?
Enter the Smart Circuit Breaker!
What is a Smart Circuit Breaker?
While there likely isn’t any universally agreed-upon definition for a smart circuit breaker or smart electrical panel, I’ll take a shot at explaining here. A smart circuit breaker should perform all the same functions as a typical breaker, but also provide monitoring and remote control of the individual breaker.
A truly smart circuit breaker should also be capable of responsive load management or, in other words, automating a home’s energy consumption at the breaker level to optimize the efficiency and usefulness of a home’s energy systems.
How Does a Smart Circuit Breaker Work?
Physically speaking, a smart circuit breaker may take the place of a traditional circuit breaker or it may include separate hardware that attaches to the existing circuit breaker. The new breaker or hardware will likely include power sensors, mechanical switching mechanisms such as relays, and communication boards. Most smart circuit breaker technologies will also include software as well as a mobile or web-based user interface.
In order to understand how smart circuit breakers work once installed, it’s best to identify the many components/factors that may interact with the smart breaker panel.
First, there are the end-users of energy connected to each breaker, also known as “loads.” Second, there are power sources, which may include the electric power provider (utility), on-site generation such as solar PV or gas-powered generators, energy storage such as batteries, or any combination of these.
Collectively, these on-site power sources when able to operate independently or in parallel with the electric power provider are often known as the “home’s microgrid.” Lastly, there are many other factors such as electricity pricing, behavioral patterns, and even safety concerns that can influence how a programmable circuit breaker may work.
In the next two sections, we’ll briefly breakdown some of the ways smart circuit breakers interact with the above.
Solar Power with Smart Home Circuit Breakers
When contemplating the ways to save energy in your home, energy-efficiency improvements such as air-sealing, insulation, and LED lights are generally among the most cost-effective and should be considered first. These days, producing your own energy with solar photovoltaics is nearly as attractive from an ROI perspective and often has even greater overall potential for savings.
In the first 40 years of rooftop solar PV, the U.S. saw 1 million residential installations. In the subsequent three years, the U.S. hit 2 million residential installations and is currently on track to hit 4 million sometime in 2023. This rapid growth in solar PV is a testament to how far the technology has come both in its production efficiency but also its affordability.
While the Covid-19 Pandemic of 2020 may be slightly slowing solar PV installations across the country, it is also leading to a new trend of increased desire for coupling solar PV systems with battery-based energy storage systems. Without energy storage, PV systems fail to power a home during a power outage.
With increased work-from-home lifestyles, a need for uninterrupted power, and increased risk of outages due to wildfires, hurricanes, and other natural disasters, many installers are reporting higher interest in storage. In fact, Q2 of 2020 was a record breaking quarter for residential energy storage in the U.S.
What Are the Benefits of Installing a Smart Electrical Panel?
So where do smart circuits fit into this new trend of energy-efficient, solar-powered, and resilient battery backup homes? At Lumin, we feel the benefits can easily be broken down into Safety, Savings, and Insights.
Health and safety often go hand in hand with energy-efficient homes. A properly sealed but well-ventilated home creates better indoor air quality and lower energy consumption means fewer harmful pollutants emitted. Smart circuit breakers also provide additional safety beyond the traditional overcurrent protection.
It’s all too easy to be forgetful. Whether you’re racing to finish dinner or trying to get out the door for work in the morning, things inevitably fall through the cracks. Most days it’s something small. But sometimes, it can be something serious, like leaving a curling iron on in a bathroom, or accidentally leaving the oven on when you’ve left home for the day.
Forgetting to turn off these devices creates a dangerous situation that needs to be addressed to keep your home safe. Residential remote control circuit breakers can help here by giving you the tools to quickly check on these hazardous circuits and remotely turn them off from anywhere without having to race home.
Of the many objectives for increasing the efficiency of your home, savings are often top of mind. I mean, why not save a little money while saving the planet, right? The smart electrical panel can help here considerably as well.
Energy management is a key feature of a smart circuit breaker. Many homes have phantom loads that draw considerable power even when not in use. Homeowners can simply schedule these circuits off when they know they aren’t planning to use them.
Utilities are rapidly evolving electric rates for many reasons and a growing trend is to charge variable rates based on time of day (commonly referred to as Time of Use rates). Similarly to scheduling phantom loads, high energy consumers such as AC, water heaters, washers, or dryers can also be scheduled to only run when the electric rates are low (off-peak).
So how do we know our home is running efficiently? How do we know what size solar PV and battery we need? A utility bill is a good place to start, but of course, we only get those once a month and they are limited in data. Insights are arguably the greatest feature of smart home electrical panel.
When something in the house isn’t working properly, we often find out by way of an abnormally high utility bill. Keeping an eye on those key appliances, such as AC units or water heaters, energy consumption can give you an early warning if something is not quite right.
When it comes to adding solar + storage, one of the most difficult choices comes down to the size of the system. Smart circuits can help you and the professional installer better understand both the historical consumption as well as the peak power demand of those key appliances you want to backup. In many cases, purchasing a smaller but “right-sized” energy storage system can save you thousands of dollars.
Lastly, the insights from an energy management system comprised of smart circuits can truly enhance the home’s overall energy system. For a more in-depth summary, check out Lumin’s Guide to Whole Home Battery Backup.
Why Lumin Smart Panel is the Right Choice
To summarize, smart circuits can provide responsive load management, which unlocks the full potential of an energy storage system and does not hem a homeowner into a handful of backed-up circuits.
The battery systems are protected from quick depletion through automated control and the homeowner can direct power to whatever they need when they need it. The homeowner will also have real-time data on how the home is using energy, how much longer the battery should be able to run, and take control of their consumption. Smart circuits are key to the operation of any home’s microgrid!
Jon Proffitt is Lumin’s Director of Applications Engineering