Smart Water Heater Technology Part of West Kentucky Tornado Recovery

Randy Sukow

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Residents of Mayfield, KY, recently gathered for the ribbon-cutting ceremony for new homes built for families displaced by an historic string of tornadoes that swept through the Kentucky/Arkansas/Tennessee region on Dec. 10, 2021. According to the National Weather Service, the storms resulted in 57 deaths, more than 500 injuries, and more than 5,000 structures either damaged or destroyed.

NRTC member West Kentucky Rural Electric Cooperative, based in Mayfield, has been involved in the effort to build a new housing community for tornado victims. It is installing smart water heater technology in each home to help the community save on energy cost. NRTC donated Armada Power controller units to supply all the homes.

Under a project led by nonprofit Samaritan’s Purse, the charity will give homes as gifts to eligible tornado victims. The ribbon-cutting (pictured above left) marked the completion of the first 20 homes. The plan is to build a total of 65 by the end of 2024. “I was in Mayfield shortly after the storm hit, and the damage was indescribable,” Samaritan’s Purse President Franklin Graham said in a recent press release. “So many people were in shock and suffering—everything they had was gone in an instant.” A National Weather Service photo of Mayfield following the tornado strike (above) show just some of the damage.

Mayfield was one of the hardest hit towns. “The tornado literally took out the downtown area of Mayfield. It was a direct hit to the Court Square,” said Corey Belcher, West Kentucky REC’s manager of Engineering – Member Programs & Key Accounts. “My office sits about 400 to 500 yards from the edge of the tornado’s path. We had debris all over our office building and parking lots.”

Samaritan’s Purse set up a command center to in downtown Mayfield soon after tornado to help coordinate relief. Later it acquired several acres of land nearby to begin housing construction. West Kentucky REC got involved by contacting TVA, its G&T/regulator, to begin a fund matching program for the project. West Kentucky is providing a series of services to the community, including the water heater controllers.

“The subdivision gets very close to our office location … with all of those homes being in that small, concentrated cluster,” Belcher said. “We knew could use [Armada controllers] in a demand response pilot program.” If the pilot proves successful, the co-op could begin installing them more widely in its service territory.

NRTC has offered its members the Armada smart water heater solution since 2021. A device connects directly to the water heater, measures consumption and communicates that information to the utility by wireless (cellular or unlicensed) internet links. When combined with Armada’s patented FleetCommander software, the controller can be the basis of a demand response program saving households between $100 and $150 a year.

There was one problem. Samaritan’s Purse is building each two- and three-bedroom home with a steel reinforced bathroom to act as a safe room in case another disaster hits. The water heater and Armada controller will be in that room where, workers found, commercial cellular signals will not penetrate the reinforcement.

The solution was to build an antenna and signal-boosting equipment in the attic. Coaxial cable will then send a strong signal directly to a wireless device in the safe room (pictured left). “West Kentucky and Samaritan’s Purse split the cost to install cellular boosters to provide a signal adequate for not only for the water heater control, but also to provide cellular service to the homeowner should they be locked in,” Belcher said.

An aspect of the project that especially impresses Belcher is that Samaritan’s Purse is constructing homes with 100 percent volunteer labor. He said that earlier this fall, a representative of Samaritan’s Purse estimated 1,900 individuals have participated and volunteers have come from every state. “It’s been a pretty spectacular project to be a part of,” he said.

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