Vermonters being asked to sign up for water-heater technology

BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) Water heaters may not be something people often think about, but the team at a local company wants to be on the one to revolutionize how they work.

"A conventional water heater basically heats up in big, bulky 20-minute chunks," said Mads Almassalkhi, the co-founder of Packetized Energy.

Almassalkhi says that happens even when someone isn't home or and when it's not being used. And when a water heater decides it's time to heat up may not be the best time for the electric grid we all use.

"The notion of peaks happening in the afternoon is really becoming and old story and that's not really true anymore," said Almassalkhi. "Peaks are happening whenever the sun doesn't shine or the wind doesn't blow."

Green Mountain Power representatives say when people are using a lot of energy during those peak times, the electric utility must turn to generators that are more costly to operate and use the dirtiest fuels.

Almassalkhi says he wants to stop that.

His product is called the Mello. It sits right on top of a water heater and is smart enough to know when it's a bad time on the grid to ask for a big chunk of electricity.

Instead, the Mello will ask for smaller chunks, or packets of energy, like three minutes. That happens during good grid times.

"These three-minute packets of energy are what allows us to coordinate lots of water heaters with lots of packets in real time based on actual grid conditions," said Almassalkhi.

It doesn't necessarily save more electricity, but helps save money, because utilities buy less of that expensive peak energy. That can eventually trickle down to customers.

The Mello is automatic - a homeowner wouldn't have to touch it after setting a preferred temperature. But will this new system sometimes leave people with cold water?

"When your water heater is too cold, we will make sure you stop playing the Packetized game," said Almassalkhi. "It will heat your temperature back up and then you go back in and play the game again."

The Mello was launched in 2017 on a smaller scale with The Burlington Electric Department and Vermont Electric Co-op.

Now, comes their latest pilot with 50 to 100 going out to GMP customers.

"It's really exciting actually, having never really made more than 10 to 20 for research-type projects," said Andrew Giroux, Packetized's chief engineer.

Packetized needs Vermonters to sign up for the project. It's free, an electrician does the installation and it comes with a $25 gift card for GMP customers.

But Giroux says it's about more than that.

"What it really comes down to is this helps the grid run cleaner and safer without you noticing, so it's kind of a no brainer," said Giroux.

Packetized isn't the only company trying to control devices to work around peak times on the grid, they're just using a different way.

The company is just one of a handful that have graduated from Green Mountain Power's Inspire Space. That's a rent-free office that lets innovators work with the GMP leadership team on projects.

Packetized Energy got its start there in 2016 with four people. In May, the company moved into its own office space and now employs 10 people, with a job opening for a software developer.

Giroux calls working at the Inspire Space "phenomenal."

"Speaking of no brainers, the Inspire Space is right at the top of the list," said Giroux. "You get to sit in the headquarters of basically one of the world's most innovate energy companies, get advice from the people who are running that company and interact with all these big names in the game while developing your product."

Besides the Mello for water heaters, Packetized Energy is also interested in technology for pool pumps, air conditioners and car chargers.