Smart panels: What you need to know

Can they actually out-smart an old breaker box?

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Assorted smart panels and energy management systems from Span, Schneider Electric, Savant, and Leviton

Your breaker box has two jobs: Prevent electrical fires, and keep all the circuits organized.

This classic design has proven themselves to be so effective, across hundreds of millions of homes over multiple decades, that most of us never even think about them. 

Like almost any other appliance and gadget circa 2024, you could upgrade to a “smart” electrical panel. It allows you to monitor your energy usage and control your circuits using—what else—a smartphone app.

So what? Energy monitors and smart plugs have most of the same features, and cost a lot less to install. Also, why fix what isn’t broken? Especially when it comes to such a critical part of your home’s infrastructure, like the electrical panel.

As it turns out, smart panels actually have a couple of killer use cases that other tech simply can't pull off. Here's what you need to know.

Full smart panels like the Span Smart Panel, Koben Genius, or upcoming Schneider Electric Pulse are designed to completely replace your traditional electrical panel (aka load center, aka breaker box). (Disclosure: Schneider Electric owns EnergySage). You can rip out the old box, put in a new smart one, fill it with regular circuit breakers, and it’ll handle all the same safety and circuit-organizing functions as a regular box—plus wirelessly monitor your energy use and give you circuit-level control, through a companion app

Span panel open in a garage

The Span smart panel fully replaces an existing breaker box. It'll need to be filled with the same kind of standard circuit breakers as any traditional electrical panel. Image: Span

Smart electrical systems also come in a few other varieties that aren’t quite smart panels, but attach to your traditional, non-smart main breaker box to add wireless control and monitoring for individual circuits. They solve a lot of the same problems as full panels, and they can be more practical to install than a full-on replacement.

  • Lumin makes a sub-panel that smartens up a dozen circuits in your main box, no additional circuit breakers required. 

  • Savant makes circuit-level modules that you install alongside regular breakers in a regular box. 

  • Eaton and Leviton make smart circuit breakers that you can use in place of a regular circuit breaker, at least in certain models of electric panels.

You might call these partial-panel products “home energy management systems,” as Energy Star does. They can accomplish a lot of the same goals as full smart panels, sometimes for a lower price. So for the sake of comparison, we’re lumping them all together. (And not for nothing, three times more people search Google for “smart panels” versus “energy management systems.”)

The Savant Power Module system works inside of traditional electrical panels. Each circuit that you'd like to turn smart will need its own module, connected to and sitting alongside standard circuit breakers. Image: Savant

Traditional electrical panels and circuit breakers typically last for decades with minimal maintenance. They’re made by venerable companies with decades of experience building reliable hardware, and robust networks of contractors who work with their products.

Smart panels and breakers on the other hand are a relatively new technology, and nobody can say with confidence how they’ll hold up over the same amount of time as an old-school breaker box. Most products are certified for safety by Underwriters Laboratory (UL), and satisfy the National Electrical Code. But what about spare parts, software support, and security patches? 

Some smart panels come from traditional hardware manufacturers with decades-long track records, which could bode well for longevity. But they don’t necessarily have much experience developing and maintaining consumer-facing software—like the smartphone apps that make the panels smart. That’s not to say they can’t do it, but it’s something that they haven’t proven yet.

On the other hand, new players like Span and Lumin have limited experience building hardware or working with contractors, and don’t have extensive track records on the consumer side anyway. It’s hard to say what this could mean in the long run.

What happens when the internet is out, or if the app is discontinued?

We don’t know of any smart panel manufacturers that have gone belly up—but some smart home brands have, and even the companies that survive sometimes stop supporting older gadgets. It’s not hard to imagine that some smart panels could lose their software support over time. 

The not-so-bad news is that no matter what happens, smart panels and breakers can just turn “dumb” when they’re unable to connect to the internet or a smartphone app. You’ll always still have a functional breaker box. One Span owner compared it to an escalator, which just turns into a staircase when it breaks. (Sorry for the convenience).

Smart panels and energy managers are more versatile than energy monitors like the Sense or Emporia Vue, which track your energy use but can't control the power. 

Compared to device-level energy managers like the Lumin Edge system, or just a bunch of smart plugs, smart panels are centralized at your home’s power supply and can coordinate the flow of energy more effectively.

Smart home gadgets and appliances like the Nest thermostat or Tesla EV charger (to pick just two out of hundreds of examples) actually offer more control over your stuff than a smart panel does—the panel can’t change the temperature on the thermostat, or shut off individual outlets and lighting fixtures without additional hardware. 

A smart panel’s standout feature is that it coordinates between your circuits, which comes in handy when you want or need to restrict how much power you’re using—like you would if you’re getting a solar battery, or electrifying your home on limited amperage.

If you’re getting a solar battery, smart panels give you a lot more flexibility over how that battery will work, compared to a more traditional electrical setup.

Today’s most popular solar batteries usually can’t power everything in your home all at once, at least not for very long. 

One way to get around that is with multiple batteries, but that’ll easily cost five figures on top of the initial installation costs.

Instead, many homeowners set up what’s known as a critical load sub-panel. The battery only powers the items connected to that panel—typically the fridge and other kitchen outlets, HVAC, probably an entertainment center, you get the idea. That way, the demand for electricity won’t outstrip what the battery can actually supply. (Gas generators use a critical load panel, too.)

The downside: If you change your mind about what stuff you want connected to the battery, you’ll need to pay an electrician a few hundred bucks to rewire the sub-panel. As you gradually switch over to an electric car, stove, heat pump, and so on, those housecalls can add up—and with limited slots for backup power, how do you prioritize everything? 

Smarter backup

A smart panel is a more flexible and some might say elegant way to manage all those tradeoffs with solar batteries.

The panel works like an air traffic controller for your home’s electrical system, keeping an eye on what energy your battery can supply (the runway), and what energy your appliances and electronics demand (the planes). 

You set the order of importance in an app, and the panel takes it from there. After the critical circuits are covered, the panel might allow some nice-to-have circuits to kick on, as long as there’s enough juice to go around. As the energy demands shift—maybe you turned on an extra burner on the stove, or the heat pump kicked up to a higher setting—the smart panel can make adjustments to other circuits within milliseconds.

If you decide during a particular power outage that you’d rather power up your home office than the entertainment center, you can make that change in the app within seconds, no electrician required.

Surge-pricing savings

If your utility company has a time-of-use rate plan (aka surge pricing, where the cost of electricity skyrockets in the late afternoon and early evening) a smart panel could help you save even more money than a solar battery alone.

While surge pricing is in effect, the smart panel keeps an eye on your circuits and figures out how to run as much stuff as possible with the battery’s stored energy, while trying not to pull from the grid. In most setups, you can dip into grid power if you need it, but the panel can help you avoid it.

You don’t need a smart panel to prioritize the battery during peak demand, but it gives you more options. When you get a battery installed without a smart panel, you typically need to decide whether to favor the most possible savings on your energy bill, or the most reliable backup power. With the right smart-panel setup, you can quickly change your strategy through the app, and even pre-program those changes based on the time of day or other conditions.

And if you’re determined to use as little grid electricity as possible, a smart panel could actually be one of the most efficient ways to get there: Instead of adding extra solar panels and battery packs, a smart panel helps you squeeze extra efficiencies out of a smaller solar and storage setup. (Ask This Old House has a great video explainer on the topic, too.)

Finally, if you’re eligible to participate in a virtual power plant program (your battery feeds the grid in times of high demand), a smart panel can help coordinate the power flows there more effectively, too.

If you’re electrifying your home and your old panel can’t keep up with the new demand, a smart panel could be the cheapest, most convenient way to solve that problem.

It’s a challenge to run an all-electric house off of 100 amps of electrical service, as likely tens of millions of homes in the US currently have. So if your breaker box has “100A” printed on the big switch at the top, you’ll usually need to figure out a workaround before you can totally ditch fossil fuels, particularly if you live in a part of the US with cold winters.

The traditional workaround has been to get a service upgrade from the utility company, because it’s simple and straightforward. (This Old House, once again, has a great video on how this works.) The project will cost at least a couple thousand dollars, but for a lot of people, it’s the least-worst option.

Service upgrades aren’t always practical, though. If you need to excavate a sidewalk to access the service line, for example, it’ll be brutally expensive. Some utility companies also have a backlog of more than a year before they’ll be able to perform an upgrade. The whole thing can be a big mess. 

In those cases, a smart panel could be a more expedient or less expensive fix. 

In the same way that a smart panel can manage your circuits without overdrawing your solar battery, it can also manage your circuits overdrawing your entire electrical supply. 

So if you turn on one too many high-draw appliances—HVAC, induction stove, toaster oven, dryer, EV charger, curling iron, all on top of the fridge, TV, and lights—the smart panel will shut down one of the lower-priority circuits within milliseconds. That avoids tripping the main breaker, which would kill the power to your entire home.

Even some homes with 200 amps of service can butt up against their service limits if they have multiple HVAC units, EVs, a pool heater, and so on. A smart panel can help keep a lid on the energy use in that situation, too. 

Smart panels aren’t cheap, but neither are traditional electrical service upgrades, so you should get quotes for both options and compare.

There are plenty of other decent reasons to buy a smart panel, but they aren’t slam-dunks like the ones outlined above. If you were leaning toward a smart panel anyway, then sure, these can be fine extra reasons to shell out for one of these systems. Here are some of the most common ones we’ve come across: 

If you’re updating your electrical system anyway, you might as well future-proof your system by installing a smart panel—even without a battery, or other concrete use case. Sure. Or you could just wait until you actually need one, and then tack on a smart sub-panel or modular energy manager, tailored to whatever you need at the time. Something new and improved will probably come along in a few years anyway.

Smart panels can help you earn cash rewards and keep the electric grid stable during times of peak demand, in combination with demand-response programs. Yes, they can. So can individual smart-home devices, like thermostats and EV chargers, or modular energy managers on specific high-draw circuits. They’re cheaper and easier to install, and offer most of the same benefits for the grid. Solar batteries make the biggest difference here, with or without a smart panel.

You’ll save money on energy over time with a smart panel, even without a battery. Possibly. According to at least one Department of Energy Study, energy monitors and management systems can help homeowners trim their energy bills. People who know how they’re using energy tend to waste less of it. But even under optimistic energy-savings scenarios, it’ll take a while to recoup the multi-thousand dollar price premium you pay for installing a full smart panel or sub-panel. Energy monitors, modular energy managers, smart EV chargers, and smart (or even just programmable) thermostats will likely have shorter payback periods.

Smart panels make sense even with a solar-only system (no battery), because they let you ration your free solar power more effectively. This isn’t wrong, especially when the smart panel can communicate directly with specific high-draw devices like an EV charger—it can put the precise amount of surplus solar power toward charging the car, rather than sending it to the grid, for example. If it’s just a trickle of extra solar power, that’s all the car gets. If there’s a whopping 6 kW of excess juice, then it’ll all go to the EV before it zips off to the grid. But there are other less expensive devices that do the same thing—plenty of smart EV chargers can communicate directly with popular solar inverters, for example. 

Smart panels can help you spot appliance malfunctions before they get really expensive and disruptive. This can be true. For example, a heat pump can leak a lot of refrigerant before it stops working. But with every ounce that evaporates, the heating and cooling efficiency gets worse, and higher energy bills can sneak up on you over time. (Refrigerants aren't cheap to replace either, so the less you lose to leaks, the better—for everyone.) With a smart panel or other energy monitor, you have a better shot at catching the energy use creeping upwards before it becomes a major issue. But again, you don’t need a full smart panel to spot these trends: Energy monitors and managers can see it, and more and more appliances come with built-in systems to spot these issues.

For the equipment alone, expect to pay a price premium of at least $1,000 over a traditional breaker box or sub-panel, and possibly more. At the time of writing in early 2024, here’s what to expect:

  • The Lumin sub-panel costs between $2,500 and $3,150 just for the equipment, whereas a traditional sub-panel is about $100 for the box and another $200 for the circuit breakers at most. The labor costs for both should be similar.

  • The Span costs $3,500, while a “regular” full-size box is around $400 (both before labor). They’ll both need to be filled with a few hundred dollars’ worth of standard circuit breakers, too. 

  • Every Savant module costs $120 before labor (or $240, for the 50-amp version), and covers just one or two circuits at a time. To really unlock all the benefits of smart energy management, you’ll probably want to cover at least a dozen circuits (the same as the Lumin sub-panel).  Depending on how it gets set up, that’s a minimum of $1,200 - $1,500 just for the modules themselves, without getting into any trickle-down costs.

  • A Leviton Smart Breaker costs $75 for a standard 20 amp unit, whereas a traditional 20 amp breaker is $7. Smart breakers with higher amperage or GFCI protection have a similarly steep markup over their “dumb” versions.

That’s all before labor, which can cost several thousand dollars for a full panel replacement. Pricey as they are, if you’re deciding between spending $6,500 all-in to install a Span or Schneider Pulse box, vs. a $10,000 service upgrade that involves excavating a sidewalk (plus a 12-month waiting period before the utility can get around to the work), the smart panel seems like a much better deal.

In the context of a solar battery, you might end up saving money in the long run through incremental savings on your energy bill, or through fewer house calls from your electrician, but that’s not guaranteed. 

One upside to note: If you upgrade your panel as part of a battery installation, it would appear that the tax code allows you to claim a 30% tax credit against the cost of the new panel, smart or otherwise—with no limit on the credit. That would certainly help. It’s a bit of a gray area, so check with a tax advisor to confirm.

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