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13 December 2010

Vampire be gone!


Vampire Power is a $3 billion per year drain on the U.S.
economy.  The wasted energy powering devices when we
are not using them accounts for as much as 1% of global
CO2 emissions.  Image Source.

A new kind of affordable home energy monitoring device helps you achieve heightened energy awareness and cost savings.

What's more effective than garlic or holy water for killing off the very expensive and wasteful Vampire Power problem in your home?  A new series of home energy monitoring devices retail for around $200 and can be set up in minutes.  An LCD screen in your home displays real time energy consumption and cost information based on electricity cost rates that you program into the device.  The device also beams the data to the Internet where you can view it from anywhere using a variety of free web-based applications including Google PowerMeter.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates that wasted power accounts for 10% or more of consumer electricity bills.  Vampire Power load is just one example of the information you can unlock by watching your electric panel react to your everyday activities in real time.  These devices help illuminate normal energy usage trends and make it fun and interesting to get your consumption numbers as low as possible.  Ever wonder just how much energy is used in a hot water clothes washing cycle vs. cold water washing?  Run both cycles and observe the difference in the power spikes on your personal Google PowerMeter graph.  Turn off the power strip that's connected to your home entertainment center and the power meter will instantly display the monthly and annual cost savings. 

Like many other people I was exposed to the concept of saving energy at home from a very young age.  Growing up, my dad had a mysterious form of extrasensory perception when it came to energy consumption around the house.  If someone messed with the thermostat or left a light on in an unoccupied room, dad would somehow receive a warning signal as if he was connected up with the circuitry of the house.  This was about 20 years ago, long before any kind of device existed, but dad was on to something.  To avoid countless reminders about how electricity does not grow on trees, or for the perfect father's day gift, look into a home energy monitor.  At the very least, you can lower your home's overall energy consumption by becoming more aware of when your electric meter is spinning up a massive bill and what appliances are slurping up valuable watts. 

The energy monitoring device itself does not reduce energy consumption. It simply displays what you're using instantaneously, daily, weekly and what it's costing you in dollars according to the rate you pay for energy. The monitor plugs into your computer or home network so that it can upload your data every few minutes to Google PowerMeter or any number of third party applications that allow you to access your home's energy usage data from anywhere in the world. In the first few weeks of using my device, I took action in ways that will pay for the device in under a year (read my conclusions below).
On the environmental side, eliminating half of a typical home's vampire power load can save over 1,000 pounds of CO2 emissions per year. 

Google PowerMeter collects data from your home energy
monitor and displays it on your Google Home Page.
Post-Publication Update 25-Sept-2011: Google discontinued its PowerMeter project a couple weeks ago.  Time will tell if the minds at Google introduce a similar consumer oriented energy use portal.  In the meantime, there are a bunch of start-ups focused on energy use awarness. Some, like Opower, partner with your utility company to analyze your usage and benchmark you against neighbors.  We are sorry to see PowerMeter go. 

Google has taken notice of this new consumer friendly technology and now offers a free online application that displays, charts and stores your energy usage details collected by the energy monitor device in your home.

The Google PowerMeter interface takes just a click or two to set up.  Just why Google is entering the retail energy market remains to be seen.  Our guess is that the geniuses at Google foresee a time in the near future when electric vehicles, distributed power generation and other innovations will change the way our power grid operates and they want to have a hand in the action every step of the way. 

Here's a step-by-step list of the setup process for the home energy monitor that I recently purchased, the CurrentCost Envi: 
1.  Buy the power meter online.  There are currently a few manufacturers selling meters for the U.S.  TED (The Energy Detective) and CurrentCost are the two largest.
You can choose from a variety of LCD displays and connection options.  The CurrentCost monitor features the ability to track your overall electricity usage as well as the individual usage from up to nine individual devices. 

2.  Turn off your main breaker and crack open your electrical panel.  Both the instructions that come with the kit and The Greenophobe recommend you use an electrician or expert for this part.  Removing your breaker box's protective cover will expose live high power wires that can kill you if you touch the wrong parts.  That said, I installed it myself very carefully.  The plastic clamps (pictured below) open up and fit loosely around the main power wires inside the box.  There is no soldering, wiring, or skilled electrical work of any kind.   

3. Hook up the clamps, activate the transmitter and put everything back the way you found it.  The CurrentCost Envi uses a wireless transmitter with a D-cell battery inside that lasts for several years.  There's no need to connect it to a power source. Genius!  If the image at left looks scary to you, get an electrician or electrically inclined person to help you with this part of the installation. 

4.  Turn on the LCD display and configure it.  You'll need to enter basic info including the time and your electricity rate per kilowatt hour (which you can find right on your electricity bill).  That's all there is to it.  The LCD display will begin showing your home's real time electricity usage.  Give it a test by flicking some lights on and off.  Every few seconds, the display will update with your current consumption and current cost information.  If you purchased the optional additional device monitors, you can plug specific appliances into their own transmitters to track individual device consumption. 

5.  If you are interested in viewing your real time energy data online using the CurrentCost website or Google PowerMeter, you'll need to buy their "web bridge" gizmo.  The device works just fine without it, but with the web feature enabled, you'll be able to show your friends how little power your home is using while you're away and access real time graphs right from your iPhone or any Internet connection.  The web bridge is a small box that plugs into your home network router.  It broadcasts your average energy consumption every few minutes.  To view the data online, you log in to the CurrentCost website.  You can then link your device to Google PowerMeter or other applications with just a couple clicks.

Conclusions
The technology is great as-is for early adopter types who want to check out a viable solution and first wave of products targeted at mapping home energy consumption.  There are some aspects of the CurrentCost meter's online connectivity that are a bit rough around the edges but none of the quirks I noticed interfere with its basic operation in any way.  Like all emerging technologies, there is sure to be a wave of innovation in this area very soon.  It largely depends on where you live.  Most places in the U.S. have one price for electricity and it's fairly easy math to figure out what you'll save by unplugging certain devices or making specific appliance decisions. 

As energy conservation measures increasingly result in multi-tiered power pricing structures (one price for daytime usage, another lower price for nighttime usage), there will be added incentive to have a home power meter. Eventually, meters like the CurrentCost Envi will be commonplace in homes in order to track electric vehicle power consumption, energy generated by rooftop solar panels, and other forms of distributed generation.  As that day approaches, it will be your utility company that provides the technology.  For now, pick up a meter and have fun saving money and educating others about how to reduce their environmental impact simply by making easy choices around the house. 

My personal energy saving accomplishments in the first few weeks of using the CurrentCost Envi:
1) I discovered my entertainment center devices (DVR, Wii, audio receiver, DVD player, etc.) draw 89 watts when not in use. 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Not to mention the heat that they throw off, which fights my air conditioner in the summertime for even greater total cost. They're now shut off at the power strip except when I'm using them. This saves me around $150 per year in energy costs.
2) Heating.  My apartment uses two high efficiency electric heat pumps.  There is a silent mode that I used for the entire heating season last year and an eco mode that makes more noise but uses the heat pump instead of an electric heating element. The difference in energy consumption between the two settings is massive.  The heat pump draws about 800 watts per unit.  The electric element draws 3,000 watts per unit.  My energy savings will be about $30 per month by using the slightly noisier heat pump setting.  Total cost savings are approximately $130.
3) Washing.  The economy settings on the dishwasher and clothes washer produce an indistinguishable result compared with the hot water setting and use 1/3 the energy.  This is something I knew before, but seeing the cost numbers is remarkable.  My energy savings will be about $9 per month with no downside.


For additional reading on Vampire Power or the products discussed in this post, visit:

Laurence Berkeley Laboratory info on Standby Power:  http://standby.lbl.gov/faq.html
CurrentCost Energy Monitors (shown above) http://www.currentcost.com/
The Energy Detective (TED) brand power monitors http://www.theenergydetective.com/

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