Keeping Tabs On Energy Use

By Brian Sloboda

Are you blowing money on an inefficient heating system? Is your coffeemaker costing you cash even when it isn’t percolating?

Knowledge is power when it comes to controlling spending on electricity—and acquiring that knowledge is becoming increasingly easier.

Thanks to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, electric utilities have more than $3 billion for deploying smart grid technologies. Most of the technologies and equipment purchased by utilities will be invisible to the consumer. However, the in-home display—a key component of tomorrow’s smart grid—may wind up on your kitchen counter or hallway wall.

In-home displays devices inform homeowners of the amount of electricity their homes are using in almost real time. The devices are connected—either directly or wirelessly—to your electric meter. In-home displays are being developed to provide a variety of information related to your energy use, including the number of kilowatt-hours consumed and how much money you are spending on electricity.

Placing these devices inside the home could give homeowners information they need to save energy. For the first time, you could see in real time how much it costs to run the air conditioning, holiday lights, television, computer or any other device.

With in-home displays, you will be less likely to find surprises when you open the monthly bill.

Research conducted by the Arlington, Virginia-based Cooperative Research Network (CRN) shows most consumers who have an in-home display use less energy than those without one.

However, research also shows most home-owners stop paying attention to the devices after a few months. As with many electronic devices, they become part of the background noise of everyday life.

Yet, it appears seeing the devices for just a couple of months has a long-term effect on a consumer’s electricity use behavior. Even after they stop paying attention to the devices, most homeowners still use between 1 percent and 3 percent less energy than before.

Types of In-Home Displays

In-home displays come as two types. One is supplied by the utility and connects directly to the meter. The second can be purchased by the consumer and attached either to the meter, somewhere inside the home or to the breaker box.

Utility-grade displays are not yet available to customers in most parts of the country, but off-the-shelf products have been available for about a year.

A small number of utilities are conducting test pilots of in-home displays to better understand their effectiveness. While preliminary research shows homeowners who have an in-home display use less energy, little is understood about precisely how these consumers are cutting back on their energy use. These questions must be explored prior to a utility deploying an in-home display on a large scale.

Consumers who want an in-home display don’t have to wait for their utility to offer one. Several manufacturers offer in-home displays, which will report electricity use for the entire home or for one specific outlet. With some devices, consumers need to program in their electric rate and make sure the device is installed correctly for it to work accurately.

The devices give homeowners an idea of how much energy they are consuming and how much is saved when, for example, they install energy-efficient lighting or turn down the thermostat.

A whole-house in-home display straps onto the outside of the meter and sends a signal to a countertop display. You will need to pick a model that works with your type of meter. Other devices connect to the breaker panel. These devices should be installed by a licensed electrician. Once installed, homeowners can see accurately how much electricity their homes are using. You can expect to pay $75 to $150 for such in-home displays.

Some devices allow you to connect only one appliance or power strip to the display. These less expensive devices demonstrate how much energy many home appliances and electronics use. They also show many items continue to use energy even when turned off. These types of in-home displays cost $30 to $90.

Where to Get an In-Home Display

In-home displays are available through several Web sites and some retail stores. Features and cost vary greatly. Verify the device will work with your meter and whether it requires professional installation.

Some utilities loan units, and a growing number of local governments are providing in-home displays through local libraries or other government offices for short-term use by consumers.

Whether in-home displays catch on and become permanent fixtures in the American home remains to be seen. Pilot studies by utilities will help determine the future of this product.

However, for anyone who wants to take a proactive approach to understanding electric consumption—and who is willing to monitor the display regularly—the in-home display may be worth exploring. You could use the knowledge an in-home display provides to change the way you use electricity in your home and save some money. n

Brian Sloboda is a program manager specializing in energy efficiency for the Cooperative Research Network, a service of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. The Cooperative Research Network monitors, evaluates and applies technologies that help electric cooperatives control costs, increase productivity and enhance service to their consumers.


Putting the Kill A Watt to the Test

April pp 06-7 appliances2
One of the tools available to help consumers assess the electric consumption of home appliances and electronics is the Kill A Watt, which retails for about $30. Ruralite decided to put it to the test.

Plug the device into an outlet and connect the 110-volt item you want to measure. Depending on which of five buttons you push, you get readings of volts, amps, watts, hertz, elapsed time and kilowatt-hours (kWh) consumed. Amps and watts could be important in sizing a generator, but I was most interested in the kWh readings, since that translates directly to charges on my electric bill.

I started with my office space heater, set at 75 degrees. After one hour of operation, it racked up 1.48 kWh. That is the unit of measure your utility uses to bill you. Multiply the kWh used by the rate. At 10 cents a kWh, the cost would be 14.8 cents for one hour. Assume I run the heater 3 hours a day, five days a week, for 12 months. The annual cost adds up to $106.56.

I moved to my radio. It runs all workday. To my surprise, the kWh display showed zero. I wondered if the unit was defective, then realized the energy draw is so low the Kill A Watt had nothing to register. I presume that if I left it on longer, it would register something—but it isn’t breaking the bank.

At home, I discovered my vacuum cleaner draws roughly the same load as the space heater. Thankfully, it runs for a shorter time. My lamp with a 15-watt compact fluorescent light costs me 1 cent if left on for 10 hours. My CPAP machine costs me 3 cents a night in electricity—just $10.95 a year.

Unfortunately, the Kill A Watt does not measure power consumption of 220-volt appliances, which account for most of a homeowner’s power bill.

—Pam Blair