Smarten up electric panels to avoid utility upgrades

Savant smart panel

Increasingly, homeowners know that electrifying everything has advantages, from improving indoor air quality to cutting power bills to lowering a home’s carbon footprint. The wish list of electrical appliances includes induction stoves, EV chargers, hybrid water heaters, and electric heat pumps. Add to that the desire to improve resilience or gain energy independence by adding solar and backup batteries or a generator, and you’re faced with a question:

Can the home’s electrical panel cut it?

If the answer is a simple Yes, that’s great. But with so many new electrical appliances and so many homes with 100 Amp service feeds, the answer may be No.

That No can lead to an electrical service heavy up and even ripple back through the distribution system, requiring a transformer upgrade. Transformer upgrades can cause delays and expenses that the customer was not willing to deal with, resulting in a downsized or canceled job. And that’s before factoring in today’s transformer supply shortage.

Even if the service panel is adequate, installing backup energy sources will often require installing a subpanel for essential loads.

First: seek fixes without a panel upgrade

Changing out a home’s panel is an expense that most homeowners would rather avoid, even after IRA tax credits. Installers and electrical contractors can help homeowners try to avoid it.

If there are not enough unused slots in the electrical panel for the planned home electrification projects, there may be breakers that can be combined using tandem or quad tandem breakers to free up space within the panel. This is especially true of lighting circuits as the move to LED bulbs cut lighting loads by 90%.

Some short, periodic energy draws may be able to be lowered. For example, HVAC draws high amps when compressors cycle on, but a hard start kit can lower those peaks.

Selecting the right appliances may help as well.

Some new appliances are significantly more efficient than their predecessors, with new fridges using a fraction of the energy of those 20 years earlier, and efficient heat pump clothes dryers saving at least 28% energy compared to standard dryers. Upgrading may be worthwhile.

Other new appliances have clever designs that minimize the electrical work, such as Channing Street Copper Co.s’ induction stove. It has a built-in battery so it can use a 110V circuit and, as a bonus, run for a while during a blackout. Similarly, Rheem’s ProTerra hybrid hot water system runs on a 110V circuit, enabling a gas water heater to be changed out without running a new 240V circuit (anecdotally, there have been some quality issues with hybrid water heaters, so do your homework to find out if those issues are resolved before recommending one).

If a homeowner is only adding an EV charger but doesn’t have slots for a new circuit in the panel box or doesn’t want to run wiring back to the panel, the NeoCharge Smart Splitter is a great option. It doesn’t offer monitoring but may avoid a heavy up as it runs a Level 2 EV charger off an existing 240V dryer circuit. It shares the circuit, turning EV charging off when the dryer is running, and is ideal for a customer whose laundry is near their EV charger.

If all that’s been done and the homeowner’s project is still likely to trigger a heavy up, it’s time to look at smart panels.

Where does smart live?

Ever since Nest popularized smart thermostats, homeowners have had a plethora of ways to create a smart electrical home, from individual smart lightbulbs to whole house systems.

Some apps help homeowners track their electrical use, giving insight into how much of their home’s consumption at any time is being supplied by solar or a battery. Others provide a deeper level of intelligence, enabling homeowners to see the draw on specific circuits. Other technologies are more focused on control, allowing specific systems to participate in utility demand response events or be scheduled remotely. Almost all of these technologies live at the outlet or in the smart appliance, and some apps can consolidate data from a few smart energy sources into a single dashboard.

Smart panels start at the other end of the wire — where the home’s electric service gets portioned out to circuits. There are two main approaches: adding smart breakers to critical circuits in an existing panel or installing a full smart panel.

Smarten by the circuit

The lowest cost approach is to update an existing panel by adding compatible smart circuit breakers to select circuits, though most require either extra space in the panel for wider breakers or a secondary panel for all of the breaker control units. This eliminates the need for changing out a whole panel and only gives insights into the circuits the customer most cares about.

Up close look at Savant smart circuits.

Smart home brand Savant started with home automation around 20 years ago, Dylan Rup, senior product manager at Savant, told Solar Builder Magazine. Its Savant Power Module comes in 20A Dual Relay, 30A 2-Pole Relay, and 60A 2-Pole Relay and can be installed in the slots next to the circuits they track or in a separate panel.

“Within the last two or three years, we’ve come to view the foundation of a smart home as starting at the electrical panel and giving customers full control over how they both consume and potentially produce energy for that use in their home to enable all the rest of the smart things that customers are increasingly wanting to do within their homes,” Rup said.

Savant’s home automation roots show in its ability to look well beyond electrical circuits.

“We manufacture a number of our own devices across a bunch of different categories, whether that be audio visual, lighting, the power products that we’re here displaying to this audience, but we can also integrate with over 20,000 different products in a smart home automation system.”

Traditional circuit breaker and panel makers including Eaton, Scheider, and Leviton offer smart breakers that fit in most existing standard panels as well.

Smarts from scratch

“Elegant” and “electrical panel” rarely inhabit the same sentence, but here goes: The SPAN panel is elegant. Unlike the established brands with legacy electric panels, SPAN started with a blank sheet of paper and designed a panel with the homeowner in mind, not just the electrician. It tracks the load on every breaker, integrates battery load management, and enables software-based prioritization of essential circuits in the case of blackouts.

Since then, SPAN has integrated EV charging and launched its PowerUp technology to avoid utility upgrades. PowerUp works by measuring incoming conductors’ current and controlling circuits to keep the total current below the home’s service limits.

Arch Rao, founder and CEO of SPAN, told Solar Builder Magazine that adding a marginal appliance that triggers an expensive electrical service upgrade is “neither cost-effective nor scalable if every single home has to undergo this open-heart surgery and have this expensive utility upgrade outside the home into the power line.”

The PowerUp technology, using integrations with partners such as SMA, Mitsubishi Electric Trane HVAC US (METUS), and Franklin, enables the SPAN panel to tweak loads in ways the homeowner won’t notice to keep the total load within the service’s limits. For example, it may lower the heat for a short period or move EV charging to after the evening’s peak load.

“In rare circumstances, when a home is approaching its service limit, say, of 100 amps, the panel can throttle loads intelligently, because partnering with METUS allows us to go ‘hey, we’re going to turn off your heat pump or mini split for a little bit’,” said Mike Connolly, senior product specialist at SPAN.

Even without integrations, SPAN enables homeowners to easily drag and drop circuits to define must-have, nice-to-have, and non-essential loads when the home is running on a backup battery.

Rao said SPAN is not just targeting the electrification of existing homes. “We’re starting to see some meaningful traction with new home builders where they have to be NEC 2023 compliant and, in different parts of the country, design homes to have sufficient capacity for an EV charger or sufficient capacity to add a solar system.”

SPAN’s product roadmap includes adding appliance fault or anomaly detection, currently in beta testing with select customers, said Connolly. “We can tell you if your appliance is about to break because we see the energy spike as the appliance tries to sort itself out. A huge focus for us coming into the new year is how can we continue to build features for our homeowners where that value is grounded in energy savings, in visibility, in resiliency.”

SPAN is not the only company with a whole-panel approach. Schneider announced its Pulse smart panel at RE+ last September which is part of its Schneider Home system, and already offers its Square D Energy Center Smart Panel.

Schneider Home is not just about the smart panel, a spokesperson said at a RE+ 2023 press briefing. “It’s a comprehensive solution and includes a smart electrical panel, home battery for connected storage, high power inverter, EV charger, and then a line of connected switches and light sockets. And of course, all of that is intelligently connected to orchestrate home energy for customers.”

Schneider’s first remote control circuit breaker was developed 25 to 30 years ago, and the company considers its QO load centers “smart-ready” panels for those adding smart breakers to existing panels.

For more options, check out smart panel-focused competitors such Koben, watch for announcements from electrical component stalwarts such as Eaton, ABB and Siemens, and explore hybrid approaches such as Lumin, which connects all breakers to a separate smart monitoring and control system to offer similar functions.

Thinking ahead to an even smarter future

As you help customers navigate the world of smart panels, ensure that they think ahead. They may not have an EV today, but their next car might be all-electric. Most EVs don’t offer bidirectional charging today, but that is likely to change in the near future. Both Schneider and SPAN have bidirectional EV charging in their cross-hairs.

Similarly, look for revenue-grade metering for critical circuits, and if possible, leave room in the panel for the next must-have electric appliance that may not even be offered yet.

The goal is to create a system that is flexible and can integrate with other smart home products or is part of a whole-smart-home system.

Dej Knuckey is a contributor to Solar Builder. She is a journalist, author and freelance writer who has covered energy for publications in Australia and the U.S.

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