Apple helps you manage your music and video files. Why not your home energy, too?
Apple has applied for two patents that would give people a way to lower their electricity bills by optimizing how power is supplied to various electronics, such as computers, peripherals, and iPods. The patents, which were filed in May of last year, were spotted and explained by Patently Apple on Thursday.
The two patent applications describe a hardware device that controls the amount of power supplied to different electronics. Data between devices would be shared over a building's existing wiring, using the HomePlug Powerline Alliance's communications protocol. The patent applications also include drawings of outlets and junction boxes that incorporate "power-enabled data ports."
One patent application called "Intelligent Power Monitoring" says that the system would allow people to reduce energy use by giving them tools to better control how connected devices are powered.
Consumers could get recommendations on when to schedule gadget charging to take advantage of off-peak rates, for example. Or the electronics controller could put devices in hibernate mode after a set amount of time.
Users could have a display, such as an LCD screen, or a movable projector to control these tasks and monitor electricity use. With people increasingly reliant on computers and mobile devices, the issue of power management and costs is becoming more acute, Apple argues in its patent:
"Some personal computers sometimes are being left on simply to serve as power supplies for the charging of the aforementioned portable devices via connections, such as Universal Serial Bus ("USB") connections, that provide power in addition to data (rather than charging those devices from the household electric service using their dedicated chargers), even though the power supply of a personal computer is much larger than is needed for such a function, and as such draws much more power than such a function would otherwise demand. As the price of electricity increases, such uses of power can cost users more."
The second patent application, titled an "Intelligent Power-enabled Communications Port," describes a system that would parse out the amount of power to different electronics in an efficient manner.
It calls for using the wiring of buildings to run direct current devices without the need for the AC-to-DC adapters that come with all electronic gear. The port will also be able to deliver data over home wires and store it:
"Rather than continually upgrade standards such as the USB or FireWire standards, a variable power supply may be provided for the power conductor of a port."
Apple not alone
The tech industry's biggest companies and dozens of start-ups are devising ways to give consumers more insight into how they use energy. Many are providing tools to curb electricity use, which continues to climb as people use more electronic gadgets, such as power-hungry smart phones and e-readers.
Google's philanthropic arm, Google.org, developed PowerMeter, a Web application for monitoring home energy use that it offers mainly through utilities at this point. Company executives have indicated that Google intends to add additional features, such as allowing consumers to ratchet down power use during peak times to get cheaper rates.
Microsoft last year released Hohm, another Web application that provides recommendations on how people can better weatherize their home or reduce energy use through behavior changes. It also offers historical energy use data through partnerships with utilities.
In addition, there are many companies developing in-home displays for tracking electricity use that provide feedback on energy use and ways to control appliances. General Electric and Whirlpool last week at the Consumer Electronics Show announced they are working with display maker OpenPeak to provide energy cost monitoring and control over appliances.
Many of these companies expect to use wireless home network protocols, such as Zigbee or Z-Wave, to share information between appliances, a central console, and smart meters. An alternative approach is smart plugs, which allows people to monitor and control home electronics and appliances without the need for a smart meter.