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Sweeping Away Energy Waste

By Len Vermillion, Editor in Chief, Product Design & DevelopmentAppliances used to be enormous consumers of energy, but that’s not the case anymore.

When discussions and debates turn to global warming, automobiles usually get thrust into the spotlight. Talk turns to emissions, oil consumption and, inevitably, sources of alternative fuels. Not to be ignored in such discussions, however, is the toll that buildings can take on the environment, in particular, the amount of energy our very own homes use.
It has been reported that if every household in the U.S. replaced just one light bulb with an Energy Star qualified compact fluorescent light, it would prevent enough pollution to equal removing one million cars from the road. (Energy Star is the U.S. government’s program for distinguishing energy-efficient appliances.) Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Energy says that at least one housing community in Atlanta, GA recently found that building energy-efficient homes saved homeowners an average of $400 a year, while adding less than $500 to construction costs. With these types of reports circulating, for many, the quest for energy-efficient homes has begun.
The idea of such a home conjures up images of solar-paneled roofs, but one of the main culprits in a home’s energy waste lies with its appliances. According the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the average home spends approximately $1,900 on energy costs every year. Changes to appliances that are deemed energy-efficient can result in up to an average of $80 in energy cost savings per year, while also helping to protect the environment.
“It’s a two-fold effect,” says Johan Skantorp, vice president of global product planning at Electrolux, which manufacturers high-end appliances in both the U.S. and Europe. “There’s both the environmental aspect, which seems to be growing rapidly, and also energy-efficient appliances are something which benefits consumer costs and manufacturing as well, because we even consume less energy making the products.”
It’s no secret that the home appliance industry hasn’t always been seen as one sprouting technical innovations. But with governments around the world increasingly regulating energy use, appliance designers have lately become very creative. The push for energy-efficiency in appliances by governments and an increase in demand for energy-efficient appliances by consumers has led to a very competitive market.
These days, appliances are battling for the hearts of consumers. Walk into Sears or The Home Depot and check out the kitchen appliances and you’ll see a plethora of high-tech features. These features include graphical user interfaces (See “An Ingredient for Differentiation,” page 28) and high-tech motor controls. Of course, many also feature labels indicating Energy Star certification.
“It’s becoming globally competitive,” says Ken Klask, CEO of Amulet Technologies, which manufactures graphical user interfaces for embedded systems, which are used on appliances. “At the same time, [appliance manufacturers] have been hit with government regulations for reducing energy consumption. He compares the state of the appliance industry to that of the automotive industry years ago. “In the automotive world, they started turning toward more electronics [to clean up the air]. Now, the appliance world is turning toward more electronics and motor control to control power.”
These days, white goods manufacturers are on a quest to reduce the amount of energy their products waste, attracting consumers who either want to help the environment or save themselves some money.
“If you take laundry, dishwashing or refrigeration, there’s always a push toward energy- efficiency,” says Sanjay Shukla, marketing manager of the home appliance solution group at Microchip Technologies. “This will be the case for the foreseeable future for white goods and as well as the HVAC industry.”
Rising Regulations
Like several other industries, the push for energy-efficiency begins in earnest with government regulations. Shukla says that white goods have received a push from the U.S. Department of Energy with Energy Star and its counterpart for regulating water consumption, WaterSense. For example, clothes washers must take into account what is known as the modified energy factor. The modified energy factor is a new equation that replaced “energy factor” as a way to compare the relative efficiency of different units of clothes washers. The higher the modified energy factor, the more efficient the clothes washer. How is the factor calculated? It takes into account the amount of energy used to remove the remaining moisture content in washed items. “[The Department of Energy has] a new bar that’s being raised up, and that started in January 2007,” Shukla says.
“Regulations play a major part,” Skantorp says. While the term “regulation” is usually enough to send a manufacturer into fits, Skantorp says that in this case regulations aren’t necessarily a bad thing. He says that certifications can be a valuable marketing tool for appliances when you take into account that consumer are looking for appliances to specifically meet energy-efficiency regulations. “Obviously, we can use it in going to market with the products, showing the consumer that we are meeting the requirements and regulations. In addition, in many cases, it is more cost-efficient to make [energy-efficient] products.”
Energy-effiecient appliances also provide an opportunity for manufacturers to realize tax savings. Shukla says that while energy-efficiency is driven by new regulations, it is also driven by huge tax incentives. “In either case, it promotes growth of new opportunities for people like us,” he says.
As far as regulations go, Europe has been a step ahead of the U.S., but that doesn’t mean U.S. manufactured appliances are any less efficient. While European manufacturers faced energy-efficiency requirement sooner, and now face more wide-ranging regulations, U.S. appliance manaufacturers have adopted many of the technologies European companies have to create energy-efficient appliances. This is especially true in the case of large organizations such as Electrolux, which Skantorp says, uses the same technologies in its U.S. manufactured appliances as in European models.
New Technologies
So what are those technologies and tactics? The industrial design of today’s energy-efficient appliances use electronics to control useage, and also rely of sophisticated motors and controls to keep appliances running at their most efficient power levels and times.
“The key thing in many of the applications is water control,” Shukla says. Think about how many appliances your home has that consumes large amounts of water — washing machines and dishwashers especially.
To tackle water consumption, and the amount of energy used to control water, appliance designer are turning to sophisticated motors. They are also turning to sophisticated motor control algorithms that are often necessary to create an efficient control of water and power. And there is no shortage of sophisticated motor controls available.
“We have a line of motor control parts that start out at 18 pins and go up to 100 pins, so you can pretty much have a dedicated motor controller,” Shukla says. “Or, you can have more of an integrated approach to where the part not only does motor control, but also controls other things within the appliance. So there’s a complete range of products that’s there.”
Other components available and useful for creating energy-efficiency include heat exchangers. And, heat exchangers can help create energy-efficiency in much more than just the appliance. “Take a tumble dryer, for example. Our most recent addition to the European range is a heat exchange dryer,” Skantorp says. “Instead of just heating the air in the dryer and then blowing all of that hot air outside, the heat exchanger takes care of the warm air and recycles the warm air [from the dryer] back into the house.” The idea is to not waste the heat created by the dryer, but to use it to cut the amount of energy a furnace or HVAC unit uses. “In Sweden and other Nordic countries, and Canada and the northern U.S., this can save a lot of energy for the household,” he continues.
Washing machines, dryers and dishwasher aren’t the only appliances getting a makeover.  “Take a vacuum cleaner, for instance,” Skantorp says. “Many run at the limit of what the fuses can stand. Another example is the refrigerator. Ten years ago, they consumed five times or so more energy than they do today. Today, a modern refrigerator consumes only as much energy as a 10-watt light bulb, which is not much really.”
Refrigerators have become more efficient due to high-tech means of controlling the conversion of the air to keep it cold. They’ve also benefitted form better insulation that keeps the cold air in, requiring less work by the unit.
Efficient Electronics
One of the main reasons appliance consume so much energy is that they are used often. Families wash clothes often, sometimes daily. Dishes always need to be washed after dinner. Refrigerators are always on. It’s that last point, that some appliances are alwasys on, that has appliances designers searching for electronic means to control their use and energy consumption.
Klask says that electronics can help control energy consumption. Appliance designers uses high-tech interfaces to distiguish their brands and create a sense of sophistication and value for the consumer, but the same electronics provide an opportunity to satisfy energy-efficiency.
While electronics can control the embedded systems in an appliance to regulate the power it uses, or to control the motors, electronic controls and especially user interfaces promote the consumers hand in making the appliance efficient. “For example, you can put the thing into going on vacation mode,” Klask says.
Another way electronics can help is to monitor the components in the appliance to keep them working efficiently. “The water filters in things like refrigerators,” Klask says, “have interfaces that can indicate that the filter need replaced.”
Klask says there are many things these systems can do. These days, there are many things appliance designers can do to make their units more energy-efficient. In the process, they can help their company’s bottom line as well as the environment.