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Over the past few years, I’ve been an avid consumer of home-based energy monitoring solutions.  I fit in that 1% of actual consumers that will invest in energy monitoring and management but don’t have any clear ROI.  These are gadgets for these sake of gadgets, but I have a intense curiosity to know what’s actually going on in my house (and what stochastic process are at play!).  I have TED and Ploggs and have followed the Berkeley ACME project and other home-build solutions (ala: instructables.com).

First, the results.  I travel quite a bit, and that means most of my energy savings is actually from finding the optimum configuration of my appliances while I’m away.  I was averaging about 500 Watts when I started using TED.  But now my steady state “away” power consumption is 150 Watts.  That’s a savings of $30 per month if I’m traveling the whole time.  Not groundbreaking, but enough to pay for my monitoring devices in less than a year.  Add to that the fact that PG&E keeps giving me rebates for “cutting consumption during peak winter periods.”  In the last 6 months, that’s resulted in a $25 Visa gift card and a $30 bill rebate.  Not bad, about $80 in PG&E bill savings plus $55 in incentives, or $135 savings over a 6 month period.

Despite these fine results, why hasn’t home energy management and monitoring taken off?  Why has Google PowerMeter shut its doors? Why was Microsoft Hohm shut down last month?

Tips to Transition Home Energy Management into a Sustainable Business

Integrate with the services I already use today.

Ultimately I think there needs to be a mint.com equivalent website for home health and management.  But it needs to integrate with my existing home.  That means logging into PG&E for me and pulling my utility bills for the last 2 years.  Connecting to my TED and Ploggs.  Allowing me to see if my TV, DVR, DSL, Playstation, or Xbox are on.  After all, ALL of these things have a network port!  I even have a UPS because the power is so flaky (thanks PG&E).

Just a crazy idea: why not access the current health of my house from my DirecTV or Netflix or Playstation Network websites?  Okay, maybe not that last one.

Bottom line: Give me a fairly complete picture on day 1 without having to install a sensor.

Don’t expect the consumer to pay money.

Consumers are fickle buyers.  Getting them to sign up for a free website — not too hard.  Getting them to come back or pay money, now that’s a challenge.

Idea #1: provide the service platform to existing providers. Companies like ADT don’t actually build any of their own hardware or software, a little known fact.  And everyone is dying to occupy the space under, around, or in your TV.  From Netflix to Microsoft to Comcast and AT&T U-verse, they’re all vying to be the one place you go and steal your eyeballs (we can argue about Netflix, but I secretly believe they do want to own your home experience).  If you can provide the service “cloud” platform to these providers, you can help them differentiate their offerings and encourage their customers to stay in their interfaces and websites for control of the home.

Idea #2: monitize the platform. If you can recommend methods for saving energy, why not have some of those sponsored?  I’m sure that LG makes pretty much every brand of washing machine these days, so really the only difference is that the Kenmore brand at Sears has paid a small premium to be recommended first.

Improve the software technology.

I’ve been disappointed with the software available, such as Google PowerMeter, TED, and Hohm.  They all had promise, but seem to be an afterthought of those companies (as I predicted when they launched a couple years back).  Their fundamental failure: the only thing they provide is monitoring.  Raw data.  But only from certain utility companies or certain devices.  That’s really limited.

Monitoring software gets commoditized quickly, and ultimately customers lose interest because we don’t know what to do with the data. (Sidenote: All of the Google PowerMeter recommended replacements are monitoring tools, not management, analysis, or automation tools).  Instead you need analytics and automation.  From my smart meter, figure out which profiles are constructively and destructively summing together to make the total reading.  Determine the contribution of my refrigeration, for example as you can see in each “bump” in the graph below for my home.  Annotate unusual activate and ask the customer: Did you use the dryer yesterday between 3 and 4pm?  Why yes, I did.  Boom, we now have a profile for what that energy signature was.

Home power usage graph

Improve the monitoring technology.

The devices that I have purchased have just been absolutely horrible.  It was like they were built as part of high school science fair project.  My TED has already been replaced once, and periodically stops reporting for no reason.  Is it the wireless power sensor?  Is it the gateway?  Did Google PowerMeter go down?  I can’t tell and there’s no diagnostic info — see the graph below for a typical Google PowerMeter report with lots of missing data for no good reason.  Plogg wants me to set up a Bluetooth or Zigbee network and then write a script to upload the data to the service of my choice.  Huh?  Hardly consumer ready.

Google PowerMeter graph with missing data

Improve the design of home appliances.

Let’s face it, I don’t need perfect information.  I just need “good enough” information — something I struggle to explain to technically-brilliant engineers.  So here’s two improvements:

Idea #1: Provide a basic SNMP MIB for home appliances with network or WiFi built-in.  Make it part of CE/UL/etc certification.  The fact that you can put a device on the network with no remote diagnostic ability drives me nuts!  There’s no remote network management interface on any of my appliances which are essentially computers — DVR, Playstation, Xbox, Wii, Apple Airport, etc.

Idea #2: Model out the power consumed by different devices, use the routing table, and ping them.  If I know the IP of my Playstation and I know its model (one of the old ones, not the new ones), I know that if it responds to pings then it is on and consuming 300 Watts.

Leave the utilities behind.

The approach of a whole different class of startups is to bundle services with the utility company.  This is what Tendril, for example, has done.  This means that their software is available to about 12 people nationwide (Okay, maybe half a million, but that’s a small portion of our population).  Focusing on utilities focuses your business, and everyone who has given money to the shrine of “Crossing the Chasm” will think that’s a good idea.  But utilities move slow, don’t know what they want, and fundamentally have a different vested interest than the consumer.

We’re in an age where startups need to move fast and gain a loyal consumer following.  That’s why I think there’s much easier and tremendously quicker software innovation that can go a long way to open home management up to the masses.  The challenge is marketing and monitization.

Achieving the Savings in My Home

With deficiencies in the technology, how did I get so much in savings?  I looked at my whole house energy profile. I used different temporal resolutions to identify the refrigerator.

Energy savings activities:

  • Unplug Printer (amazing idle power hog)
  • Unplug Microwave
  • Unplug Toaster
  • Unplug everything under my TV except for the DVR
  • Put Desktops to sleep after 10 minutes of inactivity
  • Turn off H/VAC (I live in SF, so no worry of pipes freezing)

Here’s what I keep running 24/7:

  • DSL modem and router to get to my media server
  • Media server (I bought a ReadyNAS which consumes 60 Watts *with* disks)
  • DVR (can’t miss American Idol)
  • Refrigerator (this is the biggest power hog of them all, and really should be replaced by my landlord)

Summary

Fundamentally, I hate to admit it but the software technology in this market simply isn’t mature nor accessible to the common consumer.  There is no mint.com equivalent for what’s going in your home.  And as an entrepreneur, that means there’s opportunity here.

Image taken Sept 3, 2007 from the Mandarin Oriental, Tokyo.



  1. Samantha Neufeld (Reply) on Friday 22, 2011

    Awesome summary of the situation – the monitoring devices were rolled out before there was much in the way of back-end support or analytics, but great recommendations on how to make home energy monitoring more appealing!

  2. David Glover (Reply) on Friday 22, 2011

    “Hey Joe, I said where you goin’ with that app in your hand” I am now using this to see my real time energy use when away from the house, lots of other features, worked with my TED and now with a Blueline. http://peoplepowerco.com/mobile/

    Joe, I think you are into this as much as I am (see my Hack your Electric meter and save the world – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-a4VVH6Zh7Y)

    On vacation I got the house down to 55 watts avg while away. :)