Last month, utility Commonwealth Edison announced the winners of its Smart Home Showcase project, a high-profile (if very small-sample-size) experiment to transform four Chicago-area homes into test beds for solar power, smart appliances, learning thermostats and home energy management technology.

The contest includes tens of thousands of dollars of high-tech gear for the winners, including a new set of Whirlpool’s luxury networked appliances, a rooftop solar panel array and an in-home energy portal that communicates to the smart meters already installed at each customers’ home. In other words, it’s a test of what ComEd and other utilities think more and more of their customers’ homes are going to look like someday -- even if the short-term prospects for smart appliances and other expensive home gadgets to penetrate the mass market seem murky at best.

What do the lucky winners think of all the free, smart-grid-enabled stuff they’re getting? We spoke on the phone to two contest winners recently -- Alison Tisza of Chicago and Lisa Polderman of Berwyn -- who were kind enough to share their observations, satisfactions and frustrations with the technology they’ve gotten so far, as well as what they’re hoping to get out of it in the long run.

ComEd is also going to be publicizing findings and posting blog entries from its contest winners, which gives us a chance to keep up with the experiment over time. Here’s what they had to say about their experiences to date.

From Backyard Gardener to Energy Detective

Lisa Polderman, 43, has already turned her 1922-era, two-story Chicago suburban home into an oasis of self-sustainability. A mother of two who works from home, Polderman grows a vegetable garden that supplies much of her family’s summer produce needs, and makes cleaning products out of vinegar and other household materials. The family is religious about turning off lights, and has placed fans throughout the house to help out the central HVAC system on hot summer days.  

Even so, “We have been trying to get better about our energy efficiency, but we felt like we kind of met a ceiling -- we knew we could do better, but we didn’t know how,” she said in a recent interview. In particular, she and her husband wanted to look into solar panels to help curb their still-high, $200-per-month summer electricity bills with self-generated power, which led them to enter ComEd’s contest.

Now she’s won a new solar array, and a lot more besides -- although the eight solar panels haven’t been installed yet, she said. The smart appliances from Whirlpool have, though, and since they arrived, “I’ve told my friends that I feel like I have robots in my kitchen,” she said.

So far, she’s mainly used that new Wi-Fi-enabled functionality to do things like schedule her washing and drying for the early morning, which is something she wouldn’t have done on her own.  On the other hand, since she works from home, and the family only has “dumb phones,” rather than smartphones at present, she hasn’t yet tapped a lot of the remote control functionality of the appliances, she said.

Likewise, she hasn’t used her Nest smart thermostat yet, since for the week or so since it had been installed at the time of this interview, it hadn’t gotten hot or cold enough to even turn on the house’s central system, she said. But she has tapped the in-home display’s ability to get whole-home energy data from its ZigBee-equipped smart meter, she said -- or, rather, her daughters have.

“Last week, the kids told me that the electricity was too high” on the in-home display, she said. She investigated, and found that the culprit was the DVD player, which her daughters hadn’t turned off, even though they had shut off the TV before leaving the room. In general, she’s been able to shave about half a kilowatt from her home’s power usage, which ranges from nearly nothing to as high as 3 kilowatts at peak times, via this kind of detective work, she said.

“Now we’re starting to get a better feel for how much energy is used, and how we’re using it,” she said. “The next big step is solar energy, and seeing how that works.”

Design and Technology Meet This Old House

As a web developer focused on user experience design for web pages, mobile applications and the like, Alison Tisza has already tapped a lot of the technology out there to make her life more energy-efficient. That includes tracking her caloric balance via iPhone app and tracking her clean diesel car’s fuel economy based on weather, wind speed and other factors, she said in a May interview.

But her home has been a tougher challenge. Built circa 1900, it was completely rebuilt by Tisza and her partner, gutting the lath-and-plaster walls to insulate them to modern standards. They use compact fluorescent (CFL) light bulbs, and try to keep their central heating in check, though “If I’m cold, I will turn up the heat,” she said.

At the same time, when it came to her utility bills, “All the information comes to me at the end of the month in aggregate, so it’s hard for me to learn how these decisions I’m making on a day-to-day basis are affecting that,” she said. So far, her experience with smart appliances and in-home energy readouts has only partially solved that problem, however, she said.

One problem is the window air conditioners in her home, she noted. Because they’re individually controlled, they don't connect to her Nest thermostat, which makes that particular tool more useful in the winter than in the summer when it comes to saving energy, she noted.

“I’m thinking of picking up some Belkin Conserve Insight plugs to track each AC’s power consumption,” she said, naming one of several wireless “smart plug” devices out there on the market. Still, she isn’t sure how to convert those watts-per-day figures to dollars-and-cents impacts on her bill.

As for her smart appliances, she’s downloaded the smartphone app and used it to check wash cycle details and inform her when her drying is done, or send alerts if the fridge door is open, “so I don’t potentially burn out the compressor,” she said. But she hasn’t yet noted any particularly juicy energy-saving uses for the appliances, which anyway account for a fairly small and inelastic portion of household electricity use.

Things should change when she gets her solar panels installed this summer, she noted. That’s when she will shift to a new real-time pricing plan, one she hopes will reward her self-generated solar power during hot afternoons when those window ACs are humming.

“In a way, it scares me a little bit,” she said of her impending move to a pricing program that could charge her much more during peak hours than she’s ever paid before, even if it can also save her a bundle overall. “I’ve wondered if it will force me into a nocturnal pattern,” although she’d be happy to use her smart appliance’s price-sensitive capabilities to help make sure she doesn’t cross those thresholds.  

At the same time, she’s already plotting out the energy savings potential to come, as well as anticipating an adventure in efficiency of sorts. “I think it will be neat to see if that forces me into new directions,” she said.