Smart Meters, Houses and Cars

There is a ton of misinformation about this “smart grid” stuff.  This is my understanding of how it works and my contribution to the confusion.

The “smart” requires data.  It also requires two participants.  We can send data to a Tab can but the Tab can does not have the ability to understand the data sent to it.  Your personal computer does have the ability to understand that data, assuming the PC is speaking the same language.  Your cell phone understands data too.  And your car.  With data, it takes two devices to have a conversation.  Tab cans are not smart enough (yet) to participate in a conversation.

Both devices have to speak the same language for the conversation to be meaningful.  They also need to understand all the words in that language.  If I send the word (command) “ring” to my cell phone, it understands that word and knows to ring.  If I send the word “ring” to my car, it does not know the meaning so it does not ring.  We need two (or more) smart devices to have a conversation, they need to speak the same language AND they need to understand all the words.  Similarly, my car does understand the word (command) “unlock” but my cell phone does not.

My Tab can does not speak data but more and more stuff does speak data.  Our cars respond to data sent from key chain fobs.  The first words we taught our cars were “lock” and “unlock”.  Some cars understand the words “alarm” and “start”.  Some even understand “open the windows” and “what is the temperature inside the car”.  Problem is, do you really need to know the temperature inside your car?  Some of us do.  Or we think we do.  We think it adds to the quality of our life I guess.

People that think they need to know the temperature inside their cars have usually fallen into a subculture of home automation enthusiasts.  Home automation has been around for decades but until recently it has not been embraced by many people.  The first devices were light switches.  You could buy a light switch that understood data and the first words we taught them was “on” and “off”.  Then we added dimmers that understood “dim” and “turn on to 20%”.  We know we need two parties in a light switch data conversation so we had a remote control to send the “on” word (command) to the switch.

Today the vocabulary for our cars, light switches and dimmers has expanded.  They understand more words (commands) and can speak data back to the devices that send them words (commands).  When we send the command “unlock” to our car, the car would not have to send back the work “ok”.  If it did send back the word “ok” our key chain fob would know the doors unlocked.  If we send the “what temperature is it inside my car” command, it would be meaningless if the car could not respond back with the temperature.  When both devices in the data conversation can both hear (receive) and speak (transmit) we can add more functions.

The first key chain fobs would send out “unlock” to our car but who knows if the car heard the command.  When we taught the car to speak back, the car could answer “ok, I got the message and unlocked the door”.  It acknowledged successful reception and execution of the “unlock” command.  When we taught our light switches to speak, we could add the function “turn on 6 dimmers to 70%” when I press one light switch.  The switch could send out commands to the other 5 dimmers.

Today, we are teaching more and more devices to understand data.  Garage doors have spoken data for a long time but the thermostat for your house is a relatively newcomer on the smart device scene.  Refrigerators and freezers are available that can hear and speak data.  (Why?  To send an alarm if the temperature drops.)  Someday our other appliances will join into the data conversation, though I question the need and safety of turning on my garbage disposal remotely.  And do I really need to start my dishwasher from across the room?  Maybe I need to know when the cycle ends?

Personal computers are an obvious device we want in on the smart conversation with our smart devices.  We can control the thermostat from the PC or control our TV, DVR or music.  Set timers to turn on the burglar alarm automatically and ask the garage door if it is open.  We can control video surveillance cameras and be notified if a CO2 detector alarms.  We can even have a text message or E/mail sent when a bathroom vent fan is left on more than 20 minutes.  Since our personal computers are on the internet, we can access our smart home from any device on the internet.  You can turn off your A/C from work, smart phone, cell phone or any phone.

My point here is not to convince you that you have a need to change the brightness level of a lamp from 20% to 40% when you are vacationing in Venice.  My point is you can.  IF you want to AND your lamp speaks data.  This is about possibilities and capabilities, not need, desire or wisdom.

This is an important point.  You need a smart dishwasher if you want to control it.  And it must understand the word “set heated dry to off” if you want to turn off the heated dry option remotely.  Similarly, if you want to know how much electricity the heated dry option is using, the dishwasher must understand the question when you ask and it must be able to answer the question.  Some dishwashers are smarter than others.  Someday.  Today there are no smart dishwashers so I have to get up off my lardass and push the “no heated dry” button on the dishwasher itself.  We ain’t that  George Jetson yet.

We have talked about the need for a language for smart devices.  We have not talked about what carries the language between devices.  We will do that next but first a word about language compatibility among devices.

I don’t want to give the impression that all smart light switches speak the same language.  Not all people speak the same language and the same is true for smart light switches.  Or smart thermostats.  Or smart lawn sprinklers.  Most of these devices use their own proprietary language.  We do have one “open” language that any manufacturer can use in their hardware (X10), but it has limited functions so it is considered a legacy language.

Data has to be transmitted.  There are a variety of ways to transmit data.  I saw a Zenith TV that had a remote control with chimes in it.  When you pressed a button, it physically hit a tubular chime in the remote.  The TV listened for the chime and would act on the chime (command) when it heard it.  Our ears could also hear the chime.  Technology advanced to create a remote that played the sound through a speaker in the remote, and the chime pitch was raised to a range our ears could not hear.  Dawgs could hear them.  So could the TV.  With this, we could add more words (commands) to the data conversation between our TV and the remote.  Most TVs today use light to transmit the data from the remote.  The light is out of the range of our eyes but it is still just light.  Unless you have a real powerful remote, you have to point the remote at the sensor on the TV for the data transmission to be successful.  All these TV remotes have one way communication.  The remote speaks the words (commands) and the TV listens for them.  The TV does not talk back to the remote.

Sound waves can transmit data to our TV and so can light.  It transports or “carries” the data between our two smart devices.  But a Samsung remote won’t work with a Sony TV because they do not speak the same language.  A Sony TV will see the data transmitted by light from a Samsung remote, but the data (command) will be meaningless to a Sony TV so it will ignore it.  The TV must also understand the word (command) send to it.  If I send a Sony command to a Sony TV to display “twin view” (two screens), the TV must understand the word “twin view” within the Sony language.

Minimum requirements for my Sony TV remote to work:

  • TV must be able to listen (receive) commands (light sensor)
  • Remote must be able to send out infrared light commands
  • Both have to understand the same language (Sony, not Samsung)
  • Both must understand the words (commands) in the Sony language

Most TV remotes use light waves to “carry” the data to the TV.  Our key chain fobs use radio waves to carry the data to our cars.  The two smart devices (car and fob) must be within range of each other for successful communication, but the fob does not need to be pointed at the car.  A TV remote needs a “line of sight” to communicate successfully.  A car fob does not.  So stop pointing the fob at your car when you use it because you look like a tard.

If your personal computer is “on the internet”, it needs a method to transmit and receive data.  Some use “wi-fi” (radio waves) and some use copper (electrical – phone lines or cable lines).  It is also possible to use infrared light, though that is generally reserved for  short communications between mobile devices like PDAs and smart phones.  If you are big and bad enough, you could use light for your internet communication using fiber optics.  (No, your FIOS connection to your PC is converted to copper (electrical) before it gets to your PC.)

Light waves can carry data.  Fiber optics and infrared remotes are two examples.

Radio waves can carry data.  Wi-fi, cell phones and FM radio are examples.

Electrical pulses can carry data.  Phone lines and cable TV are two obvious examples.

BUT

Phone lines and cable TV have physical (usually) copper wires dedicated to the purpose of data communication using electrical pulses.  But we can send electrical impulses through other things that serve other purposes.  We can use the natural gas line serving your house to carry electrical impulses.  Yes, it is possible for your gas company to be your internet service provider.  I assume water pipes could carry data though the moving water might prohibit that.  Another carrier for electrical impulses is:  powerlines.

The wiring in your house.  The wires that bring power to your house.  Decades ago we discovered how to send data across live electrical wiring.  Live meaning electrical lines that are carrying current.  Both electrical current and data can be carried on your house wiring at the same time.  Electrical power travels in a sine wave and someone discovered how to insert data into the space where the sine wave hits the X axis.

Powerline communications made home automation enthusiasts piss their panties.  I could buy a smart light switch, install it in my house and NOT have to run a dedicated wire to send commands to the switch.  Though not all, most home automation equipment uses powerline communications.  The devices that want to participate need to have the electronics to receive and (ideally) transmit data onto the powerline.  This means that any device wired into your house (dishwasher or light switch) or plugged into an outlet (washer or TV or lamp) is eligible to be a smart device.  With today’s technology, you could see the time remaining until the rice steamer cycle completes while tooling down the road in your 1970 Eldo glurgolator six states away.  Assuming you can find a smart rice steamer.

Interesting thing about powerline communication is that when a command is sent (“inserted”) onto my powerline, it travels throughout my house.  Similar to a PC on the internet, each device has an address.  (The internet uses IP addresses.  Home automation devices do not but it is not dissimilar.)  Every device will see the commands sent out on the powerline but they ignore any command that is not addressed to them.  My dishwasher ignores a command addressed to a dimmer.

Another interesting thing is that when I send out a command on the powerline, that command is not only sent throughout my house but also all other houses that are serviced by the same transformer.  Yes, I send commands through other people’s houses and if they were smart enough and cared enough, they could monitor those commands AND could send out commands to the devices in my house.  There are devices that can filter out incoming and outgoing powerline commands but it must be installed at the electrical service entry point of the house.

An automated house that uses powerline communication (without a filtering device) could be open to monitoring and manipulation.  This is the case with or without a smartmeter.  If government spooks wanted to turn off the vent in my bathroom, it is possible.  It is also possible to filter those commands out that enter my house from outside my house.  When I turn off my A/C remotely, I access a PC inside my house and have my PC (or other device) issue the command.  I do not issue the command from six states away and let the command travel through the power grid to my house six states away.  The command is issued from within the house.  Could the spooks hack my PC?  Obviously they could.  Could a smartmeter issue commands to my smart devices?  Yes, unless I filter them.

So a smart meter OR ANYTHING serviced by the transformer that services my house could see or issue commands to my house.  Again, unless I filter out the commands from entering or exiting my house on the powerline.

Powerline communications can be used by other devices.  If you want to send video from your cable box to a TV in another room, there are devices that will send the video through your powerlines.  We also have devices that can connect a PC in your bedroom to your router in the basement.  Is it possible to use our powerline as an internet provider?  Yes it is possible but no, no one does it yet.

One of my houses in Texas has a smartmeter.  Does it worry me?  No.  Does it piss me off?  Yes.  I have to pay for the damn thing and THERE WAS NO OPT OUT.  Does it understand and monitor the language spoken by my smart devices?  Doubtful.  Can it issue commands to my smart devices?  Doubtful.  Can the software in the smartmeter be modified or upgraded to monitor and control my smart devices?  Possibly.  But that could be done farther away than the meter on my house.

So why do power companies want me to pay for a smartmeter?  This is my guess.  They use powerline communication to query the meter every month.  This is called “automation” but it really means they can lay off meter readers.  I suspect they can connect and disconnect the power service also.  I also suspect the smartmeters can have their firmware (software) upgraded to include future functions.

The big selling point they pushed was “energy saving”.  This is 100% bullshit.  The meter in no way lessens my electrical usage nor does it lower my electric bill.  The meter does have a communication interface for customers.  Mine uses radio communication for that interface.  Like all smart device communication, I need two devices to participate.  In this case, they will sell me a device for like $400.00 or rent me a device for like $50.00/month that will communicate with my smartmeter.  It might be that I could buy another device from a third party vendor because the language spoken by my smartmeter is an existing radio language (Z-wave).

What functions would this device provide me when talking with my smartmeter?  It would let me see how much electricity my dishwasher is using.  Yes, for $50.00/month I can watch a meter INSIDE my house tell me that I am going to pay for the electricity used by my dishwasher.  Or let me see that the vent in my bathroom is using electricity.  The device does NOT remove rank fart smell from my bathroom.  It lets me see that the vent is using electricity.

But it is now as simple as “dishwasher is using x amount of energy”.  The smartmeter has NO WAY of knowing WHAT is using electricity.  Just the amount of ALL the electricity your house is using.  You can watch the usage jump when you start the dishwasher and GUESS at the usage, but the smartmeter monitor has very limited functions.  It can’t know what is using electricity in your house.

I suppose there could be some value in service areas that offer reduced electricity prices for non-peak hours.  I could get out of bed and start my dishwasher at 3 AM I guess.  Or if it was a smart dishwasher, have my PC start the dishwasher at 3 AM.  I hear there are places that have these varying rates for off-peak hours but I have houses in several states and I don’t think any of them have that.

Now I would not know about that smartmeter because I never saw the bill announcing the arrival of my new and improved meter.  When I was in Texas a neighbor asked me about it.  So I called the company that I pay for electricity and the company that handles the power distribution.  In Texas, we can choose which company to pay out the ass for electricity but we have a different company that handles the grid (meters and outages and such).

This is how they say I can save power.

  • Buy their $400.00 smart device to talk to my smartmeter
  • Run around my house and unplug my breadmaker to see if the meter slows down
  • Crawl under my desk and unplug the cell phone charger to see if the meter slows down
  • Unplug my microwaves and ovens when I am not using them and set the damn date and time every time I do want to use them

Really?  Really?  I am supposed to get excited about that?  I should pay all that money for your smart device and crawl under my desk every night to plug in my cell phone charger and save 3 cents?  If I have your meter I won’t be tempted to run an empty dishwasher like I do all the time?  Watching a meter that I have to pay for will enlighten me that I am using electricity?

Here is what a smartmeter does.  Eliminates jobs.  People are expensive, demand benefits, call in sick and cause political problems on the job.  Smartmeters don’t.  All well and good.  I have automated lots of functions in my career that eliminated jobs.  I worked closely with InterVoice to develop the VRU.  These are those wonderful machines that answer the phone and ask you to press buttons instead of paying a real person to answer the phone.  Hey, if I didn’t do it someone else would have.  But I did not force the customer to pay for it and blow smoke up their butts by making up some lame advantage they would get.

Another possibility is that during a rolling blackout, selective houses could be excluded.  Houses with people on oxygen or the elderly, perhaps.  I suppose high use houses could be targeted too as punishment.

Is it possible for a smartmeter to adjust my thermostat?  Its possible but not currently implemented.  As I said, that could be done from anywhere with or without a smartmeter.  Could the power company know I have my A/C is set on 68 and charge me a higher rate?  Possible but not implemented.  With or without a smartmeter. Can the power company adjust my thermostat?  Possible but not implemented.  I paid a shitload for smart devices and technically it is possible for them to be controlled externally by a power company or government spook.  Do they do that now?  No

Can the power company adjust your thermostat?  No.  Your thermostat is not smart enough to respond to a command.  It speaks no automation language.  It is not a smart thermostat.

A smartmeter in your house cannot control any device because your lightswitches don’t have the smarts to understand and respond to commands.  Same is true of your thermostats and dishwasher.  A smartmeter can report in real time your usage and disconnect your service.  It cannot tell what is using that electricity.  The real time monitoring it reports could be to a meter inside your house but it could also be reporting to government spooks using powerline communications.  Could we have laws that mandates all new devices be smart devices?  You bet.  A government that can regulate a toilet and clothes dryer cycle can certainly pass laws to regulate other appliances.  But control of those appliances does not need a smartmeter.

After buying a smartmeter that I did not want, I asked my neighbor to alert me of any changes.  And she did.  She sent me an enclosure from her power bill that was offering a “programmable” thermostat at some ungodly high price.  Note that a programmable thermostat is NOT the same thing as a smart thermostat.  A programmable thermostat does not communicate with other devices.  It has enough smarts to turn on and off the A/C and heat based on the criteria you set (time of day, day of week, etc).  A smart thermostat communicates with other devices such as a PC.  A programmable thermostat can’t be controlled by other devices.  A smart thermostat can.

The thermostats being offered by the power company at a hugely inflated price were both programmable and smart.  Why don’t they tout the smart function of the thermostat?  I suspect they don’t want people to know that a smart thermostat can be monitored and controlled externally.  Why buy an expensive thermostat if it just replaces a working thermostat?  They throw in the programmable function to entice you to “save money”.

Is it possible that the thermostat could talk to the smartmeter?  Absolutely.  If the thermostat reports “A/C on” to the power meter, the meter could see my electrical usage jump by 12 units.  It would have no way to assure that all 12 units were being used by my A/C.  I might have turned on 8 electric clothes dryers at the same time the A/C came on.  But as the smartmeter watched the usage over time, it could get a good idea how much electricity the A/C consumes and break out the A/C cost from the overall electricity bill.  Your choice then is to sweat and save money or pay the damn bill anyway.

Another point brought up about smartmeters is the radio frequency they emit.  They certainly can emit radio frequency but it might just be that the function can be enabled/disabled by the power company.  This would allow them to charge money to people if they buy a smart device to put inside their house from a third party vendor.  If they can’t sell me a $400.00 device, they could charge me $10/month if I want to buy one from somewhere else.  It could also be true that the radio in the smartmeter is always on and protected by a password key that I would have to buy from the power company.

Should we worry about the added radio frequency pollution?  I’m not sure.  Some say radio frequency causes cancer or impacts people’s behavior.  You can find “experts” that will swear its harmful and others that will swear its harmless.  I do know that we have added a HUGE amount of radio frequency bombarding us and it is increasing dramatically.  Today a car bristles with radio frequencies.  Satellite communication, bluetooth connections, radars to aid in parking, radars to adjust cruise control speeds or stop your car, key chain fobs, proximity sensors, garage door openers and radar to warn if something is in your blind spot.  That is one car.

Satellites bombard us with radio for gps, TV and communications.  Every phone in our house is using radio instead of wires so we can pee while we talk.  Wi-fi and cell phone towers are EVERYWHERE and the number of devices jumping on them is EXPLODING.  Weather radars bombard us, emergency personnel spew more and more and an airplane emits so much that ground linemen can be microwaved.  Wireless headsets, wireless keyboards, wireless mice, wireless speakers and wireless printers for our PCs because we don’t want to see wires.  Even my refrigerators and freezers are wi-fi.  Are smartmeters the devices that push us over the edge?  I doubt it.

Home automation nerds have been clamoring for the capability to monitor electricity usage in real time.  They want to see that when “the wife” reads two chapters in her book, it cost 7 cents.  Why?  Because they are nerds.  No other reason.  They will tell you its all in the name of saving energy but no rational being thinks its wise to spend $15,000 on equipment to tell them the wife’s reading cost 7 cents.  Especially when the wife is going to read that book if she knows it cost 7 cents or not.  Knowing it costs 7 cents does not save one cent and implementing the technology to know it costs 7 cents can be in the tens of thousands.  Home automation is a hobby or for convenience or security.  Anyone that tells you it saves money is a liar.

As I understand it, smartmeters are a small part of the smartgrid.  The smartgrid is more about ceding control of sections of our existing grid to others.  If California needs extra power today, they (at one time) could call Texas and Texas had the option of sharing power.  Sharing power today can be done but it is not done with the click of a mouse.  It would if we had a smartgrid.  When a click of the mouse someone could control the grid.  That mouse can be anywhere on the planet.  Including a desk at the EPA.

It also means the smartgrid could be hacked.

Now that I have espoused my bullshit – I mean – wisdom about smartmeters, I like to make it clear that home automation does not have to be a “system” that costs $15,000.00.  You can automate one lightswitch for very little money and gradually expand it.  Or never expand it.

A rant on this digital versus analog crap.  Yes, digital is an accurate method of transmitting data.  But the human animal is NOT DIGITAL.  Our ears and eyes are analog.  Until we have an interface surgically implanted into our brain, the argument is at what point we convert from digital to analog for humans to consume.

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