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Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Giving the Refrigerator More Brainpower.(Business/Financial Desk).

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Ubiquitous computing?, originally uploaded by pjen.
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Pity the refrigerator, the biggest appliance in the house but also the dumbest. These days, the dinkiest microwave oven is run by a computer chip, as is the conventional oven, the dishwasher, the clothes washer and the dryer. Even the puny thermostat and doorbell can outclass the refrigerator in brainpower. But refrigerators are finally joining the information age.

The Whirlpool Corporation and Amana Refrigeration Inc. are making high-end refrigerators equipped with microprocessors that keep track of the amount of frost forming on the evaporator coils, which are the metal parts that cool the boxes, giving the machines the brains to know when they should defrost.

For the 140 million older refrigerators in the United States, a Long Island company has developed a matchbook-size computerized timer to replace the existing mechanical one. This timer is even smarter than the chips going into the new refrigerators because it knows what time of day to do the job.

Aside from central air-conditioners or electric heaters, refrigerators are the largest users of electricity in a house. And older ones are the least efficient.

A self-defrosting refrigerator works this way: A mechanical system keeps track of how long the compressor runs, and every few hours of use, the system heats up the coil, driving off the frost. But this, in turn, heats up the refrigerator. When the defrost cycle is over, the compressor must work harder to cool the refrigerator again.

Whether it is a humid day in summer, when the frost builds quickly, or a dry day in winter, when frost takes longer to form, the mechanical system for most refrigerators goes about its task, oblivious to the outside world.

But a top-of-the-line refrigerator, which generally costs $1,500 to $2,000, has an "adaptive defroster" that is run by a chip. It, too, heats up the coil, but the electronic brain tucked into the mechanical muscle of the machine keeps track of how long it takes to reach the necessary warm temperature, which is a measure of how much frost there is.

"If it's short, the microchip realizes there wasn't much frost on the coil -- 'I can wait longer,' " said Brian M. Midlang, manager of the electronic control section at Amana, which is a subsidiary of the Raytheon Company. Conversely, if the coil took a long time to heat, the brain concludes that there was too much ice -- a condition that raises energy use -- and it orders the next defrosting at a shorter interval.

That is the best that refrigerators now on the market can do. But engineers like Daniel R. Stettin are going further, shifting the defrosting to the nighttime.

Mr. Stettin, who is president of Wire Graphics Inc. of Farmingdale, L.I., recently applied for a patent on a computerized timer that can replace the mechanical ones in existing refrigerators.

The microprocessor can tell when it is night by keeping track of how hard the compressor is working. The compressor runs more in the daytime, when the door keeps opening and the temperature is generally higher.

At night, the compressor does not have to work as hard to cool down the refrigerator after the defrosting is over, so the refrigerator uses less power. Also, temperature fluctuations are reduced, which is better for the food stored inside.

Utilities, of course, would prefer nighttime defrosting because it would shift the power demand to a time when there is less power demand. Mr. Stettin's development of his timer was paid for in part by a grant from the Long Island Lighting Company, which has the highest electricity rates in the country. By Mr. Stettin's calculation, a user of a refrigerator on Long Island could save $25 to $30 a year by replacing a mechanical timer with a "smart" one.

But it takes longer to get new technology into a refrigerator than into other appliances, because of the low turnover. Many refrigerators last more than 15 years, which means that millions of them will continue to defrost dumbly for years. That is, unless a manufacturer deems Mr. Stettin's computerized timer commercially viable, perhaps with incentives from a utility company eager to move some of its electric load to an off-peak period.

Source Citation
Wald, Matthew L. "Giving the Refrigerator More Brainpower." New York Times 31 July 1995. Academic OneFile. Web. 29 Dec. 2009. .


Gale Document Number:A150682527

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