Energy Detectives

By 2015, approximately 28 million homes will have home energy-monitoring systems, according to Dallas-based Pike Research. This prediction is driven by trends in consumers’ green aspirations and their desire to save money as energy prices rise.

Energy monitoring focuses on compiling data regarding electrical usage so homeowners can determine the best way to control consumption and thereby conserve energy. Consumers can purchase independent energy-monitoring systems that are available in various price ranges and cater to everyone from apartment dwellers to high-end homeowners. Although utilities are promising new smart-grid technologies, for now, in-home energy-monitoring systems offer a fast, easy and secure way to monitor energy usage.

“Getting the data is a big issue,” says Jared Asch, national director of Washington, D.C.-based Efficiency First, an advocate for policies that will create the foundation for a sustainable and scalable home retrofit market. “To save, you need to know what’s happening with your house.”

Today’s Systems

According to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Berkeley, Calif., a typical American home has 40 products constantly drawing what is called standby power (power consumed when electronics are off or in sleep mode). Standby power accounts for almost 10 percent of all residential electricity use.

Energy-monitoring systems can offer various views of a home’s electrical usage. Some systems offer data by the hour, day or month. Data can be separated by room or circuit and superimposed on a house’s floor plan. Some systems include the option of a complete breakdown of a homeowner’s utility bill.

Monitoring systems can track any electrical device on a property, including outdoor lighting, fountains and pools. Because larger appliances, like refrigerators, stoves and clothes dryers, typically are on their own circuit, it is easy to identify when they are drawing excessive electricity.

Energy-monitoring systems make it possible for a homeowner to specify an energy budget and set rules for the home’s energy use. The systems are operated in a variety of formats, including wall-mounted touch screens, Web-based applications, mobile phones and handheld devices. However, homeowners must be proactive in their energy management.

“Consumers should be aware that energy-monitoring systems use the word ‘monitoring’ for a reason,” says Kris Kot, account specialist with New York-based P3 International, a manufacturer of energy-monitoring systems. “Such systems monitor—not manage—which means a user needs to take appropriate actions based on the gathered data.”

For example, San Diego-based EcoDog Inc., a manufacturer of energy-monitoring systems, reports on its Web site that a user discovered through its monitoring software interface that a basement dehumidifier was consuming excessive energy. After upgrading to an Energy Star-rated appliance, the homeowner saw electricity savings of nearly $90 per month.

Installation

Many monitoring systems feature an energy sensor that is installed at the breaker panel. The sensor communicates through the home’s existing power lines with an adapter box linked to a home computer through a USB connection. Because the sensor is installed at the breaker panel, the monitor is able to display detailed, room-by-room energy usage. The necessary software is configured by the installer.

“Having a CEDIA [Custom Electronic Design and Installation Association] firm involved as the quarterback is an important component to making this work for the contractor,” explains Mark Komanecky, a CEDIA instructor and vice president of sales and marketing for Durham, N.C.-based Eragy Inc. He recommends selecting a firm with a track record in installation of monitoring systems and relying on that partner as a key subcontractor.

Ron Pitt, EcoDog’s chief executive officer, says when energy-monitoring systems are installed at the early stages of a remodel, the energy-usage data can assess patterns so homeowners can make more informed product-purchasing decisions “to get the biggest bang for their buck.” For example, the systems’ built-in analytics can identify inefficient appliances and their level of usage so homeowners can decide whether to purchase new, energy-efficient products.

For an average 2,400-square-foot home, energy-monitoring system prices range from about $200 for a very basic plug-in system to approximately $2,000 for a sophisticated, high-end system. “I think the trend will be for these systems to become more cost effective over time,” Komanecky notes. “Today, a system may not be affordable for everybody, but in time will be affordable for a much broader set of the population.” In addition, the upfront investment can help homeowners reduce resource consumption and experience significant energy savings over time.

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