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 Corp., 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.

Harry Spaulding writes from Boston about construction and construction materials.

Energy-monitoring Systems

The next time a homeowner asks how to make his home more energy efficient, consider the following products:

  • Blueline Innovations Inc.
    PowerCost Monitor
    • Sensor unit attaches to electric utility meter and wirelessly transmits energy-usage information to a portable monitor
    • Real-time energy charting with Microsoft Hohm or Google PowerMeter
    • Has been shown to help consumers save up to 18 percent on their energy bills

    Type 76 in E-Inquiry Form

  • EcoDog Inc.
    FIDO Home Energy Watchdog
    • Shows real-time usage with circuit-by-circuit detail
    • Sends "GridSmart" messages when abnormal energy use is detected
    • When used with controllable switches and appliances, the system can turn off appliances and outlets based on a homeowner’s preferences
    • Compatible with renewable-energy systems with detailed net metering showing dollars and kilowatt hours

    Type 77 in E-Inquiry Form

  • Eragy Inc.
    Intelligent Home Energy Management
    • Tracks standard, time-of-use, tiered and demand pricing from electrical utilities
    • Control4 system—wireless thermostats and high-current relays—intelligently controls home systems and limits peak electrical demand
    • Dealers gain access to real-time notifications of problems with clients’ Control4 systems

    Type 78 in E-Inquiry Form

  • P3 International Corp.
    P4200 Kill A Watt Wireless
    • Basic plug-in device requires no installation and has wireless range of up to 300 feet
    • Display can be used with up to eight wireless sensors and shows eight units of measurement
    • Calculates costs by day, week, month and year
    • Built-in software allows homeowners to combine kilowatt-hour data with the type of electricity generated in their area (coal, hydro, atomic) for a more precise reading

    Type 79 in E-Inquiry Form

  • Tendril Inc.
    Insight
    • Touch-screen display alerts customers of pending pricing changes or upcoming demand-response events
    • Helps customers build customized energy plan to automate routine tasks, like running the dishwasher and adjusting the thermostat during peak load times
    • One-touch "away" function lets users conserve energy when they are away from home

    Type 80 in E-Inquiry Form

The Impending Smart Grid

Utility companies currently are developing smart-grid technologies, which will offer customers a comprehensive energy-management system that can control all major appliances in the home. When smart grids are fully implemented, smart appliances, which utilize computer and communications technology, will link to the smart-grid power source to remotely manage their usage and optimize energy use by operating at the best time of day. To maximize the benefits of utilities’ probable time-of-use billing structures, homeowners can choose a comprehensive energy-management system offered by their utility company or install their own independent in-house energy-monitoring system.

"Comprehensive energy-management systems for homes are simply not quite ready for prime time," says Ron Pitt, chief executive officer of San Diego-based EcoDog Inc. "Existing communication protocols have various advantages and disadvantages; so-called ‘smart’ appliances are in their infancy and no one is certain which standards will ultimately become dominant yet."

Despite the energy-saving benefits, impending smart-grid technologies have created privacy concerns. Smart grids allow utility companies to collect and store data about the habits of their customers, and utilities could share this information with partner companies for marketing purposes. The data also could be used to examine homeowners’ daily lives, such as schedules, alarm-system existence and ownership of expensive electronic equipment. Therefore, robust security measures to prevent system hacking are critical.

"People are just beginning to realize how power-usage information can disclose a great deal about their lives," Pitt notes. "Once they are aware, most prefer to keep that information to themselves."

Smart grids will give utilities an abundance of data so they can be proactive in managing their customers’ electricity needs. Energy-monitoring systems are designed to be independent of utilities so that homeowners can arm themselves with the information that will allow them to manage their own energy consumption. Customers eventually will need to determine whether they want to proactively alter their behaviors to save money or surrender control and let smart grids manage their energy usage for them.

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