Span electrical panel: a digital upgrade of your analog electrical panel
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Electrical panels typically don’t get as much attention as stoves, refrigerators, or toaster ovens in our homes. In all my days, I’ve never seen home style magazines feature how sleek the electric junction box looks. Perhaps that’s because we don’t use them. Instead, we sort of take them for granted as a thing that is needed for our homes to not catch on fire.
Frankly, my fuse box is ugly. It’s also tucked in a spiderwebbed corner of my basement. I don’t want to have to look at it unless we mistakenly used the microwave, blender, and hairdryer at the same time. I’ll sigh before fumbling through the dark to find it and puzzle together which one of the circuit breakers has to be flipped back so I can get back to making a smoothie and shrugging to my wife while she glares at me with damp hair.
You don’t also hear people aside from electrical installer nerds asking each other at parties, “Hey, what kind of electrical box do you have?”
A company based in San Francisco called Span is looking to change the conversation, by making the fuse box a beautiful thing you do interact with, albeit through your smartphone and perhaps not as frequently as your refrigerator.
The Span electrical panel is built with a clean energy future in mind and plays well with other smart home control systems like the Nest thermostat. It allows you to easily monitor electrical inputs from grid electricity, solar arrays, and home battery backup systems, and control where and when to output electricity - whether that’s specific parts of your home, your energy storage system, back to the grid, or to your electric vehicle battery.
In this article, we’ll explore how this piece of new technology works, how much it costs, and provide an overview of what to expect if you decide to install one in your home.
Image source: Cinnamon Energy Systems
Span’s CEO Arch Rao was the former head of Tesla’s energy storage business. He spent a lot of time thinking about the best ways to tie Tesla’s Powerwall battery, home solar arrays, and inverters to those boring old gray fuse boxes you probably have in your basement or garage to the electric grid.
The panel is a critical piece of equipment because it connects everything together and feeds into each of your home’s circuits, but it’s old and not really that smart. So, Rao directed his startup team’s engineers to reinvision it and rebuild it for the digital age. Partners like Wireframe Ventures, Capricorn Investment Group, Arctern Ventures, and Wells Fargo Strategic Capital were so impressed with Span’s vision, they helped organize a recent $10.2 million funding round.
The Span electrical panel doesn’t just offer passive current protection, it more resembles a smart, programmable computer with both inputs and outputs of energy and data. That’s one reason the company’s website and brand is called Span.io, instead of Span.com.
There have been similar fuse control systems patented and rolled out for commercial applications, though as of yet, no major competitors have focused as squarely on the residential market.
Most traditional analog panels are made by Eaton and Schneider Electric. Those two goliaths haven’t been motivated to bring a similar product to market because of their standing product relationships with their distribution and contractor network. So, Rao sensed an enormous opportunity to make a splash in the market by making the electrical panel just as smart as our phones.
He has surrounded himself with executives who have had tenures and existing relationships with companies including Tesla and SunRun - two huge players in the residential solar energy industry.
Span.io is also working with LG, a company that has developed the very popular LG Chem Resu home battery, as well as Enphase and SolarEdge, to ensure their systems are well-integrated into Span’s software controls.
At first glance, the Span electrical panel looks like a huge smartphone that’s mounted on the wall. Inside are sensors, software, communications, and processing power that control 32 circuits, a solar system battery inverter, and EV charging controls - as well as a utility grid disconnect switch.
The panels also come with automatic transfer switches and isolation transformers which are not only required by code, but by the various pieces of new equipment to function safely and reliably. All that functionality gets controlled through an app on your smartphone.
That utility disconnect functionality is required by most municipalities for homeowners with solar installations, since they protect lineworkers who may be troubleshooting local power outages from getting zapped by the solar energy generated by your array. Many newer solar inverters have similar shutoff functionality, though Span electrical panels allow you to go many steps further towards optimizing how your home energy is used.
Most traditional home battery systems allow you to designate a specific circuit or two for critical loads which can receive battery power if the grid is down. With the Span panel, on the other hand, you can direct backup power to any circuit in your home. That means you have an enhanced ability to route where your power goes if the grid is up or down at any time you want from your phone’s Span Home app.
Image source: Finsmes
The smartphone app is smart enough to:
Since the Span electrical panel is able to monitor the performance of every single circuit at its source in real-time, it can collect data like voltage, current, and frequencies with a much higher level of accuracy and granularity than other devices like the Sense home energy monitor. That device provides estimates of where loads and currents are going less reliably, since transformer clamps aren’t attached to each individual circuit.
Span is also launching a partnership with Amazon’s Alexa to integrate voice controls into its app. Using your voice, you’ll be able to control any circuit or connected appliance and ask Alexa whether you’re getting your electricity from the grid, your solar panels, or your home battery. You’ll also be able to get answers to questions like, “Alexa, what’s using the most power in my house right now?”
That’s pretty cool, though creepily does bring us a little closer to living in 2001: A Space Odyssey. I can just hear the echo of Hal pouring through my living room: “I’m sorry Dan, you’re using too much electricity right now”.
On the more practical and serious side, such interactivity brings a very needed sense of insight, awareness, and control of how we make energy choices at home. This feature has the power to help us make better choices for our planet - and pocketbook.
Span is counting on capturing customers who may be looking to add any combination of solar, home energy storage, or EV charging capability to their home. Installing a Span smart panel system is on par with the cost of upgrading your analog panel to a heavier-duty analog panel which is needed when you add solar power, batteries, or EV chargers - roughly $2,500.
That level of parity is achieved primarily through reduced labor costs compared to more time required for electricians to install an analog box and separate charge controllers, sensors, and/or home batteries. The Span panel also takes up a lot less space on a wall than having separate devices.
Their software, which joins all the pieces of equipment together and offers control, monitoring, and responsiveness, makes the longer-term cost associated with the panel look even more attractive relative to a traditional analog box upgrade.
While individual products allow a home to store solar energy, convert it to usable AC electricity, sense how much energy you’re using, allow you to control your smart connected devices and lighting, and charge your EV - none do so in as wholly an integrated way as the Span offering.
If you’re going to need to upgrade your fuse box anyway to account for requirements of solar, EVs, or batteries, this product makes it hard to consider going with just another dumb grey box if you can get a Span system instead - for the same amount of money. And, you can.
Span’s electrical panel also takes up less space on your wall. You can also show it off because it’s pretty, and it allows for better flexibility and control of where electricity goes in your home and how much you’re using. Since Span’s electrical panel is built for expansion in mind, even if you don’t have solar panels now or an EV, you can easily hook those things in and they’ll work beautifully well whenever you’re ready.
For all of these reasons, the Span electrical panel is worthy of your careful consideration if you’re thinking about going solar, adding energy storage to your home, or driving an EV in the near future.
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