editor's blog
Subscribe Now

A Tale of Two Networks

I was talking to Atmel the other day – they had announced the release of their ATPL230 power line communication (PLC) chip, which was filling in of one of the squares in the strategy that we reported on some months ago. PLC is one of the ways in which smart meters can communicate back with the utility. But when you look at Atmel’s overall communication strategy for smart energy devices, there are other options, including Zigbee, but notably not including WiFi or Bluetooth.

This may look simply like yet another battle in the wireless world, but there’s more to the story than that. First, the inclusion of Zigbee has less to do with technology than you might think. In fact, it’s partly a money story – and it almost sounds like a strategy determined by tactical dollars. As Atmel describes it, some years ago, stimulus dollars were available. Without going into the details, putting Zigbee into smart meters was a “future-proofing” step that made those stimulus funds available. Now the Department of Energy recommends (although doesn’t require, since it’s not a safety issue) Zigbee for “smart energy” home use.

But the other thing that occurred to me is that “smart energy” and “smart homes,” which would appear to be versions of the same thing, have more nuance in them as well. “Smart” tends to mean “connected,” and the smart home has lots of connected items in it. Thermostats are frequently cited as examples, but so are refrigerators and dryers and door locks.

But there are two things going on here. “Smart energy” tends to refer to energy-related devices that communicate on the utility’s network. And they do so via protocols like PLC and Zigbee. The kinds of devices that qualify as “smart energy” obviously include smart meters and other equipment dedicated to the efficient delivery of electrical energy.

But utilities also want to be able to reach into homes and factories and tinker with usage to optimize energy consumption when supplies are tight. That clearly means turning down the thermostat, but it could also mean communication with appliances that consume lots of energy, and whose use involves options, like your clothes dryer.

Would the utility actually try to reach in and prevent you from drying your clothes when energy use peaks? Perhaps not. Might a dryer manufacturer elect to include a feature that allows the utility to display current electricity pricing in an era of demand-based pricing so that you can decide whether to dry now or later? Possibly.

But there’s another aspect of the smart home, and that’s the ability to connect items to the cloud and to smartphones or computers. Yup, the Internet of Things (IoT). This is a completely separate network from the one the utilities use for smart energy. And they tend to use WiFi or Bluetooth Smart because that’s what’s in phones and computers.

So, in theory, a thermostat following the DoE-recommended approach could communicate with the utility via Zigbee and with the IoT via WiFi. The dryer could communicate via Zigbee to receive electric pricing – or it’s possible – even likely – that the utilities would also place that pricing information in the Cloud, accessed using WiFi.

According to Atmel, much of the smart-meter Zigbee capability out there now via is unused within the home. It’s clearly available for connecting outwards towards the utility, but to access nodes inside the home, the meter could also use WiFi or Bluetooth. You could even argue that it would be much more efficient to do it that way, since the smart meter would be the single transition point between the utility network and the home/IoT network. The alternative would be to require numerous devices in the house – thermostats, dryers, anything that may need to talk to the utility – to have both radios so that they can talk both to the utilities and the IoT.Drawing.png

 

All of this is, of course, still in play, so there’s no one “right way” to implement this. And yes, I keep coming back to this wireless question, not so much because I have a preferred “winner,” but because it seems to be a confusing space, and I look for those occasional refreshing moments of clarity.

Leave a Reply

featured blogs
May 7, 2021
In one of our Knowledge Booster Blogs a few months ago we introduced you to some tips and tricks for the optimal use of Virtuoso ADE Product Suite with our analog IC design videos . W e hope you... [[ Click on the title to access the full blog on the Cadence Community site. ...
May 7, 2021
Enough of the letter “P” already. Message recieved. In any case, modeling and simulating next-gen 224 Gbps signal channels poses many challenges. Design engineers must optimize the entire signal path, not just a specific component. The signal path includes transce...
May 6, 2021
Learn how correct-by-construction coding enables a more productive chip design process, as new code review tools address bugs early in the design process. The post Find Bugs Earlier Via On-the-Fly Code Checking for Productive Chip Design and Verification appeared first on Fr...
May 4, 2021
What a difference a year can make! Oh, we're not referring to that virus that… The post Realize Live + U2U: Side by Side appeared first on Design with Calibre....

featured video

Introduction to EMI

Sponsored by Texas Instruments

Conducted versus radiated EMI. CISPR-25 and CISPR-32 standards. High-frequency or low-frequency emissions. Designing a system to reduce EMI can be overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be. Watch this video to get an overview of EMI causes, standards, and mitigation techniques.

Click here for more information

featured paper

Bring a "Can-Do" Attitude to Your Industrial Drone Design

Sponsored by Maxim Integrated

Providing predictable and error-free communications, CAN bus networks have been the workhorse of the automobile industry for over thirty years. But they have recently found a new lease on life in other industrial applications, including drones. This design solution shows where and how CAN transceivers can be used in drone designs and explains why it is important that they come with high levels of electrical protection.

Click to read more

featured chalk talk

Cutting the AI Power Cord: Technology to Enable True Edge Inference

Sponsored by Mouser Electronics and Maxim Integrated

Artificial intelligence and machine learning are exciting buzzwords in the world of electronic engineering today. But in order for artificial intelligence or machine learning to get into mainstream edge devices, we need to enable true edge inference. In this episode of Chalk Talk, Amelia Dalton chats with Kris Ardis from Maxim Integrated about the MAX78000 family of microcontrollers and how this new microcontroller family can help solve our AI inference challenges with low power, low latency, and a built-in neural network accelerator. 

Click here for more information about Maxim Integrated MAX78000 Ultra-Low-Power Arm Cortex-M4 Processor