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I'm not a spring chicken by any stretch of the imagination. But I'm not technology challenged, either. Fired up my first computer in the '80s, and I've had a love affair with tech ever since. Don't tell my wife, okay? Seriously though, I do like my tech and use it to make life easier for me. I have high-speed internet in the 1 gigabyte range, flying over fiber optics supplied by my electric company.

Smart Panelboards – Making Smart Homes Even Smarter

Steve Maurer, IME
I'm not a spring chicken by any stretch of the imagination. But I'm not technology challenged, either. Fired up my first computer in the '80s, and I've had a love affair with tech ever since. Don't tell my wife, okay?

Seriously though, I do like my tech and use it to make life easier for me. I have high-speed internet in the 1 gigabyte range, flying over fiber optics supplied by my electric company.

Smartphones took me a little longer to accept for some reason. But my 'electronic leash' goes with me everywhere now. In reality, it's more of a mini computer with a phone app installed.

Even my house is pretty intelligent. After trying a couple devices, I settled on Echo products from Amazon. About 90% of my lighting is controlled by my devices, and I can turn them on and off with the sound of my voice.

Believe me, that's saved a lot of toe jamming, trying to find a light switch!

Of course, my devices all flow back to the app on my phone. I can add to my shopping list the minute I discover something I need … from anywhere in the house. When I'm at the store, Mary can add to my list, just by speaking the item into Echo. It arrives instantly on my phone.

I can play my favorite music by just asking for it. And set reminders, access my calendar, and a host of other menial but important tasks.

Everything except controlling my electricity bill, in fact.

That brings me to today's topic.

Now you can control your bill, right from your phone. That's possible because of innovative tech built right into …

Smart panelboards for residential applications.

If you're an electrical contractor, you might want to take notes. For both new construction and system upgrades, this is something you can offer your customers to make their lives easier.

And it can make yours easier, too.

Read on.

What is a smart panelboard?

A smart panelboard is a load center that monitors electrical activity in the panel. For example, it may monitor whether a circuit breaker is on or off, and transmit this data to the homeowner via some type of internet connection. It shows up on their phone, tablet, or computer with an alert notification that a breaker has tripped.

It can also let the user know when a load is still running, such as an oven or furnace. Many smart panelboards use a CT donut to monitor activity. The CT is placed around the wire when inserted into the breaker and is connected to the monitoring device. In this type, the CT is the informant of individual circuit activity.

Not bad … but still a bit primitive, technologically speaking, compared to what is available now.

Boggles the mind, actually.

A smarter smart panelboard
In researching panelboards, I came across Leviton's newest panel offering. It's a smart panelboard, but the level of "smartness" can be customized to the homeowner's needs.

To start with, when you install the panelboard, you terminate or land your wires without breakers installed. Conductors wire directly to the busbar connections instead of into the breakers. That means you can wire the panel more quickly and make it look good, just the way you want it.

After it's wired, the breakers are snapped into place.

The breakers themselves come in three flavors: thermal magnetic, hydraulic magnetic (for harsh environments with temperature extremes), and the smart breaker (which is designed as a hydraulic magnetic breaker).

They're easy to distinguish. Thermal is indicated by a T on the breaker face, and the smart breaker sports the universal connectivity symbol.

Only the smart breakers are scrutinized. So you can pick and choose what to monitor. Or start small and upgrade as time and budget allows. Not every circuit is critical. Identify the crucial loads (refrigerator, freezer, furnace, sump pump, etc.) and start with those. Anything that can cause an issue if disabled should be on that list of smart breakers.

Upgrading is as easy as snapping out a breaker and snapping in a smart one. No additional wiring necessary.

How do you connect … and what does that do?
Smart breakers connect to the app (available for phone, tablet, or PC) via an internet-enabled hub. The hub is connected to the home network by either wireless tech or ethernet cable. You get electrical data in real time.

The app also presents energy usage. You can "guesstimate" the next electrical bill. It also lets you do something else … identify areas that could be shut off to control consumption. Vampire power often takes a big chunk out of your wallet.
What is that?

Look around a room with the lights out. If little LEDs are looking back at you, power is being consumed. A lot of electronic devices, including the TV, go into standby mode when turned off. But they're still using power. Using a smart breaker, you can find and eliminate those areas.

The app allows you to turn smart breakers off remotely, by the way.

Finally, the app can alert you to appliances that haven't consumed power in a while. For example, if the refrigerator hasn't powered up the compressor lately, you may want to have someone check that.

I know I've used you (the contractor) and the homeowner (your customer) somewhat interchangeably. That's because your customer can give you access to the data via the app. If you service their power and appliances, this gives you remote access to what's going on before you head out.

You just added another tool to your service contract tool kit.

Photo courtesy of Leviton Manufacturing Co.
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