Before this year’s virus protection measures turned business meetings and even family gatherings into
smartphone conference calls and video conferences, your electric appliances jumped 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 like the Amazon Echo, Google Home or Apple HomePod. Now we can just 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. Now they’re in the middle,” he says. “More and more appliances are smart, and they have come down in price. It’s everything from light bulbs 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.”
Sloboda says that all those internet-connected devices can not only make you more energy efficient, but can help you take advantage of your electric service in ways you never even thought of. But if your machines are acting more like people, you’ll also want to take precautions to protect your security and privacy — smart speakers are on and listening in all the time, after all. Sloboda advises that you might want 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.
Sloboda keeps up with appliance developments as his full-time job, but he also recently brought one of those humanoids into his home.
“My washing machine sends me an email every month telling me how much electricity it has used,” he 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 disturbing, 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. Sloboda says that in electric co-op studies of how people might use voice-activated devices to manage their energy use, owners like making 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, Sloboda says smart thermostats offer some of the biggest potential energy savings. Heating and cooling are among a home’s top energy users, and high-tech thermostats are getting easier to use and more innovative. These days, they not only can change temperatures set 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, Sloboda advises learning about it to make sure it’s compatible with your heating and cooling system. Also, check with your local electric co-op —they may have an energy management program with a recommended model.
Sloboda sees the future of smart technology getting even smarter. He says electric co-ops and other utility groups are involved in studies where people describe their values to their apps and speakers. 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 top 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 mind-blowing 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.
Change the password
The first safety step Sloboda advises is to change the password on any of those devices. Every one of them comes with a ridiculously-easy-to-crack password like “1234” or “Password.” Check regularly for software updates and install them — they often add protections from the latest cyberthreats.
In addition to security, also 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 all 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.
Sloboda also recommends getting involved in online communities about your internet devices, so you can know more about privacy, security and how to make the best use 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,” says Sloboda. “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.”
He even sees high-tech as 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 meet-ups or engage online to share tips and tricks,” says Sloboda. “I am a real big believer that technology can actually bring us together.”
Paul Wesslund writes on consumer and cooperative affairs for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, the national trade association representing more than 900 local electric cooperatives. From growing suburbs to remote farming communities, electric co-ops serve as engines of economic development for 42 million Americans across 56 percent of the nation’s landscape.