How to make your home fully electric by adding EVs, appliances and more

First I added an electric vehicle charger. Then an induction hob. I will soon be trading in my rusting 25 year old gas boiler for an ultra-efficient heat pump. What comes next?

Nothing – unless I get more energy from my utilities. Just one additional appliance will overload the 100 ampere (ampere) electrical panel that connects me to the grid.

My dilemma is shared by at least 48 million other homes in the United States: Our connections to the electrical grid were gridlocked in the mid-20th century, when fossil fuels, not electricity, provided much of our energy. To fully electrify, we need to rethink those gray metal boxes with breaker switches connected to the electrical grid.

Upgrading your panel to get more power is not always possible. Contractors are booked. Utilities are overwhelmed. Equipment is scarce. And it’s expensive.

That’s a $100 billion roadblock to home electrification in America, according to Pecan Street, a nonprofit climate and energy research firm that estimates as many as 48 million single-family households need to be modernized.

Fortunately, the simple electrical panel gets a digital brain. These ‘smart panels’ can act as a traffic cop on the flow of electrons that power your life, monitoring and adjusting the energy demands of appliances from toasters to electric cars so you don’t trip circuit breakers. And if you’re in a hurry to add major electrical appliances, it can be much faster than a traditional upgrade.

Here’s how to electrify our homes without blowing a fuse.

What are smart electrical panels?

If you’ve ever walked into an office building, a computer probably helped manage the air conditioning and dim the lights. These networks of chips, relays and sensors – known as energy management systems – help companies prevent outages and save every last penny on their energy bills.

They are now entering homes as Americans add more electrical appliances and use more power than a typical 100-amp electrical panel can handle. Electric stoves and electric vehicles are prompting many to upgrade their panels, according to Ben Hertz-Shargel of Wood Mackenzie, a clean energy consultancy. Without more capacity, the small black switches in your electrical panels, known as breakers, will trip when overloaded.

Another solution is to ensure that not all your devices are running at full power at the same time.

Span is one of the few smart panel companies reimagining the old metal box as a connected computer. The hub can detect electrical appliances in your home and distinguish the energy signature of appliances. The smart panel then tracks and predicts how you use each one. Based on that information, it controls your home’s energy consumption by talking directly to connected devices (via WiFi or short-range signals) or by physically turning circuits on and off when they are near capacity. Span, which sells its smart panels for about $3,500, says it has entered into agreements with Kenmore and Mitsubishi to communicate directly with devices.

Installing a smart panel can avoid a $1,000 to $5,000 upgrade. According to the code, electrical panels must be able to handle all appliances operating at the same time, approximately 10 to 20 times higher than the average load. That’s extremely rare, says Arch Rao, founder and CEO of Span, and previously head of product at Tesla. Span customer data shows that such spikes occur less than 1 percent of the time over a year, but the company’s software always keeps amperage below rated capacity by ramping devices up or down.

Smart panels can also reduce your energy bills. They benefit from rates that vary by time of day and choose the cheapest time to charge your devices. If you have solar panels, they can use their output during peak times, avoiding grid purchases or optimizing the use of large home batteries during power outages. Tenants can even benefit because a single unit can be retrofitted for heavier loads without having to rewire the entire building.

The biggest winner? Efforts to reduce building emissions, which represent about 20 percent of total U.S. emissions.

If utility customers need more power at home, a larger panel may not be enough. Utilities need to invest billions in infrastructure to deliver that electricity and stabilize the grid as more intermittent, clean energy comes online. Home energy management systems could avoid billions of dollars in upgrades.

“We are pushing electrification for both homes and transportation,” said Helia Zandi, a researcher at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory. “Orchestration between them on a large scale is very important to create the future we are looking for.”

Other ways to check your assets

Brian LaMorte, an independent electrical and HVAC contractor in New York, says he installed the Span panels in the state for about $4,000 each. That’s in addition to the $3,500 cost of the panel.

“It’s a no-brainer for people who are going to do a service upgrade that is either impossible or costs more than $10,000,” he says. “It’s either your only option or it’s going to save you money.”

As cheaper panels come onto the market and Inflation Reduction Act rebates are introduced, bringing the price down by thousands of dollars, he expects this will come within the reach of low- and middle-income homeowners. Other companies selling smart panels are Schneider Electric and Lumin.

You can also take intermediate steps. NeoCharge, SimpleSwitch and Splitvolt sell smart subpanels and breakers that can control one or a handful of circuits instead of the entire house to balance large loads like an EV charger and a dryer.

But if you’re willing to wait, you may be able to manage your home’s energy use through your electric meter, the modest glass-walled device in your home.

That’s what Sense, a startup based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is doing.

For now, the company sells an energy monitoring system for the home. It clamps onto your conventional panel to identify and track appliance electricity use using software similar to voice recognition. But soon, predicts Michael Phillips, co-founder and chief executive of Sense, his company’s software (and others like it) will be installed as a standard feature of smart meters. This provides homeowners with an app store-like experience to identify and monitor the energy consumption of their devices, without the need for any hardware. The smart meters communicate directly with appliances to modulate their consumption. Both Sense and Span have signed agreements with manufacturers to include their software in smart meters.

“We want to be like Google Maps on an iPhone,” says Phillips. “The smart meter is where this should happen.”

What should you do today?

If you need the extra electrons now and are faced with an expensive (or delayed) upgrade to the electricity grid, smart panels offer a possible solution. States will likely upgrade their electrical codes to allow homeowners to exceed the rated capacity of their panels if they have an energy management system. EV chargers can already do this under the 2023 National Electric Code, but it could take years for states to adopt it.

For those who only need to manage a few circuits — say, the load of an EV charger and a clothes dryer — retrofits like a smart circuit breaker can fit the bill.

If you’re not in a hurry, a new generation of smart meters should appear in about a decade, pre-loaded with software to communicate and control your appliances. States like New York already implement them. Wood Mackenzie’s Hertz-Shargel expects most homes will end up with smart meters instead of smart panels as everyone from Sense to Span scrambles to partner with utilities.

If it’s likely only a matter of time before millions of people can control the electricity in their homes from a smartphone, how long will we have to wait for this future?

“We are still years away,” says Hertz-Shargel, “but not ten years away.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *