What are smart panels and why should solar installers care?

Homeowners are looking for new electrical panel options, so what exactly are smart panels and why do they matter?
Author : 
December 20, 2022

Over here at Bodhi, our Senior Front End Engineer, Ieuan, was excitedly telling us about an energy experience he had over the weekend.  He mentioned that after hosting a holiday party with friends, he went to fire up his dishwasher and noticed that it wouldn’t start.  He got out his tool belt and prepared to troubleshoot the dishwasher, but right before starting, he thought, “I’m pretty sure I don't have a dishwasher breaker, but let me check before I start pulling things apart.”  Sure enough, his dishwasher breaker had flipped and resolving the problem and cleaning the dishes was as simple as resetting the breaker.  What Ieuan was excited to learn was that he could have avoided all this troubleshooting if just had a smart panel! 

Every residential solar installer knows that the electrical panel is a critical component to a well-performing solar energy system.  The electrical panel serves as the hub of a household's wiring, where its job is to allow electricity to safely flow into all the loads of a building and power a homeowner’s life.  

For years, electric panel design stayed the same, with the same standard practices and technologies being used over and over again.  Picture the beige panel with those thick black breakers that need to be checked when the dishwasher won’t power on.  

That’s now changing.  With recent innovations in this space, homeowners can now choose to upgrade to a new technology called a smart panel.  In this blog post we’ll explain what smart panels are, how they compare to traditional electrical panels, who the main players are, and why we should care about them in the solar industry.

What are smart panels?

A smart panel is a type of electrical panel that is equipped with modern, internet-connected sensors that allow it to monitor and control the electrical loads of a home or building.  

Through these sensors, smart panels are able to provide informed electrical load management, alerts, and insights to the homeowner, allowing them to save energy and money.  This functionality improves upon the traditional or “dumb” panel that exists to safely distribute electricity to a building, but provides no remote control and leaves the job of energy insights to the electrical meter.  

The key functionality of a smart panel lies in its ability to be programmed by the homeowner through a simple app, allowing circuits to be turned on and off on a schedule.  This means that homeowners can distinguish between essential, and non-essential appliances and decide which groups of appliances work at different times throughout the day.  This functionality provides homeowners with unprecedented control over their energy consumption and can even allow them to prioritize how their solar energy is used.   

Smart panels can operate independently as the main panel, or as a sub panel to an already existing electrical system.   

For more information on smart panels, check out this great video from This Old House:

How do smart panels help the solar industry?  

As the cost of solar continues to decline, the size, or power, of your average residential solar array will continue to increase.  These larger systems mean more powerful inverters, which means main panel upgrades will become more common as well. 

Combine the more powerful inverters with the electrification megatrend where a new energy consumer could have solar, batteries, a couple EVs that need to be charged, a heat pump, and an induction stove top, and that customer's original 100 year old electrical panel is not going to cut it! 

Additionally, we’re seeing electric utilities around the country adopt Time of Use rate structures.   Time of use (ToU) pricing is a practice in electric billing that is meant to incentivize customers to use electricity during the times when energy is most abundant.  With the rapid uptake of solar PV, this is generally when the sun is shining brightly.  Smart panels can take advantage of that practice so that your customers can more easily take advantage of dynamic utility rate structures.  Additionally, a smart panel can also be programmed to allow certain appliances to only be used during certain times of day — for example, preventing your clothes dryer from turning on during peak rates.  With smart electrical panels, it’s also possible to automate system adjustments based on how much energy is flowing through the panel.

Another key feature for the solar industry is that smart panels provide easier integration for new energy products.  Homeowners can use the smart panel as a hub to monitor the energy consumption and prioritize the usage of their novel loads such as EV chargers, heat pumps, and charging their battery. 

Finally, smart panels can increase the profit margins of your overall solar installation.  When selling and installing solar panels, you could also incentivize your customers to purchase a smart panel.  To the right customer, this is an easy sell.  These two pieces of technology work hand-in-hand with each other.  Solar panels give your customer a clean energy solution and potentially save them money, while the smart panel gives them the opportunity to control the energy flowing into their home.

How are smart panels relevant for battery backup or emergencies?

Smart electrical panels can provide value by allowing for fewer, less expensive, batteries to be installed, while still providing backup for the required critical loads in the event of an emergency or unexpected power outage. 

If your customer has a battery backup system, the smart panel app can be set to automatically shut off non-essential loads in emergencies, extending the capacity of your battery bank.  That’s a key feature of smart panels that “dumb” panels do not provide.  In this way, smart panels are able to lower the cost and size of a potential battery bank, while still delivering the peace of mind to a solar customer that their lights will stay on in an emergency.  A smart panel is also modestly-sized and inexpensive when compared to the additional batteries required for a similar level of energy security with a dumb panel.  

By giving homeowners this level of control over how they dole out and regulate their energy usage, you support them in deepening their relationship to their solar system.  


What do smart panels mean for electric vehicles?

Like solar arrays, as the cost of EV battery packs continues to decline, the size of EV batteries will continue to increase.  To quickly charge these large EV batteries, the EV charger must push out a decently high current. 

The usual home circuit breakers are between between 10-20 amps, but the recommended breaker amperage for a Level 2 household EV charging is 50 amps.  One route you could take is to upgrade your circuit breakers to suit your old-fashioned panel, but rewiring costs can be very expensive.  Smart electrical panels are one way to solve this problem.  Since smart panels are also integrated with high amperage breakers and relays in one unit, you can use these devices for your EV charging without worries of overloading.  Overall, this upgrade increases the efficiency of your charging and energy solutions.

Who are the major players in smart panel products?

Smart panels are a relatively new innovation in home electrification, yet there are already a handful of players on the market.  We'd like to highlight some of the companies that are turning the tide in the smart panel space. 

The first major player in the smart panel space is SPAN.  SPAN panels offer a lot of benefits, such as an expansive amount of controllable circuits at 32.  Additionally, SPAN panels are remotely operated via a homeowner-facing mobile application. 

Next up we have Savant Power.  Savant Power is a low-cost smart panel with 12 circuit connections.  Savant is also specifically for homes with solar panels who use battery storage systems or grid-tie inverters on their rooftop inverter boxes.  Savant is typically rated for lower amperage, making it a good choice for households with low power consumption.  

Finally we have the Lumin Smart Panel.  Much like most of the other smart panel products on the market,  Lumin can be operated remotely from your smartphone. Lumin can be retrofitted to existing “dumb” panels to provide the capability to automatically disrupt heavy loads in times of electricity blackouts.  It is a great addition to homes that are equipped with solar storage.

What is the cost difference between traditional and smart panels?

Now that we have a good understanding of the difference between a traditional electrical panel and a smart electrical panel, it’s time to talk about cost.  Is the switch even worth it for most solar customers?  For a modern, medium-sized household the typical price range for a normal electrical panel can range from $1300 – $3000 post-installation.  In comparison, smart panels such as SPAN have a steeper range from $6000 – $7500 post-installation.  At first glance this might seem like a definite no, but the benefits of having a smart panel in a household can still make them worth considering for some homeowners. 

With the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), homeowners can get a tax credit on the installation of a smart panel, which greatly assists in the price point.  Additionally, solar sales reps can sell customers on a higher return on investment, since they can now directly target areas where their energy bill is too high.  Like solar panels, a smart panel should also be viewed as a long-term investment.  The average lifespan of an electrical panel is 25 to 40 years, meaning homeowners will start to see more savings the longer they use their smart panel.  

Finally, smart panels have technology that you simply can’t get from a traditional panel.  For homeowners that want a greater degree of control over their energy consumption, smart panels are a great option to have.  A smart panel can give homeowners control over their growing ecosystem of green energy products, from solar panels, solar batteries, and EV chargers. 


When should you sell a homeowner a smart panel? 

If your customer will need a main panel upgrade (MPU), they should consider installing a smart panel.  In this scenario, the true cost of a smart panel is actually only the difference in cost between a smart panel installation and a new “dumb panel” upgrade.  Additionally, if a customer owns an electric vehicle or plans to purchase one in the future, smart panels and their added control are definitely worth looking into. 

Simply switching over to a higher rated traditional electrical panel can still be expensive and delay, but not prevent, future upgrades.  Smart panel products are specifically designed to handle higher amp ratings and can be sold to the homeowner as a way to future-proof their home for the huge shift to electric energy.


Smart panels can help build solar trust

As larger and more efficient solar systems become more popular with homeowners, it will be increasingly important for solar installers to understand how to sell and install smart panels.  While most modern households run on 200 amps prior to installing solar, the adoption of a solar array can boost the demands on an electrical panel to 400 amps or more.  The addition of high consumption energy products, such as electric vehicle chargers, create more power demand for the home.  Although some traditional electrical panels can handle this load level, more likely than not homeowners will need to upgrade their panels to handle their solar AC current and power these new appliances. 

When you look at the big picture, smart panels are an exciting new technology that can make your customer’s home a safer and more energy efficient place to live.  With increased power management and safety features, they provide an innovative way to manage electricity needs as technologies and needs evolve.  

If you’d like to learn more about how you can fold smart panels into your post-install sales strategy, or you want to talk through how Bodhi can help you with customer communications, reach out.  We’d love to chat.

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