Tech tools for cutting home energy costs

Anne Rashford, director of temporary exhibits at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, is seen inside the SmartHome exhibit where a monitor displays the energy and water usage of the home (in an AP photo). More gadgets and gizmos are entering the market that let consumers track their power use.

You know the drill. Turn off lights when you don’t need them. Set your thermostat at a reasonable level and turn the air conditioner off when you leave the house. Keep chargers unplugged when not in use.

But let’s say that you want to take cutting your home energy consumption a step further. Lucky for you, there are a whole host of devices that can help you measure and monitor your electricity use, making it easy for you to determine which of your appliances suck up the most juice and what steps you can take to conserve even more.

You’ve got some options depending on how serious you want to get about this whole monitor-and-conserve business. The most basic are devices that plug into the wall between the outlet and appliance cords. The devices’ LCD screens have a cumulative kilowatt-hour monitor as well as watts, volts, and amps. Some models even predict energy costs.

More comprehensive models monitor whole-home energy use. These devices are installed near your home’s power meter, and then transmit wirelessly to a receiver unit inside the house that details how much power your house is using in real time and just how much you’re spending on electricity as you consume it. Some of these so-called “home energy management systems” claim they can save consumers up to 20 percent on their power bills.

Utilities in some areas are rolling out monitoring devices called smart meters that power companies issue to help ratepayers monitor their power use. These monitors also communicate directly with users’ power meters to help them determine how much electricity they are using and how much it’s costing. Many of these devices can be controlled remotely, allowing users to modify their energy use even away from home. In some states, such as California, these smart meters are required by law, but they are also becoming more common in areas that use smart grids.

Studies suggest that giving consumers digital tools to control and monitor their electricity use can add up to big savings. One particular study allowed users to perform these tasks through a website. The Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory found that using tools like these could reduce the peak load off energy grids by as much as 15 percent a year. Over 20 years, this could save $70 billion on spending for new power plants and infrastructure and avoid the need to build the equivalent of 30 new coal-fired power plants.

Those who’ve got a hankering to use less energy and slash their electricity bills now have the tools to do so at their fingertips. Conserve away.

This is cross-posted via CAP website

11 Responses to Tech tools for cutting home energy costs

  1. BR says:

    This seems like greenwashing at its best – a giant TV screen sucking up power to show you how the system is “saving” energy. Factor in the embodied energy of the display and of the systems for monitoring energy use and you probably have a net loss…

    Not that this can’t be done right, but it seems to generally not be done right.

    [JR: Uhh, this is an exhibit. I don’t think they plan on putting a giant TV screen in every house to do this.]

  2. Dano says:

    An easier way is to build to IBC standards and have minimum R-19 walls and R-30+ roofs. Low-E glass is good too altho passive heating in winter is harder and old-fashioned curtains (and using them) tighten the envelope for heating-cooling. Not a shiny Tech Solution, surely.



  3. Jim Groom says:

    We have a 42″ flat screen TV and lower energy bills. It is called balance. We monitor our use of energy and when we watch TV we do so without having other appliances on at the same time. We turn off lights in rooms not occupied, use CFL’s and most of all we use our heads. The adjustment was very easy since we’ve always been energy savy. We just got our Smartmeter from PG&E with no negative effect…at least so far.

  4. richard pauli says:

    Ahem, Um… about that air conditioning…. In the summer, will the exhibit be air conditioned? Will they show air conditioning?

  5. richard pauli says:

    One more thing: Decoupling. Power companies make profit by selling more power.

    Because all the smart metering in the world will do very little until we remove the dis-incentives for power companies to conserve energy. Until that happens this is tokenism.

    It is called decoupling. And it is worth looking at in depth for policy changes.

    Wikipedia says: “… decoupling refers to the disassociation of a utility’s profits from its sales of the energy commodity. Instead, a rate of return is aligned with meeting revenue targets, and rates are trued up or down to meet the target at the end of the adjustment period. This makes the utility indifferent to selling less product and improves the ability of energy efficiency and distributed generation to operate within the utility environment.”

    “Ideally, utilities should be rewarded based on how well they meet their customers’ energy service needs. However, most current rate designs place the focus on commodity sales instead…”

  6. Dano says:

    Richard, we have tiered rates here and the first tier is very low, IIRC 500 kWh. Most households can’t keep in that tier and pay more. Will these households expend wages to purchase new appliances, insulate the attic, purchase new curtains? Some will. A good many of them won’t.

    The utility is trying to price electricity to encourage conservation, but that entails people wanting to change. Pricing is a good first step, but the discussion of conservation has to come along for the walk too.



  7. catman306 says:

    Using a window air conditioner only when required to keep the temperature to 76 F. in two rooms cost me about $10 extra for each of two months this past summer. All my other bills show about 450 KWH / month, which includes a well pump, hot water, cooking, electronics, lights, and laundry w/ electric drier. 525 KWH in months with AC.

    It’s CENTRAL air conditioning that cost$ the money.

  8. Hendo says:

    I like the thread. It raise discussion and awareness. It also points to a “bottom up” consumer involvement allowing consumers to take more personal control and responsibility for their energy consumption. And thus their emissions.

    Dano (#2) is also right, build better insulation (or retro-fit) into homes, and that’s another way of folks taking charge of energy use.
    In many parts of Oz now, when a home is sold, it has to have a sustainability rating so a buyer can see what he is getting in terms of energy liability. And new homes have stringent sustainability requirements too. Over time, this will make a difference, but the real need is to reduce energy consumption overall, at all levels.

  9. Biff says:

    Hendo, not sure what part of Australia you’re living in but our green efforts are absolutely woeful. Only the ACT has mandatory efficiency ratings even though Labor is talking of doing it nationally via the states and COAG. As for new homes, there are no “stringent sustainability requirements”, unless you count a water tank and asking the builder to face it north if possible as ‘stringent’. Fact is, Australia is a joke. Our new home size is now the largest in the world, so much for sustainability.

    My neighbours have just asked me for assistance in upgrading their unit windows but after receiving quotes ranging from $15K up to $24K they can’t afford it and will stick with the current paper thin glass, little better than picture frame glass. If they were in the USA they would be eligible for a tax credit but here in blistering hot Australia just turn up the air con and support your local coal miner.

  10. Gord says:

    In our paper, ‘Household Thermodynamics July 2010’ we track our house over six winters to see what changes make a difference to our household efficiency. We found that even adding curtains to inhibit the flow of heat from certain internal areas can make the house more efficient. However we found that insulating the house was 3 times more effective in reducing our wintertime energy requirements than generating our own electrical power.

    So bottom line, insulate before you do anything else.

    This very hot summer we AC cooled only one room and used it as a ‘cool room’ to cool down in periodically. We used exhaust fans to remove air from the highest place on both the ground floor and second floor. These fans did a good job in removing the hottest air allowing the average air temperature to drop. We found the house surprisingly comfortable over the many hot months.

  11. adelady says:

    Hendo@8. The one thing I don’t understand is why it isn’t compulsory everywhere in the mainland cities of Oz to have roof ventilation by a ‘whirligig’. Even with no insulation, overnight cooling by venting hot air from the roof space makes a huge difference to the liveability within any house or business premises. With insulation added and air conditioning, it hugely reduces the energy required to cool to a comfortable or at least bearable temperature on the hottest days.