Monday, June 8, 2009

Fun with Meters

This from a recent edition of THE TENNESSEAN...know anyone doing this in Memphis?

Electricity monitors keep tabs on usage, cost
In-home boxes may save energy


Robert Schweikert turns on the dryer in the utility room of his West Meade home and a digital readout nearby jumps from 245 to 5,700.

Those are watts of electricity that he's buying from Nashville Electric Service.

The retired physician, like most people, couldn't make much sense of the electric meter outside his home, so a few years ago he bought a device that lets him see while he's inside just how much electricity he's using and when.

He can figure out how much different appliances are drawing, and one monitor he bought can show exactly how much he's spending on electricity from moment to moment.

"We have really curtailed a lot of unnecessary power use in the house to make a pretty good conservation effort," he said.

A few utilities around the country and in Canada are trying out such devices, offering them free or at discounts as part of efforts to reduce customers' energy use.

The point is to save on the costs and the pollution that come from producing electricity. Energy efficiency is seen, too, as a way to help make a country more energy independent.

The first monitor that Schweikert bought didn't work with his house's computer system, and lights would turn on in the middle of the night.

Another monitor that he built, however, and also a Blue Line PowerCost Monitor, which sells for $89 to $130, have worked fine, he said.

The Blue Line includes a fist-size reader that clamps on the outside electric meter, and a small wireless remote inside that displays a digital readout on watts being used. The system can calculate costs once the local electric rate is programmed in.

Kids think it is cool

Jolyn Newton, a TVA program manager who lives in East Nashville, has been trying out a Blue Line for about a year at her home.

"I have two little boys — 10 and 12 — and they got into it and thought it was really cool," she said.

They would turn things off around the house and see how the cost went down, she said. The monitor made them interested in trying to cut electricity generally and save money for the household.

The family began keeping a journal, writing down the energy use and observations as the pennies, quarters and dollars clicked by.

When friends — children and adults — would come over, everyone would want to know what the remote sitting on a counter was for, Newton said.

"We had many discussions about energy over the dinner table," she said.

People are often unaware where their power comes from or even that they're using it.

The monitors give them real-time information, just like some cars today show how much gas is consumed when they're idling and moving fast or slow.

With the real-time information, a person is put in the position of being able to make a more deliberate choice on energy use.

It's been labeled the "Prius effect," because some people with hybrid Priuses have become so obsessed with the information on their dashboards that they compete with themselves or others to squeeze as many miles as they can from the least amount of gas.

Savings vary widely

The savings that can result when these monitors, called energy-use displays, vary widely for a household — from 2 percent to 15 percent, according to a 2008 resource guide from Energy Business Intelligence.

That's because human action is needed to cut back.

Ed Colston, with TVA's energy efficiency division, said when people first get monitors they tend to become more energy efficient. After the newness has worn off, TVA research in the 1980s showed, people can lose their focus on it.

"It all depends on the mindset of the customer and how important it is to them," he said.

The 2008 resource guide report concluded that research today seems to indicate so far that the effects of monitors will last.

At least 14 utilities around the country and in Canada have planned or begun either pilot or full-fledged programs with them.

TVA is planning pilot tests with about a half-dozen of its electricity distributors starting this summer and monitors could be part of the programs, as could "smart meters" that communicate with the distributor.

Those meters could one day allow variable pricing rates according to TVA's mix of coal plants, nuclear plants or hydroelectric plants — the cheapest energy source— that are producing power at any one time.

Power is still consumed

Schweikert discovered that even when it appeared every appliance in his house was off, electricity was still being consumed.

"A lot of other things you have hooked in like your Comcast box, television, computer, they're all consuming power when you're not there," he said.

"Sometimes the 'resting power' can be really quite a surprise — 300, 400 watts can be consumed and nothing seems to be turned on."

Schweikert put a monitor at his son John's Green Hills office and found out why bills were so high there. His son had been turning the temperature on the heat pump way down on cold nights when he left.

The father and son discovered with the monitor that a large spike occurred when the thermostat was raised in the morning. It turned out that an auxiliary heater kicked in to bring the heat up quickly. That was eating large amounts of energy.

His son dropped the temperature fewer degrees at night and the bills were cut in half, Schweikert said.

Schweikert, a retired physician who volunteers at Vanderbilt's Dyer Observatory, also purchased shades for the skylights in his living room. He installed the system himself and in warm weather can flip a switch to make them roll down to block out the sun that otherwise would heat up the room.

That dropped his electricity use 39 percent in summer, he said. All his changes reduced his overall use by 45 percent.

Schweikert, who said he's simply curious about energy, also owns a device called Kill A Watt that costs about $25 and fits into an electric socket. Toasters or any other appliance can be plugged into it to see how much electricity they eat.

Monitors are a good stage setter to encourage changes, according to Newton.

"You either adjust your habits or come to terms with spending more money," she said.

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