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The outlet is over 100 years old, and it needs a redesign for the smart home

The modern electrical system in homes just doesn’t make sense anymore. I can’t stand it when I have to plug in a massive power brick that dominates an entire outlet; it just means I have to go out and spend more money on a power strip.

An early version of the American electrical plug and socket was patented in 1904, and its basic design has remained relatively consistent since then. The home has not. Standardized electrical circuits, television, home theater systems, and so much more have become staples in our day-to-day life, but we’re still working with a basic concept that was designed over 100 years ago. It’s time for the outlet to catch up to the 21st century.

It’s also time device manufacturers consider the size and availability of plugs. If the smart home is ever going to be truly “smart,” then there is a lot that needs to change about the way the modern home approaches outlets and electrical supply.

The problem with outlets

When you woke up this morning, you probably took your phone off its charger. That’s usually the first thing we do in the morning. How did it charge? For most of us, it’s through a USB connection, or possibly through a wireless charger that is also connected through USB.

Smart phone wireless charger on top of night stand.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Phones, tablets, and many other devices use various USB cables to charge. And these devices don’t need a power brick if there is a powered USB port around. Many homes and smart power strips now include USB ports for easy charging of mobile devices, but not all do — and even those that include USB ports often sandwich them between the two AC outlets, forcing you to choose between one type of connection or the other.

Outlets are also not big enough. Traditional outlets are so close together that larger power bricks, such as the one used by some versions of the Amazon Echo, require the entire outlet, not just a single plug. Even if you replace the outlet with a newer model, the size issue remains.

Some people have taken to installing much larger outlets in their home, creating a sort of built-in power strip. This is a viable option for new homes and new construction, but it’s not so easy to retrofit in an older home. In many cases, the wiring in older homes can’t support that kind of load.

Think of it this way: Most rooms in the home are on a single circuit. You know that you can only plug in so many devices before the circuit overloads and throws the breaker, leaving you quite literally in the dark. In some cases, a blown fuse can forcefully throw the power cable across the room. Larger rooms like the living room might have multiple circuits, but then the problem becomes figuring out where to plug in what device to prevent overloading a circuit. I grew up in a house built in 1905, where the circuit breaking was not labeled correctly and it was difficult to determine which outlet was on which circuit.

Using a surge protector can provide you with more plugs, but then you’re left with a mess of cables. If you’re anything like me, you try your best to prevent guests from looking behind your television at the tangled jungle of wires. All of these factors are reasons why the outlet needs to evolve with the changing needs of technology. It’s no longer enough to stick with the old method.

The solution lies in new designs

The design of the outlet isn’t the only thing to blame, however. Too many smart devices have obnoxiously large power bricks. The aforementioned Amazon Echo, for example. Another culprit can be found in LED strips. The LIFX Z LED is a simple strip of LEDs, a type of light that uses far less power than normal. Why, then, does it require a massive brick that takes up more than its fair share of the power strip? Another question: Why can’t power supplies have the same orientation, instead of some laying up and down and others going to the left or right?

Outlet orientation on a power strip.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

One reason is that this technology isn’t just for power — it’s also housing the Wi-Fi adapter and Bluetooth technology that allows you to control it remotely. That isn’t reason enough for the brick to be so large, though. The Xbox One is the perfect example of this. Its power brick is absolutely massive, but isn’t forced right up to the outlet; instead, a separate cable extends for around 18 inches before the brick begins, and then another cable spans the gap from the brick to the console itself.

This compromise is the perfect way to reduce outlet-hogging by devices. It might add to the wire clutter, but there are solutions there, too. Many people run the wiring for their television through the wall. It just requires cutting out a small section, fishing the cable down through the empty space in the wall, and pulling it back out near the floor and connecting it to a power source. Entire hardware kits are available that make this process easy for homeowners.

Another possible solution (at some point in the future) is true wireless power. Prototypes of this kind of technology have been shown at CES. For example, a transmitter placed in the center of the room powered a model train on the floor with no cables whatsoever. Of course, there is still a ways to go before this becomes reality — the transmission is easily interrupted by stepping in front of it and it can’t transmit enough power for something like a TV or computer.

This problem is one with two facets, which means the answer can come from more than one place. Either manufacturers can begin producing devices with power connections that fit together in a logical manner, or homes need to be redesigned to accommodate the electrical needs of the modern era.

The latter solution is the best one. Perhaps modular power supplies could be an option. Homeowners could choose whether they want an AC outlet or just an array of USB ports, and could swap out the options depending on current need.

Swidget Customizable Outlet
Swidget Customizable Outlet

Then there’s the other solution: Wire-free devices in the form of smart devices with larger battery capacity that could be charged as needed, or devices with solar arrays that take advantage of ambient light in the room. Govee has a line of smart lights that can be plugged in to charge, but can then be unplugged and placed anywhere you want in the home.

Perhaps new homes could be constructed with built-in electrical monitors. Imagine a home with smart outlets in every room, where the flow of electricity could be automatically controlled to meet the need. The outlets themselves could serve as the first line of defense against overload, rather than relying solely on the circuit breaker.

No matter where the answer comes from, one thing is clear: The design of the home needs to change in order to meet the demands of modern electrical usage. The outlet is not efficiently designed to meet current needs, especially with the amount of power the average family uses. While devices use less and less power as efficiency improves, accessing that power has started to become a problem.

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Patrick Hearn
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Patrick Hearn writes about smart home technology like Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant, smart light bulbs, and more. If it's a…
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