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.


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.”

Lisa Montgomery - Contributing Writer
Lisa Montgomery has been writing about home technology for 15 years, with a focus on the impact of electronics on a modern lifestyle.

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