Magnets will soon do more than display kids' artwork on refrigerators. They'll actually be inside fridges, making them super efficient.
A new material that cools when demagnetized, expected to hit the market in about five years, could revolutionize the world of fridges and air conditioners by replacing the decades-old use of refrigerants.
"This technology has the potential to be more efficient by 25% to 30%," says Natarajan Venkatakrishnan, director of advanced technologies for GE Appliances, which has patents pending for the material. He says it's ready now, but General Electric is working to lower costs so consumers won't have to pay more.
Welcome to the home of the not-so-distant future. In an age of Google glasses and smart watches, the American dream itself will likely embody innovative technologies that could not only save energy and water but also improve health and bring nature inside.
GE expects the home of 2025 could have under-cabinet 3D printers, faucet sensors that detect bacteria in food and a laundry machine that stores clothes — after washing and drying — in compressed "pellet" form. And the milkman of yore may be back, as more groceries are delivered to exterior cooling units.
Some of these ideas may seem far-fetched, but recent breakthroughs and exhibits at last month's GreenBuild in Philadelphia — the annual meeting of the U.S. Green Building Council — reveal dozens of nifty products that are new or will soon be released.
Mushrooms and hemp, for example, are being used in insulation. At GreenBuild, New York-based Ecovative unveiled Myco Foam, which contains mycelium — mushroom "roots" that provide an airtight seal by growing and binding to the inside of a wall cavity. Also new are prefabricated panels of Hemcrete, made from the shiv or woody core of industrial hemp and a limed-based binder.
New technologies are helping to boost efficiency. Last month, Panasonic introduced Exterios, a combined heating-and-cooling system that's at least twice as efficient as most furnaces and air conditioners. It has inverter technology that continually adjusts the compressor's rotation speed as well as a sensor that detects whether someone is in a room and automatically adjusts the temperature.
More innovation is coming. "There's tremendous runway still left with energy efficiency," says John Mandyck, vice president of sustainability at United Technologies, which is now making solar-powered elevators. "What's really exciting about the future is the integrated building or home — how all the systems work together."
• Automation. What's making this integration possible is the explosion in smart products — appliances, lights, shades.
This year, Whirlpool introduced four higher-end appliances — a dishwasher, fridge, washer and dryer — that can be remotely controlled with a smartphone app. Users can monitor energy rates and consumption.
Crestron has shades and draperies that can be remotely lowered or raised. "We see a lot of residential users putting in photo-cell sensors," says marketing manager Claudia Barbiero, noting these sensors automatically adjust window coverings depending on how much daylight enters a room. She says automation is especially helpful to homeowners with huge picture or second-story windows.
Several companies, including Crestron, have recently introduced home automation devices that allow users to set security alarms, turn lights on or off, program a room's temperature or start a load of laundry. Other gizmos allow access to data on smart meters, which track a home's energy use and report it back to the utility.
"Coming to a home near you very soon are small devices that can fit in the palm of your hand and will be able to read your smart meter," says Michel Kamel, CEO of California-based MelRok, adding they'll cost less than $100 and will help residents manage their energy use. Early next year, his company will release its own version.
"We can measure and control everything — every outlet, every light switch, every mechanical system and every fixture," says David Gottfried, founder of the U.S. Green Building Council. He estimates monitoring can help consumers save 30% to 50% of energy and water.
• Smart windows. Another product that can be remotely operated, via an iPad app, is new electrochromic window glass. SageGlass Simplicity, a glazing for windows in commercial buildings that can be darkened or lightened to control glare and heat gain, made its debut last month.
Pricey windows that can be tuned, like an engine, are starting to enter the residential market, as well. Last year, View (formerly Soladigm), began selling windows with thin-film electrochromic material between the panes. When a low-voltage current is applied, the material can reflect or absorb light and change the glass' color.
A smarter, less costly window is in the works. The U.S. Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory announced in August that it designed a new material — a thin coating of nanocrystals embedded in glass that can modify sunlight as it passes through a window.
"When used as a window coating, our new material can have a major impact on building energy efficiency," Delia Milliron, a Berkeley Lab chemist who led the research, said in announcing the breakthrough. The coating can control both visible and heat-producing near-infrared light so occupants can enjoy natural light without unwanted heat.
• Solar canopies. Rooftop solar is booming nationwide as more companies offer leasing options that allow customers to installs panels atop their home with no upfront costs. Now, solar is moving beyond the roof.
Next year, Princeton-based NRG Energy will begin selling the gazebo-like Solar Canopy, which has solar panels on top. Once assembled, the modular kits could enable homes to go off grid or, by storing energy in batteries within the canopy, provide back-up power in case the grid goes down.
"In the wake of Hurricane Sandy's destruction, NRG began to take a more urgent look at providing a solution that could meet basic power needs in the event of a grid emergency," Tom Doyle, CEO of NRG Solar, said while unveiling the product in October.
Also next year, Quebec-based Renewz plans to begin selling residential Solar Charging Carports for about $30,000, says company CEO Sass Peress. The carport generates solar power that can be used to charge an electric vehicle or to supplement a home's energy.
Walkways may also go solar. At this year's Solar Decathlon, a bi-annual competition to see which university team can build the best solar home, Vermont's Middlebury College put solar panels atop an exterior walkway, providing a shaded entry to the house and optimal orientation to the sun.
"Our house can orientate to the street whereas our solar panels can orientate to the sun," says Cordelia Newbury, Middlebury's team manager. "This allows for anyone in a residential community to have solar."
• One-gallon flush. Toilets that used five gallons of water per flush were once the industry norm, but new ones use 80% less.
Kohler unveiled a product last year that uses 1.28 gallons per flush. Instead of relying on a flapper that only partially opens during a flush, it uses an AquaPiston canister that lifts completely off the valve, allowing water from 360 degrees to swoop in.
This year, after years of development, Toto introduced the 1G, a toilet that uses only one gallon. Its secret is a "Double Cyclone" flushing system, which uses two nozzles, rather than rim holes, to propel water more efficiently around the bowl
Consumers are seeking more efficient toilets, because water bills are often rising faster than electric ones, says Toto's Jason Fitzsimmons.
• Living walls. One of the most dramatic changes at this year's Solar Decathlon and GreenBuild was the plethora of wall and shelving products for growing plants.
"We've seen a great increase in living walls in the residential market," says Ryan Burrows of New Jersey-based EcoWalls, which debuted a "chef's wall garden" earlier this year that cultivates herbs and veggies.
Modular units that are easy to install and maintain are gaining popularity, says Curtis Alexander of Urban Jungle, a Philadelphia company that installs such systems for about $140 per square foot — excluding irrigation costs.
"People want more green in their lives," he says, adding he expects bio-walls — now typically 200 to 500 square feet — will get bigger.
"They're helping people connect to nature," says Nadav Malin, president of BuildingGreen, a company that researches eco-friendly building products. He says he's not yet convinced that small bio-walls improve indoor air quality as their advocates suggest, but he adds: "There's a strong psychological benefit."