When I take a look at a home energy management system, usually the first thing the company wants to show me is its web portal. After all, that’s where the bulk of the information is organized, often arranged in neat, bright widgets.
At EnergyHub, they went straight for the dashboard (sure, there's a portal and an iPhone app, too), because they are confident that this little bland box is all that’s needed to get customers interested -- keep them coming back for more -- when it comes to energy efficiency.
The dashboard is seen as the centerpiece of EnergyHub’s offerings, which also come with a smart thermostat at the most basic product level. It’s not particularly sleek, although it’s not exactly ugly, either. Just a little white console with a touch screen that shows a moving line graph of how much energy the heating and cooling (and any items plugged into smart plugs) are using. The colors are simple shades of blue and green, and there is a menu of offerings if you want to get to some more detailed information on your energy use.
At first I thought, here we go again. I’m a little bored already. No blinking orb, no flashy icons. Instead, there are three buttons across the bottom of the screen: home, away, goodnight.
The settings are essentially for the smart thermostat. But it’s well known that people don’t really use their smart thermostat. The reasons are variable, but first of all, it’s not always as simple as it should be, and more importantly, the thermostat usually hangs out against a dark wall in a hallway somewhere.
So enter the EnergyHub dashboard. Just by having something that uses simple language to pose questions like, “What time of day do you get up?” and a few simple settings, the company has a goal of savings in the 20 percent to 30 percent range. And, while I’m not geeking out on graphs and fancy widgets, I’m realizing I don’t miss them, either. I’m grateful for the simplicity.
Savings of twenty percent is a pretty big deal, especially since some utilities have also said that participation rates, where customers are using the dashboard often, are some of the highest they’ve seen in pilots. And yet, there are no bells and whistles. Instead, it’s about doing the basics right. But maybe that’s the point. “You want really good default settings,” says Seth Frader-Thompson, CEO of EnergyHub.
Smart plugs are available for people who want to plug in their flat-screen TV and computer. As for the dishwasher and fridge, Frader-Thompson didn’t seem that concerned that no one was going to bother finding the plug for the fridge. If you have an old fridge, he argued, you know it’s old, and it’s not like you’re going to unplug it just because it’s an energy hog.
If you do have your TV plugged into a smart plug, the dashboard tells the current and projected monthly cost for the TV. The value of one monthly figure is that, for the 75 percent of Americans who leave their TVs on when no one is watching them, seeing that it’s costing a lot of money is probably a good motivator to just switch it off.
As for those kitchen appliances, EnergyHub is ZigBee-enabled. That’s how the dashboard and smart thermostat talk to each other, and so the device could eventually talk to your smart dishwasher sometime in the distant future. The products can be built with Wi-Fi and other communications capabilities, as requested by utilities.
The dashboard is built with demand response functions, although the phrase ‘demand response’ never shows up. For customers who have signed up for programs, they have the option to ‘Opt Out,’ instead of opting in, which results in a far higher participation rate for the utilities.
As for going the utility route, EnergyHub sees it as the natural progression at this point in the market, but as the market matures, they will probably shift to focus on big-box stores. “The advantages of utilities is they can push it on a big scale, “ said Frader-Thompson. “Or that’s the dream.” Currently, EnergyHub has a nice advantage in the utility space. The company recently announced a partnership with Honeywell to be included in its energy management product portfolio, beginning in 2011. EnergyHub is also partnered with Itron.
And then I ask the question I have to ask: could my father use this? The answer, in this case, is yes. And while some home energy management systems are designed for early adopters, this one is designed for the masses. A utility or another professional will have to come install the smart thermostat, so it’s not some complicated do-it-yourself project.
After that, connecting to Wi-Fi with the dashboard is easy, like linking up your laptop. So while the product isn’t for everyone -- you need to have wireless and know how to connect things to it -- that still includes a large swath of the population. It also overcomes the pitfalls of smart thermostats, namely, that people don’t use them even if they have them.
The cost is $200 to $300 per basic unit (thermostat and dashboard), although through utilities, consumers might only pay a portion of that cost, if anything at all.
By keeping the focus on heating and cooling, getting it right, and then expanding from there (it does pool pumps, too), EnergyHub is looking to master its domain instead of being all things to all people. So for now, you cannot check your Facebook page from the dashboard.
“What are you actually trying to get people to change?” asks Frader-Thompson. “Let’s get one thing right first.”