Do you know how much energy you use in your house? More importantly, do you know exactly where that energy goes? A new series of growing, low-cost tech services is trying to answer those questions for you, and the payoff is monthly energy savings, smart appliance buyers, and a keener understanding of how your household electricity works. Read on to find out if these energy services work for you.
What is Home Energy Automation?
“Home energy automation” refers to keeping digital track of how your house uses its electricity. This field has seen a lot of growth in recent years, thanks to new sensors and the rapid creation of apps designed to measure your household energy use and help you cut back on electricity use — whether you want lower monthly bills or are doing your bit to save the planet.
Like other home automation services, energy automation is all about receiving information in an easy-to-read format, like a smartphone app or web service, and making remote decisions about that energy. For that reason, you should be comfortable using your phone, tablet, or computer for these types of services.
Bidgely and the New Generation of Energy Monitoring
Older energy monitoring apps usually took a lot of work. You had to carefully log in each appliance that you used by model, then record how often you used it throughout the day. It was exhausting and, for many people, not worth the effort. Other apps made things easy, but tended to offer only general advice on how to save money without giving you any specifics about your own home.
Then the new generation of energy monitoring services came along and tried to fuse the best of both worlds. Bidgely, PlotWatt, Navetas, Energy Aware and others pushed the evolution of the market by adding more automation and “smart” devices that automatically sent wireless information to apps. The movement became known as NILM, or “non-intrusive load monitoring,” where the load is the amount of electricity that you use.
Bidgely, the free service with the weird name (it means “electricity” in Hindi, but is headquartered in California), offers one of the most complete services and is a great starting place for examining this latest technology. By using a combination of smart meters, electricity tracking, and some personal info like your utility rate plan, Bidgely tracks your power use and offers you specific ways to lower your power bills, customized for your home. It also lets you track electricity use if you are worried about passing over into a higher-paying tier.
What You May Need: The Smart Meter
If Bidgely sounds like the money-saving service you have been waiting for, you will need a few things to get started. First, and most difficult, is the smart meter. A smart meter is simply a power meter installed by your energy company at your home, which measures and records power use digitally and sends a wireless signal that various devices can pick up.
Energy companies across North America have adopted and installed smart meters to allow for better electricity tracking (both for them and for you), but smart meters are not required in all areas and adoption has been hit or miss. While it’s likely most houses will eventually have smart meters, you may or may not have one right now. Your power company will post this information on its website.
Apps and services like Bidgely need smart meters to track how much energy you are using. For now Bidgely supports major West Coast power companies, but is working on adding more compatible companies to its own list. If you do not have a smart meter, read on.
What You May Want: An Energy Monitor
On their own, energy automation apps can use your smart meter to judge how much electricity you use and compare overall usage with similar data about homes like yours. This allows the service to give you broad suggestions about how to cut back on power use, but it is basically digging through a bunch of spreadsheets and averaging the results, so finding out how much energy your particular house uses isn’t easy — unless you upgrade.
This is where the second phase of services like Bidgely comes in handy. Using a ZigBee wireless connection, you can buy and hook up a separate energy monitor to your house. Plenty of systems let you do this: Bidgely supports TED 5000, Wattvision, Youless and Digitalstorm with others on the way.
On the upside, an energy monitor can take the place of a smart meter, so if you buy one of these systems you do not need the smart meter option. Even with a smart meter, the energy monitor comes with additional benefits. It is actually quite a bit “smarter” than the smart meter, and can help track specific appliance energy use, include heating systems, refrigerators, and so on. After a few weeks of gathering data, services like Bidgely can use the energy monitor data to give you specific kinds of advice on how to treat your energy hogs.
On the downside, this more advanced approached is probably going to be pricey, since most energy monitors cost between $200 and $300. However, long-term management of your electricity could recoup this cost in a year or so, if you start saving on your utility bills right away.