Smart Meters

Back in engineering school, one of my professors was fond of saying ‘You Get What You Measure’.  What he meant was, if you measure and track it, you will make progress.  This is definitely true in industry, where we track our utility usage in great detail, always looking for an opportunity to improve efficiency, and it’s also potentially true at home.  But the problem with your home power bill is, your power meter doesn’t give you much information – it’s hard to read, and it’s a long way from where you use the power.  So you just get a bill every month, and don’t correlate that with any specific activity.  And at our house, we use a fair amount of electricity – it’s our biggest utility bill – but other than constantly going around turning off lights, we can’t really track our power usage.

Enter the Smart Meter industry.  Smart Meter is a general term for the new power meters that give you real time feedback on your electrical consumption.  If you’re really lucky, your power company provides one and you don’t have to buy and install your own, but this isn’t the case in most areas (including mine), so I decided to purchase my own.  I selected a model called the TED 5000-C, from The Energy Detective.  I chose it because it is compatible with Google PowerMeter, which I felt would be a useful tool, and in its way was a powerful vote of confidence from Google.   Also, I liked the idea that it has a handheld display that will show instantaneous usage, allowing me to walk around the house turning things on and off, thereby determining the power consumption of individual appliances, lights, and devices.  The TED works by installing current transducers (your electrician, who should do the install, might call them amp clamps) over the main electrical feed to the house.  There are some competing devices that work by actually reading the meter, which you can install yourself, but aren’t considered as accurate.  Cost: $240, or about two months power bills.

So how does my TED work for me?  Although we’re learning a lot about our power usage, I’m afraid this particular unit is still at the early adopter stage.  A particular disappointment is the handheld readout, which works only within about 5 feet of the transmitter and has a battery life of about 30 seconds, essentially rendering it useless.  I did call and talk to a tech service rep, and he promised a firmware update was coming that would address the issue, but I’m doubtful.  Additionally, the unit uses an arcane plugwire communications protocol that has you running around the house plugging it in different places to see if it will connect.  I did get this to work, but it struck me as technology for technology’s sake, and there’s always at least one hour a day during which no data is available due to problems with communication.

However, the integration with Google PowerMeter is pretty cool.  Here’s a look at some recent usage:

 

You can really see that we went away for the weekend!  We arrived back Sunday night, and I switched the electric water heater back on.  That uses a lot of power (we’re actually having a solar hot water system put in – can’t happen too soon, and I promise a blog posting).  I don’t know what the spike around 1AM is – maybe the water heater again – but I do know what the early morning spike is.  It’s my coffeemaker, and it’s a getting replaced based on these results.  I had no idea it used so much power!  I should wire it for 240V, like a welder.  I do like my coffee, but this is a bit much.  Another very interesting result is the continuous blip while we’re away – I assume it’s the refrigerator, but I have to track that down.  And the baseline usage or ‘always on’, which probably accounts for the majority of our power bill, is substantial.  That typically consists of computers, televisions, adaptors, chargers and other power ‘vultures’, which use power while in a dormant state.  I have been going around looking for adaptors to unplug, including the one that feeds my internet connection, which doesn’t need to be on all night.  I’ll turn it on when I turn on my coffeemaker.

So, I’m interested in your impressions.  Have any readers tried a smart meter?  Is there a competing model which works better than the TED?  Have you found better ways to monitor your electrical usage?  I will try to post some more screenshots as I identify the power vultures and improve our results.

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  1. Peter Porteous

    Martin, terrific that you are weighing in and test driving the "power" of real time information to make a difference in electricity consumption.

    Full disclosure, I'm CEO of Blue Line Innovations and we do produce a competing solution to TED. There, that's out of the way.

    Real time feedback has been researched at length and while the exact numbers can vary by country and by household type the conclusions are very consistent…..if you arm a family with better information on how/when and where they are consuming electricity (real time) and the family gets engaged they can make a substantive difference. Ranges shared publicly are 5-15% and our own research supports those findings. "You can't manage what you can't measure".

    What we hear back from our customers in terms of the low hanging fruit – a) heightened overall awareness, b) identifying and addressing pure waste – sometimes referred to as phantom power but really it's now seeing just how much power is being consumed at night when we think everything is powered down, c) using the portable monitor to test and measure changes – settings on appliances (dehumidifier), program settings on heat/AC, etc.

    I would invite you to test and compare your experience with TED/Google with our solution – the PowerCost Monitor and Microsoft Hohm. I think a very direct and honest comparison would be helpful as consumers try to better understand the options available.

    At the end of the day this is a very exciting time for homeowners. We know that electricity cost is only going to go in one direction and the problems in the gulf this summer highlighted the real (forever) cost of our reliance on fossil fuels. The terrific news is there are real solutions today that are affordable and difference making – saving $'s off of monthly electricity bills and taking a small step forward for the planet.

    Thanks again for taking an interest in this topic and sharing with your followers.

    Sincerely,

    Peter Porteous

  2. Allen Smith

    Martin, Thanks for trying out TED and letting us know it is not quite ready for prime time.

    I have been a very happy user of the BlueLine PowerMeter for over two years. I found just by placing the display unit in a prominent place in the kitchen our electric bills went down about 10%. It has been very reliable for me — of course there may have been times when it failed to send data and I didn't notice because there is no way to log the data over time. I had no idea that they now have a WiFi upgrade — I would be interested in this if they connected to Google PowerMeter, is that in the future?

  3. Peter Porteous

    Allen, to your question re the PowerCost Monitor and Google PowerMeter long term we really believe in a wide open ecosystem of tools and choice for the homeowner. Our role in the ecosystem is to provide universal access to the real time electricity data.

    In our view Microsoft Hohm has a terrific, robust product today – data plus, tips and sharing, excactly what our customers (like yourself) have been requesting for quite some time. So short term we wanted to launch with what we saw as the most robust solution. Long term our strategy is to find enable more solutions and to give homeowners the ability to choice the right solution for them.

    Thanks for the question.

    Peter Porteous
    CEO
    Blue Line Innovations

  4. Allen Smith

    Peter,
    I am glad to hear you plan on opening up your system so that it will be part of a wider ecosystem of power management tools.

    Does your WiFi gateway allow data to be sent to other servers besides the Microsoft Hohm server? If I could log my energy usage data to my own server I would buy a gateway today. I actually opened up my BlueLine display unit and captured some packets from the line labled "Data" with my Saleae Logic analyzer Saleae Logic analyzer in the hope that I would be able to log my usage data. I was not able to figure out the data format. If you can share any hints with me please send them to me at my email address that you can see on my project blog Gadgeteer.org

  5. Peter Porteous

    Alan, stay tuned……. Yes we are hearing the same request from others and intend to address as part of our "open ecosystem" roadmap.

    Thanks again for your comments.

    Peter Porteous
    CEO
    Blue Line Innovations


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