If you’ve ever hung around with management types, you’ve probably heard Peter Drucker’s famous saying: “what gets measured gets managed.” If Drucker were alive today, he’d probably have a home energy monitoring system.
I can testify to the truth of Drucker’s statement from personal experience. When cars didn’t provide any kind of feedback about gas mileage, I didn’t really think about how the way I drove affected how much gas I had to buy. But when I got a car with a monitor that showed the MPG I had averaged over the last 30 minutes (in 5 minute increments, no less), that had a big impact on how I drove. No more jack rabbit starts, and no more driving 80 on the interstate. I couldn’t ignore it anymore, and I changed my behavior.
I’m sure the same would happen if I got a home energy monitoring system. I wouldn’t be able to ignore the many thoughtless things I do around the house, like leaving lights on or lowering the AC, if my house had a power consumption display like the one in my car. Seeing the consequences of what I do at home would almost certainly change my behavior.
Research bears this out. Studies, mostly done by power companies, show that providing real-time energy usage information can result in real savings. For these trials, the power companies installed special prototype power meters that could report on energy usage as frequently as every 20 seconds. What they learned is that this approach is effective: tests of these approaches have shown savings of as much as 20% simply because people see what’s going on and change their behavior.
There’s even a story of how one gadget freak, obsessively checking his home energy usage using his smart phone, discovered that his teenage daughter was throwing a big party while he was traveling overseas. The dad saw that his home power usage had jumped suddenly even though the house was empty — or so he thought.
But here in Atlanta there’s no easy way to monitor your power usage. The Georgia Power Company offers what it calls a “Smart Energy Report,” but that averages your usage across an entire month, which is much too slow. It may help you decide you need better insulation, but it won’t really change your day-to-day behavior. Google and Microsoft each had opened businesses aimed at home energy management, but both companies decided the market wasn’t ready and shuttered their ventures.
That brings us to DIY solutions. A few examples are listed below. They range from the small and easy to the large and expensive (as in requiring an electrician to install), but if you want home energy management at all, you’ll have to do it yourself for now.
Easy: one-outlet power monitors are widely available, not very expensive, and easy to use. For example, the Kill-A-Watt meter (love that name!) simply plugs into an individual electrical outlet and monitors appliances and other things plugged into that outlet. If you want to see how much that old freezer in the basement is costing you, this will do it. Kill-A-Watt meters come in a variety of flavors (basic, wireless, simple display, elaborate display, etc.) and are available through Amazon, Wal-Mart, Home Depot, and many other retailers. Prices begin at about $20 and go up from there depending on the features.
Midrange: there are whole-house power monitors that you can hook up to your electrical panel (we’d recommend hiring an electrician) and which work a little like a Kill-A-Watt meter for your entire house. Probably the best known of these is TED: The Energy Detective, which hooks up to your breaker panel and provides real-time data such as kilowatts per hour, projected power bill based on usage, monitoring of specific appliances, etc. Black and Decker has now come out with a power monitor for the entire house as well, which I consider to be a good sign for the future. Price range: from around $150 to several hundred dollars and up.
High-End: at the cutting edge are so-called “smart home” systems that monitor power usage, provide remote control of individual outlets, and can automatically run your appliances at off-peak hours for cheaper rates. If you had solar panels (and if you could sell it back to the power company), these systems would manage that, too. To see what that kind of future looks like, check out Agilewaves. Smart home systems are complex, highly customized, and pricewise the sky’s the limit.
Of course, someday we’ll all be connected to a smart grid that will manage all of this for us automatically. But until that day (which your children’s children might or might not see), you’re more or less on your own.
by Rob Aaron