Energy Monitoring Goes Mainstream

Manufacturers are joining the energy parade and developing real solutions for your home, albeit piece by piece.

Solaris Home Systems

Solaris Home Systems’ Energy Management Automation system can track a home’s electrical usage and display it on a small computer like this HP Touchsmart PC. The system combines HomeSeer software with Solaris’ custom programming.

Gas prices aren’t the only energy costs going up, up, up. Electricity costs are on the rise as well. So what’s an electronics-loving homeowner to do? Watch the amount of electricity you’re using. Only can you?

The electric meter records its usage on the outside of your home, so you’ll need an energy monitoring system to view your usage while you’re inside. Studies show that monitoring your energy use can save 10 percent or more in electricity. In other words, the more real-time info you have on how much money you’re spending, the more likely you are to conserve.

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The energy savings that indirectly result from energy monitoring systems also reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. That’s always a good thing. And let’s face it: Having more info about your home is always cool.

There’s a catch, of course. Most house-wide energy monitoring systems aren’t quite ready for primetime. There are the inexpensive gadgets like Kill A Watt and Watts Up? that monitor individual products’ energy consumption. Using these around the house can be educational and a bit shocking, especially when you see how much juice that plasma screen is gulping.

There are some relatively inexpensive house-wide monitoring devices like The Energy Detective (TED) that tie into your electrical panel and provide info on the amount of electricity you’re using. Other products like the Power Cost Monitor mount on your electric meter so you can monitor your usage inside the house.

There’s also startup Threshold Corporation, which in August released a suite of affordable and easily configured wireless control products. Its Home Controller replaces or works with an existing wireless router in your home and features a readout screen that can display the energy consumption of your electronics and appliances plugged into separate power control modules. You still need to buy separate power modules, and starter systems are available for about $500.

So, what about a whole-house energy monitoring system that can do all that and display it on a touchscreen, computer screen, or TV, as part of a whole-house control system? These exist—sort of, kind of—in one form or another. In other words, the technology is here, but in bits and pieces. And the few full-scale systems can be mondo-expensive.

Home automation companies like Crestron, AMX and Control4 say their systems can monitor the energy load of any device on their networks. They even have interfaces to show it on their touchscreens. That’s cool, but their control networks are not likely to include power-hungry refrigerators, electric clothes dryers and hot water heaters, leaving homeowners with only a partial scan of their electrical consumption.

Enter Lucid Design Group, whose Building Dashboard system displays energy use in an elegant and easy-to-understand interface. However, it’s largely for commercial and institutional buildings like schools. A Building Dashboard system can cost $15,000 and up. Because of its price, few houses have a Building Dashboard—or are likely to in the near future. “Some of the inexpensive hardware doesn’t exist right now. And most basic utility meters are not designed to be hooked up to the Internet,” says Gavin Platt, creative director for Lucid Design Group.

Platt says it’s only a matter of time before such systems make their way into mainstream homes. “[The cost] needs to get way down” to see a home market. “It can’t be thousands of dollars. It needs to be hundreds of dollars.”

Entrepreneurial company Solaris Home Systems is putting together a small Environmental Management Automation (EMA) system. This comprises HomeSeer software and Solaris’ customized programming, along with some hardware connections, an 8-by-12-inch touchscreen, a small PC with flash drive, and a whole-house power meter. Solaris’ Ron Mocogni figures a comparable system would come out to $3,000 to $4,000.

Web-based home control company Control4 is also looking to do more. The company is working with several electric utilities in trials to provide homeowners with real-time electricity usage information and enable the utility to shut off power to certain appliances or devices in your home during peak load periods, if the homeowner allows. This “demand-side management” would help avoid brownouts and blackouts that occur during these peaks.

“We’re providing a connection to the smart meter, with [wireless protocol] ZigBee inside. We can see what the meter is reading, and we can post the information on every touchscreen and television,” says John Yoon, vice president of marketing. “We can pause the movie you’re watching and post an announcement of a rate-changing event, and you can override that. We can also aggregate energy use on a weekly, daily, or monthly basis in the home’s lighting or entertainment systems, and pinpoint devices that are using a lot of power.”

The company expects that with communicating, or “smart” meters, its system can be shutting off products in the home within six months.

Electric utilities may well be the answer to kick-starting more wide-scale adoption of home energy monitors.

GridPoint, whose $12,000 Energy Management Appliance can collect data on energy use and store extra electricity from a solar-powered system, is looking to distribute its SmartGrid Technology through utilities. If GridPoint has its way, utilities will become the gateways for energy monitoring systems in the home, by installing the technology that tracks a house’s energy use for both the homeowners and the utility.

Many more issues need to be worked out before all this happens, but at least energy monitoring in the home is on its way to becoming mainstream.

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