3 Ways to Effortless Energy Savings

We profile a trio of homeowners who are using their automation systems to easily curb their home's electricity consumption.

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One of the biggest issues people have with saving energy is that it requires them to do something, like make a conscious effort to turn off the lights every time they leave the house. If you have a large house or a brood of kids, that can be a real drag, so much so that after a few weeks you stop doing it and go back to your old ways.

By automating those lights and other electronic systems, you’ll no longer feel like a slave to the green movement. Instead, you’ll be living exactly the way you normally live, while the automation system does all the switching for you—automatically at certain times of the day or when it receives a signal from a motion sensor, for example.

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The homeowners profiled here prove what’s possible when you choose to automate. They’ve been able to save money on their utility bills, for sure. But on a grander scale, it’s inspired them to become more energy conscious in other areas of their lives. They’ve taken up walking to the store instead of driving, buying organic and choosing recycled products for their home. All it took was a little automation to set them on their path toward greener living.

CARBON NEUTRAL NEAR CAPITOL HILL

Dave Smith initially wanted a house smaller than the 2,800-square-foot Los Angeles home he and his family had lived in for 10 years. But what Dave, his wife Louise and daughter Bella found in their move to McLean, Va., was a 5,000-square-foot, green, solar- and geothermal-fueled, carbon neutral residence, fully equipped with a sophisticated home automation system. “The fact that the house was green wasn’t initially what attracted us to it,” says Smith. “We liked the size of it and its contemporary style. Also, although it was considerably larger than our Los Angeles home, it wasn’t the mansion-sized home that seemed to define most of what was available in McLean.”

The CharityWorks GreenHouse, as it is known nationally, was designed and constructed by GreenSpur in Falls Church, Va., to be the first carbon-neutral show house in the country. (GreenSpur defines a carbon neutral home as being 80 percent more efficient than a comparable home built to standard building codes. Consequently, the “carbon neutral” home emits 80 percent less carbon.)

Elements like solar panels; solar hot water, geothermal heating and cooling, structural insulated panels (SIPs), LED lights, recycled building materials, low-flow water fixtures, a rainwater harvesting system, and Energy Star-rated appliances and windows all contribute to the savings. But according to GreenSpur president Mark Turner, it’s the home’s automation system that may have the biggest impact. “The most important thing when it comes to saving energy is having people change their behavior,” he says. “It’s more critical, even, than having solar panels.”

One 7-inch touchpanel in the home and Dave’s iPad relate real-time energy production and consumption information to Smiths. They can see in an instant how many kilowatts of electricity the solar cells are generating hourly and daily, and compare that to a read-out of how many kilowatts of electricity the lights, heating and cooling system and other devices are burning. “You can actually see the bar graph change as lights are turned on and off,” says Jordon Hobart of Hill Residential Systems, the company that designed the AMX NetLinx and Lutron HomeWorks control systems.

By reviewing their household energy trends, the Smiths can change how and when they heat and cool the house and dim a few lights lower than the current 85 percent presets. Even minor adjustments like these can make a big difference, says Smith. “For one month, our electricity bill was $73, and this was in the summer when we had our AC running.” That’s a drop in the bucket compared to the monthly $700 bill they paid for a 6,000-square-foot rental house down the street.

The Smiths attribute most of the energy savings to the efficient use of their heating and cooling system. Managed by the AMX system, the home’s three thermostats adjust automatically at times that were programmed into the system. MORNING, DAY, EVENING and night modes are scheduled, but to reduce their energy use even more, the Smiths can modify the temperature set points and start times of any mode on any thermostat directly from the screen of an AMX touchpanel. If they’ll be away for several hours during a time when they are normally home, they can set back the heat or air conditioning temporarily or extend the DAY mode. Granted, it’s possible to do this without the help of a home automation system, but the Smiths doubt they would be so conscientious if they had to reset each thermostat manually. “Being able to control every thermostat from one spot is a huge convenience,” says Smith.

Another simple, yet highly effective energy-saving feature—this one facilitated by the Lutron HomeWorks system—is an ALL OFF button. Found on Lutron keypads by each exterior door, the command switches off every light in the house—again, something the Smiths would likely not take the time to do the old-fashioned way. A green mode may soon be added to the system, too. When engaged, it will adjust the thermostats and lights to reduce their energy consumption by 25 percent.

By being simple, convenient and straightforward, automation systems have introduced the Smiths to a greener, more energy-conscious lifestyle. “Now that I understand the benefits of green technology, I can’t imagine living in a house without it. I’ve been bitten by the green bug. I may not be as extreme as Ed Begley Jr., but I’m closer than I’ve ever been.”

HIGH-TECH BUT ENERGY-WISE

About this time last year, Kimberly Lancaster and Joe Hageman were in the midst of building a 4,400-square foot house, with a goal of making it as green and energy-efficient as possible. Oh, and to also have it receive a LEED for Homes (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) designation. After living in the house for nine months, Lancaster is proud to say that she achieved exactly what she had intended. Her lower-than-normal energy bills prove it. “Our monthly electric bill is about $450, including our geothermal heating and cooling costs, but this house is twice the size of my previous one and our monthly bills there ran $300, plus he cost of heating oil,” which was anywhere from $280 to $380 a month. All totaled, it’s an impressive savings, especially given that Lancaster’s house is brimming with all kinds of electronics: multiple computers, entertainment systems, charging stations, and scads of other devices. “We didn’t want to give up these conveniences just so we could be green or to have our house feel stark and uncomfortable,” she explains.

Automation is a big reason Lancaster is able to enjoy these creature comforts yet still maintain an energy-efficient lifestyle. Her Control4 system manages nearly every electronic component in the house—even the rack of networking and video equipment that feeds movies and cable programs to her flat-panel TVs.

Come to find out—through energy data gathered by the Control4 system—the equipment in that rack was sucking up an “astonishing” amount of electricity. With assistance from Control4, the custom electronics professionals (CE pros) at Rhode Island–based Robert Saglio Audio Video Design were able to program the Control4 system to power down the rack automatically between the hours of midnight and 7 a.m. This feature alone has reduced the rack’s power consumption by 30 percent.

Lighting is another area where Lancaster has noticed a substantial reduction in electricity use. “Currently, lighting contributes to 8 percent of our overall electric bill; in most houses of this size it’s more like 20 percent,” she says. Again, the automation system, in combination with a Lutron HomeWorks lighting system, is largely responsible. Based on parameters programmed into the HomeWorks system, the home’s 70 LED light fixtures never brighten beyond 85 percent. “You really can’t even tell that they aren’t all the way on,” Lancaster says. Additionally, through the Control4 system, the family is able to engage commands like ALL OFF, which switches off every light in the house. An astronomical clock built into the HomeWorks system does the same for the exterior lights.

Lancaster’s utility bills reflect the effectiveness of the automation systems, but she needn’t wait for those monthly statements to validate that she and her family have adopted a greener lifestyle. The Control4 system can show her at a moment’s notice just how much energy they’re wasting … or saving, if the case may be. Several devices and systems, including a rack of audio/video gear, the refrigerator, and laptop computers are plugged into modules that monitor their energy draw. This information is dispatched to the Control4 system, which deciphers it, graphs it and presents it on the screen of any TV. “We can see exactly how many kilowatts of energy each device is using, and can choose to turn them off right from the Control4 remote if we want to,” Lancaster explains. “Just being aware of your energy draw really makes an impression. For me, it’s become a challenge to see how low I can take the draw.”

Make no mistake, though, Lancaster isn’t about to live by candlelight and wool socks. “I feel good just knowing that we’re not wasting energy, she says. “And the control system helped us do that.”

BREAKING BAD HABITS

Derek Cowburn had a plan. For every dollar his family saved on the household electric bill, he would put a buck toward a new Wii console for his kids. “It worked for all of four days, then it was back to the same old routine of leaving the lights on and the doors open,” Cowburn laments.

Bad habits are hard to break … even when you’ve been promised a Wii.

Bribery wasn’t going to work on this brood, so Cowburn took a more proactive approach to turning things off. It would require several occupancy sensors, the logic of a home automation system, and some clever programming by Cowburn, who happens to design and install home technology for a living (see www.distinctav.com).

After mounting at least one occupancy sensor in each room, Cowburn programmed a few “if-then” rules into his HomSeer automation system. The concept was simple: If a sensor detects no motion within a predefined area for a certain period of time, then it would signal the HomeSeer automation system, which would then instruct the lights in that room to turn off. In some rooms, the TV turns off, too.

To prevent the lights and TV from accidentally switching off, which can sometimes happen if you sit really still, Cowburn chose super-sensitive models and doubled up in some areas. “A WattStopper sensor costs three times as much [as most other sensors], but it can pick up your heartbeat,” he says. In the master bedroom the TV remote helps out, too. “My wife likes to watch TV in bed … and she’s an avid channel surfer. Every time she hits the SKIP button on the remote, the occupancy sensor resets itself to ensure the TV stays on,” says Cowburn.

So far, the sensor-based lighting scheme seems to be working. The Cowburns spend a little over $100 a month on electricity, the biggest reduction stemming from the automatic shut-off of the big-screen TV and Xbox system in the living room. “Combined, they consume 700 watts of power,” says Cowburn. “and the kids were constantly leaving them on. Sometimes, we’d wake up in the morning and the equipment would still be on.”

The bigger energy issue, however, stems from doors being left open while the heating and cooling system is running. “It can be the dead of winter, and my 4-year-old leaves the front door wide open,” says Cowburn. Again, sensors detect when a door or window is open, and the HomeSeer system responds by sounding an alert … but only if the temperature outside falls within a certain range. “When the weather is nice, we like to keep the doors and windows open for fresh air without the system chirping at us,” Cowburn explains.

Given his passion for technology, Cowburn admits that it’s been difficult to find a good balance between enjoying the electronics and being energy efficient. But at least he’s trying. He’s still using the same Brultech energy monitoring device that tracked his household savings for his kids’ Wii fund. The device attaches to the individual circuits on a home’s breaker box to measure exactly how much electricity each load (refrigerator, air conditioner, TV, etc.) is drawing. This information is displayed on the screen of the monitor, or it can be viewed on an iPhone. This time, though, Cowburn is measuring for the sake of living greener. You wouldn’t know it by the 13 computers and four servers that hum in his house, “but I’m really a closet environmentalist,” he says. “I’m trying to wean myself off all the servers and outsource my information to the cloud. Every little bit helps.”

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