How the Software Motor Company is raising the bar with the “LED of Motors”
Motors consume more than 45% of a building’s electricity but are often overlooked when it comes to reducing energy. The Software Motor Company (SMC) based in Silicon Valley is working to address that.
“Electric motor technology hasn’t changed much in 75 years until now,” says Ryan Morris, executive chairman at SMC. Morris and his team are on a mission to put motors on the energy-saving map with their smart, ultra-efficient, high-rotor-pole switched reluctance motor.
Switched reluctance motors (SRM) have been used for years in niche applications—such as inside nuclear reactor cores or mines—where reliability is key. “SRMs are the most reliable electric motors because they eliminate most potential failure modes of motors such as magnets, overlapping coils that can short, and rotor currents,” Morris says. “While the motors are reliable, they have historically not been very efficient.”
SMC designed a mechanically leaner, switched reluctance motor and developed intelligent software to control it, making the motor inherently more efficient and reliable. The company’s patented and award-winning system has been tested in labs and the field and found to boost efficiency—reducing HVAC energy use by up to 50% when compared to induction motors.
“A motor is typically just a motor. But SMC has taken the motor to a whole new level,” says Mike Petouhoff, former energy manager at Apple who is now vice president of business development at SMC. He says SMC’s switched reluctance motor benefits customers four ways: improved energy efficiency, intelligent controllability, increased reliability, and affordability.
“HVAC motors are either standard or premium efficiency. SMC motors are in the ultra-premium category and demonstrably better than what you get from standard or premium efficiency motors,” says Richard Almini, president and CEO of Legacy Mechanical & Energy Services, an energy-focused HVAC design-build firm in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Almini’s company conducted eight pilot projects with customers in different industry sectors to demonstrate the SMC motor’s energy efficiency. It measured the energy savings by attaching watt nodes to the motor’s power source. The watt nodes are fed into the SMC controller that automatically uploads performance data to the cloud. “We consistently documented energy savings in real-time starting as soon as the motors were operating,” Almini says. One Legacy customer was so impressed with the smart motor’s capabilities that it contracted to install motors in eight additional locations.
“Other companies have intelligent controls, but they don’t have the motor SMC redesigned to be smart and more reliable. One of the main selling points to our customer base has been its affordability. It costs less to purchase than variable frequency motors and its streamlined design and simplicity make it much less expensive to operate.”
It’s not just the physics that are more efficient. SMC motors maintain efficiency at slower speeds where the best airflow economies are achieved. The total annualized energy savings in four field trials—when comparing SMC motors against induction motors running at variable speeds—averaged 63%. At reduced speeds used for heating, cooling, and venting, the savings were as high as 91%.
“Contractors are ultimately in the business of saving energy for their customers. SMC’s motor is a cost-effective way to take the biggest piece out of the energy pie, requiring a company to make a much lower investment than what it would spend to replace other HVAC equipment,” Petouhoff says.
Another savings benefit: replacing the motor is a simple, cost-effective retrofit. “It takes an average of two hours to remove an existing motor and install a new one,” Morris says.
Variable frequency drives (VFD) in induction motors can control motor speeds but can’t provide intelligent feedback. SMC’s motor collects this data because it is self-sensing by design. No external sensors are needed because the motor is the sensor.
The motor shares intelligence on speeds and torque loads and other actionable data that can be used for diagnostics. “The data is not just about how the motor is performing. It shows how the entire building system is operating and generates alerts and notifications highlighting whether, for example, a filter needs to be changed or the air flow is being blocked,” Petouhoff says.
SMC’s Smart Motor Drive can also receive and process input from devices like carbon dioxide sensors, pressure sensors, and room thermostats, and process this data for meaningful control sequences. The SMC components can also be easily tied into an existing building management system, allowing the motor’s intelligence to automatically process the data and use it to precisely control the motor and improve system performance. “SMC’s intelligent motors tell the whole story and we believe they could be the end of the story for motors with dated designs that have little if any smarts,” Petouhoff says.
The ultra-premium design that makes the motor more efficient also makes it more reliable. A standard motor will fail when it overheats, as the heat impacts winding insulation and bearing lubrication. SMC motors run cooler and reduce overheating failures. SMC motors use military grade bearings and wide-radius independent coils that are fully encapsulated.
Another growing reliability challenge for induction motors controlled by VFDs is “fluting,” bearing damage caused by numerous small arcs from rotor currents. Because the SMC motor has no rotor currents, this isn’t an issue.
Electronically commutated motors (ECMs) were first introduced in the 1980s, gaining traction in HVAC, but can also fail when their glued-on magnets detach or overheat and de-magnetize. SMC motors do not use magnets.
And, unlike induction motors that can stop working when one of its phases drops out, the SMC motor continues operating because its intelligence automatically takes control and powers the two remaining phases.
“These are a few of the ways SMC avoids the fault modes that plague the induction motor,” Petouhoff says. “Equally important, because the SMC motor provides ongoing feedback, it provides preemptive notification well in advance so our customers can take corrective action and mitigate any performance issues.”
By bringing the Internet of Things to the electric motor industry and designing the “LED of motors,” SMC is well positioned to provide value-added services that solve everyday commercial energy challenges. SMC is also currently the only electric motor provider that offers a five-year warranty. In the coming months, SMC plans to release the certified findings of its lab and field tests. The company currently markets motors from half to 5HP and plans to introduce models up to 20HP and 100HP this year.
“Motors are the proverbial low-hanging fruit when it comes to making dramatic improvements in building energy efficiency,” Morris says. “The widespread adoption of these motors will be a big step toward a better, more sustainable future.”
Switched Reluctance Motor at a Glance
HVAC energy reduced by up to 50%
Superior motor efficiency
Smart Motor Drive automatically operates motor at optimum speed
Longer lifespan than induction motors
Notifications via the cloud
User-friendly IoT controls
Made of high-quality raw materials
Industry leading five-year motor warranty