I may be a freelance writer, but even so, I definitely make more than six cents an hour. That's why I was unmoved to go look around my apartment for phantom power after I set up my Blue Line Innovations PowerCost Monitor, which can now be wirelessly linked to Microsoft Hohm to track home energy use.
The PowerCost Monitor is just one member of an ever-expanding field of home energy management devices/portals/systems/websites/services. Unlike other products, the PowerCost Monitor coupled with Microsoft Hohm is meant to keep it simple. You can see your energy use and then make adjustments once you see just where you're using the most energy.
Sounds easy enough, but I assure you, it's not.
I received two boxes from Blue Line, one with the PowerCost Display Unit, a small display that shows how much your energy is costing you by the hour or cumulatively by month and a sensor that wraps around your electrical meter.
Let's start there. The display was easy to figure out: put in the batteries, press a sync button, input some basic information. The sensor has to slip around the meter, which in my case is an analog mechanical meter that looks like it dates from about 1955. I found my meter in the musty basement of my apartment building and, after using a rag to wipe off decades of dust, I unscrewed the clamping strap, which took a painfully long time, as I pondered whether the ConEd meter reader would think this was some sort of theft device.
Once I got the sensor firmly around the meter, I turned on an AC unit to get the meter running a little faster and synchronized the sensor with the display unit in my kitchen. With one AC window unit turned on, I was paying about 24 cents an hour. Turn it off and that dropped down to about 6 cents. It didn't seem to matter whether a kitchen ceiling fan was on or off, or my flat screen TV (Energy Star model). My energy costs stayed flat at about six cents.
That's because there are two levels of granularity, explained Peter Porteous, CEO of Blue Line Innovations, which makes the product. The handheld model only shows resolution down to about 300 watts, while the detail available drops to about 160 watts with Microsoft Hohm.
Good to know, except when I go to install the contents of Box #2, I hit a roadblock that turns out to be a chasm. A PowerCost WiFi device, which connects the sensor on my meter to Microsoft Hohm, isn't working. I got it to go from flashing yellow and red (bad) to flashing green (good), but not good enough. The WiFi device isn't sending information to my router to be uploaded by Hohm.
Surely, many other potential users won't have this issue. However, I have a fairly standard wireless router, and an apartment that is far smaller than the McMansions that populate suburbs across the country. Everything is in close proximity, but there just seems to be some sort of technical problem. I make endless trips between my computer, the WiFi device and the musty, dirty basement, all to no avail.
I keep hitting reset buttons, troubleshooting everything from the sensor to my router settings. Nothing works. I can't get away from a green blinking light when I desperately need it to be solid, letting me know this thing is finally working. The Blue Line technical support team couldn't be friendlier, but ultimately, after multiple phone calls and email exchanges, the device still doesn't work.
So I still don't know if I would be moved by the power of the data if my sensor connected to my Hohm account. Porteous said that with the countertop displays alone, customers saw up to an 18 percent reduction in energy use, but with average savings of about six percent to nine percent. He expects the figure to be in the high teens for those who use both the regular display and the Hohm program, however.
In truth, though, I'm not an average American when it comes to energy use. I already use CFLs, I turn my computer off when it's not in use, and I have Energy Star appliances and electronics, so for me, seeing six cents was just fine. And when that figure jumped up as I turned on the AC, I didn't care. It's been a hot summer. Besides, I've got the AC set to 'economy.'
Troy Batterberry, general manager of the Microsoft Hohm group, is confident that websites like Hohm and connected devices will create change. "We've really enhanced the Hohm experience through this real-time data," he said. "Consumers can quickly see where they can save the most energy and money."
When I log into Hohm, however, the top recommendations it gives me are energy saving actions that I already undertake. When I log back on the next time, I don't see another list of more sophisticated options. There is a lengthy list of energy saving habits, though. One is to "grill or microwave food instead of using the oven." Um, OK. Except my oven runs on natural gas, and I don't want to broil salmon in the microwave.
This brings up the ultimate dilemma of home energy management systems. Will people change their behavior once they are armed with enough information, or will consumers continue to not care that much about the nitty-gritty details of their power use, but will invest in something that saves them money even if they don't know how it works? The answer is: no one knows, but there's a lot of money being thrown in both directions.
Microsoft Hohm and Blue Line Innovations are clearly banking on the former. Microsoft said it plans to add other devices, such as smart plugs, to its line of compatible products in the future. Porteous argues that while other companies are talking about applications to come in the future, this technology is here today.
"Our research shows that customers are very interested in energy saving devices, but there's a hurdle, and the threshold is 'I need to be able to believe this investment will be able to pay back in a year or less,'" he said. "It's simple technology, simple to install, but offers real, tangible benefits today."
To be fair, if you have an energy-hungry teen who likes to play video games in a cool 67-degree living room, then this device might help a frustrated parent demonstrate that he is literally costing more money every time he turns down the thermostat.
But with a retail price of $249, it would take the average New York home, with a monthly bill of around $108, just over two years to pay back this investment with a nine percent energy savings. Even if a household saved more like 15 percent, that's about $16 per month. It's not zero dollars, but it's hard to get excited about.
There are other devices that are also already on the market, such as EcoFactor, that adjust the thermostat, within parameters, for you -- so that you literally don't have to do anything. The company reports energy savings close to 30 percent for its customers.
For customers that will want to see their usage broken down, the market is bustling. There are players like Alarm.com, ControlPoint, Lucid Design, OPOWER, Google PowerMeter and others. Even more importantly, as smart meter rollouts get more sophisticated, they will include energy management portals that are also free of charge, provided by the utility or PUC. I would guess that the average consumer would try out the portal that is already easily linked to their smart meter rather than buying a third-party product.
Porteous is right about one thing -- the technology does have to be simple for people to adopt it. Unfortunately for the marriage between Blue Line and Microsoft Hohm, for me, it's just not simple enough.