Making Wall Outlets Safer-and Smarter
By Brent Ehrlich
The last decade has seen an explosion in the variety of products available to monitor our energy use and provide. There’s still plenty of room for new ideas, however, as shown by SafePlug outlets, made by 2D2C, Inc. Originally designed to protect occupants against electric shock and fire, SafePlug is the only plug-and-play system that uses radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags to help track energy use from individual appliances and turn them on and off remotely.
The SafePlug Energy Manager System comes with two Energy Manager receptacles; a wireless Energy Server (which looks similar to a wireless router) and software; and RightPlug RFID tags. A building owner can quickly install the system with the following steps.
• Install the server and load the software.
• Plug the Energy Manager receptacle (which looks like a standard outlet cover, only thicker) into the wall outlet over the existing cover and secure it using an extra-long screw. Each receptacle contains two 15-amp outlets that can be monitored or controlled individually. The server then locates the outlets, and the user gives them a label (such as “Living Room”) in the software.
• Give each controlled appliance a unique identity by affixing a RightPlug RFID tag to the end of the appliance plug (they stick on using a strong adhesive). The tags—available from 0.6 to 15 amps—match the wattage or amperage of the appliance selected. When plugged into an Energy Manager outlet, the software recognizes the appliance tag, and it, too, is given a label (such as “Vacuum”). An icon can also be selected to represent the appliance.
Once set up, the system recognizes the tagged appliance (rather than just an outlet) even if it is moved to any other Energy Manager outlet and can turn it on and off or track its energy use accordingly.
SafePlug did not start out as an energy monitor or building automation tool, however. According to Jamie Gallant, the company’s business development manager, SafePlug was created as a safer version of ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI or GFI) technology—common circuit breakers that help protect people against electrocution.
SafePlug outlets improve upon current GFCI technology through the use of the RFID tags. Each SafePlug outlet sends out a signal four times a second that searches for SafePlug RFID-tagged appliances. If it doesn’t sense a tag, power is not supplied to the outlet, so children who cram keys, paperclips, and the like into outlets cannot be shocked. SafePlug cannot be pried off the wall like the plastic inserts commonly used to child-proof outlets. There is a tradeoff of convenience for safety: even things you want to power up won’t work until you tag them, like the new gadget you bring home or the holiday lighting you pull out once a year.
Though GFCIs provide some protection against shock, they do not provide protection against electrical fires. SafePlug, on the other hand, alerts building owners to electrical problems in the appliances or wall. “We measure the load on the output side and compare the resistance on the input side,” said Gallant. “If the resistance is too high on the input side, then there is a problem between the panel and the outlet.” SafePlug also detects when appliances have a short, are malfunctioning, or have other problems. For instance, if a 10-amp space heater is plugged into a 15-amp power strip and a blanket falls on it, the resistance in the wiring could climb past 10 amps and start a fire before the 15-amp circuit trips, according to Gallant. SafePlug would detect when the resistance hit 10 amps and shut off the current to the plug before it became dangerous. (2C2D tested the product extensively before it came on the market to eliminate false positives.)
For energy monitoring and building automation, SafePlug’s Energy Manager system can tell when a device is on and provide metering data, tracking the amount of energy the appliance is using over its lifetime. This information is stored on the RFID tag and software. The system can also provide basic scheduling, on-off control, and diagnostic data. This energy monitoring dovetails with safety features mentioned above; if, for example, an iron or other appliance is left on, occupants could recognize the power draw and could shut off the outlet remotely.
Though 2C2D does not provide a sophisticated interface for energy monitoring, the company can provide the basic tools and information necessary to integrate SafePlug technology into other dashboards and building automation systems. Control4 has integrated SafePlug into its building automation systems, for instance, and ten other companies are developing systems based on the technology even though several of these companies already had plug load controllers on the market or in development. 2C2D has, however, created an application for mobile devices that allows users to simplify integration, but the company is also developing its own plug-load dashboard and Web interface so homes and small businesses have more of a turnkey system.
In the last two years, SafePlug has grown from a GFCI replacement to an important component in many building automation systems. Gallant said the product is evolving in ways the company had not imagined. “Our use of the RFID tag gives us a powerful advantage,” he said. Home security companies are interested because the system can tell when major appliances, such as TVs, are being unplugged without authorization, i.e., stolen; airports are exploring using it as a way of creating dedicated outlets for maintenance crews; and conference centers could use it as a way of verifying and tracking the energy use of attendees. 2C2D has also compiled data on individual appliances that could be used by appliance manufacturers looking to integrate their products into building automation systems.
Those adopting Energy Manager System will have to weigh system performance against the overall cost and using the RFID tags. As mentioned, a SafePlug receptacle provides power only to appliances that have an RFID tag. For homeowners, applying the tags to a few appliances shouldn’t be a problem, but for businesses whose employees bring in their own lamps, heaters, and other appliances, it would require more of a commitment from the IT staff and personnel. The benefits of being able to turn off the specific appliances during non-business hours or when use of an appliance is not deemed necessary, such as when a person turns on a heater while the air conditioning is running, may be well worth it.
The system costs $299, and each additional Energy Manager receptacle is $69. The company also offers its basic shock and fire protection SafePlug receptacles for $49. A SafePlug power strip will be available in 2013 (currently, a powerstrip connected to the Energy Management system can be turned on and off and tracks energy use of the strip but not individual appliances plugged into the strip). Replacing all outlets in a home with SafePlug’s Energy Manager receptacles could cost $1,500 or more, which is a lot for those who just want basic energy data. But for home or business owners, particularly those retrofitting buildings, who want more control of their energy consumption and don’t want to pay an electrician to install circuit-level controls, SafePlug may be a relative bargain.
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