Making Energy Savings Fun

March 25, 2010
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Who says monitoring your home’s energy isn’t fun? A new breed of energy monitoring systems is embracing the power of entertainment and convenience. Call it Home Energy Monitoring 2.0 — and it may leave boring old kilowatt hour readings in the dust.

For example, control company Control4’s EMS 100 energy monitoring system being offered through electric utility smart grid trials can connect to a TV — via a separate Control4 processor or a Control4 IQ-licensed product — to provide a big-screen readout of your energy use. In other words, you can check your energy consumption during the commercial breaks of your favorite shows.

Control4 is also rolling out its own 4Store app store, which is bound to include on-screen buttons for advanced power management and automatic shut-offs of certain devices in the home. And via a software upgrade later this year, utilities can upload videos and public service announcements to their in-home systems.

GE’s Home Energy Panel takes a somewhat different tack. The readout device, which looks like a digital picture frame, will also connect with Internet news, sports, music, weather services, social networks like Facebook and instant messaging. According to GE, this multifunctionality helps make the panels a focal point for household information.

Combining energy and other information should increase the frequency of interactions with the device, says Dan Gittleman, CEO of OpenPeak, a partner of GE. And more frequent engagement means a greater number of opportunities to communicate energy information. Consumers who opt in to the social networking aspect of the panel will be able to compare their consumption to neighborhood and city averages. GE says the comparisons may inspire increased conservation for some homes.

Studies have shown that when people have feedback on their energy use, they see how they are wasting money and save anywhere from 5 percent to 15 percent. Control system companies claim that adding automated shutoffs and power-downs of electronic components, as well as other energy-saving events, could save even more. (See sidebar.)

The question is, what happens after the first couple of weeks of novelty, when going to the home energy panel or computer becomes the boring old task of checking kilowatt hours? Combining that with TV interfaces and news/sports/weather info seems a logical way to go.

But not all energy monitoring mavens think the infotainment route is the road best taken. PowerHouse dynamics, which is rolling out its eMonitor system that can measure energy use at the circuit level, is counting instead on its system’s ability to process information, offer energy-efficiency recommendations and send alerts to homeowners.

“I’m not sure yet that people see energy and entertainment in the same light,” says PowerHouse dynamics CEO Martin Flusberg. “You can do so much more on a web display than an in-home display, in terms of the depth of information you can show.” Flusberg says eMonitor’s web-based display can show an energy-use history in weeks or months so homeowners can spot their consumption trends.

These new energy monitoring systems and their approaches may well be transitory. After all, just how entertaining can viewing your energy usage be? As Flusberg says, “The winning strategy in this space [may include a system with preprogrammed] preferences from consumers, local energy rates and weather input, and it gives you information but otherwise is automatic.”

How Much Can You Save?

Studies show that by just receiving information on your energy use via an in-home display, you can save anywhere from 5 percent to 15 percent on your electric bill.

If you also receive information on time-of-use pricing, in which utilities charge higher rates for electricity use during peak load periods, savings increases to about 8 percent.

Add some home control features to that, such as automatically shutting off electronics or appliances at certain times, and experts say you can save upwards of 30 percent, in some instances.

This article originally appeared in Electronic House magazine.

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