New Energy Management/Monitoring Systems Making Saving Easy
A slew of solutions that range from basic to advanced, and include offerings from major companies such as Cisco, Intel, Comcast and more, are poised to save you money. And you don't have to do a thing.

Think about your relationship with your electric bill. If you’re like most of us, you get it in a paper envelope, rip it open and grimace. If you’re really interested, you might compare your energy use from one month to another. But if you’re still like most of us, eventually you pay the bill and move on. 

Now imagine that experience with affordable technologies that are available today. A simple interface on your computer or other display shows you, in real time, how much energy you’re using and translates it from those whatchamcallit kilowatt hours (kWh) to something you can understand, like dollars and cents. The interface also helps you identify devices or appliances in your house that are needlessly wasting energy. So by the time that old-school electric bill arrives in the mail, you already know what your electricity costs are—and, more importantly, that you’ve saved. While everyone else’s electric bills are going up, yours are going down, down, down.

The best part is, you achieved real savings by doing next to nothing.

This is what an energy monitoring and management system can do for your home—and your wallet. You can find many types of these systems already, from basic ones that report on your total electricity use to those offering more detailed data.

And now the big boys are moving in.

Intel has a home energy management system. So does Cisco and Google and Microsoft (sort of). Service giants ADT (security), Comcast (TV, Internet and phone) and Verizon (same) plan on providing them as well. All of these home energy monitoring and management systems allow you to see and react to information about your home’s energy consumption—in real time.

What’s so great about that? Studies have shown that people who are able to receive immediate feedback on their electricity usage save 5 percent to 15 percent on their electric bills.

Some energy monitors are being made available only to electric utilities for their smart grid rollouts. Others are already being sold online and through custom electronics dealers. Some are expensive and some are very affordable and some are free (in a sense). There are those that monitor only a home’s total electricity use, and others that measure power consumption at the circuit level or even at an individual electrical plug. Some systems have software that resides in the “cloud” of the Internet, and some keep the information local to your house. Some energy monitoring systems come in the form of software designed to run on a home computer, and others are combined into “dashboards” that do much more than monitor your energy use. And there are many more variations to come.

Why this sudden rash of energy management systems? One reason is that people are becoming more aware of their energy use—and the amount of energy wasted in our homes. Electricity costs are only expected to rise in the coming years. It makes sense, in this day and age, to know how much energy your home is using, rather than wait a month for a paper bill to arrive in the mail.

With immediate feedback on energy use, a homeowner can identify whether an appliance or other device, like a video game player, is causing “spikes” in the electric load—and then make changes to be more energy-efficient. They may find that a dehumidifier is being left on too long, or that a space heater is kicking on when no one is home. The information imparted by energy monitors can be surprising—and inspire you to start being smarter about your energy use.

In addition to the proliferation of energy monitoring devices, billions of U.S. stimulus dollars are being poured into electric utilities to roll out smart grid programs. Electric utilities are conducting trials on energy management services, and big companies like Intel, Cisco and Google are queuing up to provide the utilities with systems they can put into homes.

Types of Energy Managers

Basic programs like Google’s PowerMeter and basic systems like The Energy Detective (TED), which works with Google’s PowerMeter software, provide just the total electricity usage in a house. Other inexpensive energy monitors like the PowerCost Monitor from Blue Line Innovations do the same. The Google PowerMeter software displays a graph with dips and spikes, and it’s usually not difficult to discern what’s causing those spikes. Be sure the energy monitor allows you to input your utility’s rates. This way, it’ll be able to tell you how much energy you’re using in dollars—something you can definitely understand.

If you want to monitor appliances and other devices more definitively, a system that can measure consumption at the circuit level is ideal. Some of these, like commercial-grade systems from companies such as Agilewaves and Lucid Design Group, can also monitor gas and water consumption and the energy production of a solar or alternative energy system. They are the Ferraris of energy monitoring systems—and they usually cost thousands of dollars.

Powerhouse Dynamics is breaking that cost barrier, though. Its eMonitor can monitor at the circuit level and costs $499 for 12 sensors and $699 for 24 sensors (placed at your home’s circuit breakers)—with a additional subscription package that provides reports and recommendations to users.

Smart plugs are another option. The device you’d like to monitor attaches to the plug which measures the electrical draw from the power outlet. A smart plug can perform automated functions like turning the device on or off. That’s pretty cool, but the price of smart plugs can add up, and they’re unable to measure loads consumed by large energy users like hot water heaters and furnaces, which are hardwired rather than plugged in.

The same is true of some energy monitoring packages offered by high-end home control companies. They can monitor what’s on the control system’s network, including all the audio and video components and lights, perhaps, but probably not the refrigerator or your heating and cooling system. Some home control systems, though, can interface directly with energy monitoring systems like those from Agilewaves and Powerhouse Dynamics. It’s a setup that can result in much greater savings—some say up to 30 percent or more. Using information gathered by the energy monitoring device, he home control system can react appropriately, turning devices on and off, cutting vampire power that electronics continue to use when they’re “off,” dimming the lights and positioning motorized window treatments, putting the whole home in a low-power state, and more. The convenient energy- and money-saving possibilities are endless.

Realizing this, some home control manufacturers getting into the energy management business themselves. Control4, whose IP (Internet Protocol)-based system already works with TED (The Energy Detective), is also rolling out its own energy monitoring system, the EMS-100, initially through utilities.

Beyond Energy Monitoring

Energy monitoring marketers love to tout the study that found people save 5 percent to 15 percent just by having immediate feedback on their electricity consumption. But now they’re wondering what happens after that initial two-week period when people are running around the house shutting off their big energy hogs. Is it like going on a diet, and soon reverting back to our old, gut-busting ways?

That’s what they think.

Energy monitors [alone] don’t work, because energy information is boring,” says Alex Laskey, president of Opower, which provides electric utility customers with energy usage reports. “People don’t want real-time data. What they want are insights and analysis that help them save.”

Opower provides customers with comparisons with others in their areas, and has found that the social psychology of people wanting to fit into a group or community is a powerful motivator. Many of those who see that their energy use is above normal feel an incentive to start saving.

“Energy data alone is not enough to motivate consumers,” says Stephen Harper, Intel’s global director of environment and energy policy. To that extent, Intel’s Home Energy Management System doesn’t just do energy. It provides other functions, including a video message board via its built-in camera. Intel doesn’t think people will use a dedicated in-home display (IHD) just for energy use. In fact, the face of Intel’s dashboard is a clock, with a color-coded energy forecast for utility pricing by the hour.

Control4’s energy monitor, too, will offer weather and additional functions, besides just information about a home’s electric consumption. 

Like Intel, Cisco’s countertop touchscreen comes cloaked as a clock. And both companies will first look to roll out their offerings through utilities and service providers (ADT, Comcast and Verizon), before offering systems directly to homeowners.

Some energy monitors are even pushing recommendations, based on how much energy an appliance or a device uses. The Energy Management Solution from lighting and home control company Vantage, for example, can even estimate how much money a home will save by using occupancy sensors that trigger lights and other devices to turn on and off.

“We’re looking beyond energy management,” says Martin Flusberg, the CEO of Powerhouse Dynamics. “A car tells you all kinds of things going on with engine and the vehicle. But think of a house, and you don’t have that. We want to track appliances and send alerts, like when a well pump or a sump pump dies.”

Powerhouse Dynamics and others are looking to read how much power a circuit is using—say the one for an old refrigerator—and reporting to the homeowner that the appliance is using an increasing amount of electricity and that it may be time to service or replace it. “We’ve added diagnostics of other problems,” Flusberg says. “One that we just added was the result of a customer experience. The defrost cycle of his refrigerator was kicking off, so we wrote an alert for that.”

“Ultimately, no one’s going to be looking at these things in real time,” Flusberg admits, “but real time allows us to alert people in real time.”

The Killer App

The ability for an energy monitoring system to send alerts could be a big crowd pleaser.  But ultimately, home control will be the killer app by allowing homeowners to set their own parameters for devices around the home. For example, when the temperature of a room rises above a predetermined setpoint (measured by a temperature sensor) the home control system can close the motorized drapes. This integration of home control and energy management automates your energy use. Adjustments throughout your home can be handled by the control system’s processor, so you save money without having to think about it.

“Our goal is that [homeowners] don’t come and look at our dashboard—that they’re comfortable that our system is monitoring their home, and they come to us when we send alerts or opportunities for appliance rebates and a monthly report card,” Flusberg says.

Ultimately, energy monitoring and management systems will be “set it and forget it.” Their functions will be transparent to users, and require direct contact only when the system sends an alert about an appliance or the home’s energy use.

Remember that little dream sequence we started with? That you don’t have to do much of anything to save energy? That’s already happening. Our energy-saving dream is here.

Steven Castle - Contributing Writer
Steven Castle is Electronic House's managing editor. he has been writing about consumer electronics, homes and energy efficiency topics for two decades. He is also the co-founder of GreenTech Advocates.

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