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Energy Monitoring

Real time energy monitoring is an energy efficiency breakthrough.  Studies show (and we've proven in our own usage) that seeing electricity usage firsthand, in real time, leads to substantial reductions -- 15% savings on electricity bills is not uncommon.

This article is designed to (I) Introduce you to devices that monitor electricity, (II) Describe the types of electricity monitors that are available, (III) Help you figure out which monitor is the best bet to help you reduce your usage and save money, and (IV) address other Frequently Asked Questions about energy monitoring. If you still have questions, feel free to contact us. We're happy to help you get started. 

I. Why Do Monitors Help?

For most us, electricity is invisible, and utility bills are at best cryptic, and at worst complete mysteries. Energy monitors make electricity use tangible - rather like a thermometer makes the air temperature visible. And like a thermometer, a monitor does not reduce electricity use on its own - it simply prompts a response from you. If it's cold outside, you throw on gloves. If your monitor displays a spike in electricity use, you find out why and turn some energy hog in the house off.

What Energy Monitors do:

  • Help you locate things that are always on, even when they aren't doing anything. 
  • Help you notice that the kids forgot to turn off the TV. 
  • Help you become aware of how electricity is used. 

What Energy Monitors prompt us (homeowners) to do:

  1. Understand what goes on when we use electricity in our houses.
  2. Pay attention to our usage and reduce it. 

Studies show that people using electricity monitors will save between 5% and 20% on their bill. One Energy Circle staffer has reduced his electricity consumption by about half, saving around $100/month.

How much you save is a matter of how much you use now, and whether you pay attention to what the monitor tells you.  That's why it's key to find the monitor that meets your needs. 

II. What's the Difference Between Different Monitor Types?

Monitors come in four different categories, each of which we discuss in greater detail below:

  1. Measure Just One Appliance: "Plug In" type
  2. Measure the Whole House in the last minute or so: "Instant Readout" type
  3. Measure the Whole House at the Moment and Track History: "Readout + History" type
  4. Measure Circuit by Circuit of the Whole House at the Moment and Track History

1. Monitors that Measure Just One Appliance: Monitors that measure just one appliance (e.g. the Kill a Watt) isolate energy usage. You plug the appliance you want to measure into the "plug in" type meter, and then plug the meter into the wall.  We think this is a vital tool for understanding individual appliance draws. The best, most economical product for this is the Kill a Watt EZ electricity monitor.  In addition to the features of the basic Kill a Watt, the EZ model displays the cost of running whatever appliance you plug into it - by hour, day, week, month or year.

2. Monitors that Measure the Whole House in the last minute or so: A major step up from the single-appliance meters are monitors that measure the whole house.  Electricity usage monitors like the Blue Line PowerCost Monitor and Wattvision Power Monitor attach right onto your electric meter and instead of reading it monthly like your electric company, measure it every few seconds.  Other instant read monitors, such as The Owl, or The Owl Micro, and The Energy Detective (TED 5000) connect inside your electrical box and most send their readings to a table-top display.

3. Monitors that Measure the Whole House at the Moment and Track History:

A step up from the instant read monitors are monitors are that track usage over time.  Being able to track energy usage history - whether month-to-date or month-over-month - can be extremely useful in that it provides you with a benchmark (say, for example, "Let's try to do better this month than we did last month") as well as a means to assess your progress and make adjustments accordingly (for example: "We've used more in the first two weeks of this month than we did in the first two weeks of last month; let's try to really cut back in the next two weeks to make up the difference.") The TED 5000 series was the first to effectively do this trick, even allowing storage of your energy data on Google PowerMeter -- a free service that provides nice charts, evaluation, assessment and comparative data to help you truly understand your power usage.  The TED 5000 has proven to be tricky for many people, but other options are available since late 2010, including a WiFi connection that can be added to the BlueLine PowerCost Monitor, Wattvision, and CurrentCost Envi.

4. Monitors that Measure Circuit by Circuit of the Whole House at the Moment and Track History:

All of these levels of measuring your electricity consumption are like having increasingly detailed picture of how energy from electricity ebbs and flows.  But for a truly detailed picture, you can see your electrical use on a circuit-by-circuit basis, with a new, first-of-its-kind product called eMonitor, as well as a similar product by BrulTech.

A modern house typically has 20 or more separate electrical circuits, all leading back to the main breaker box where the electrical feed comes into you house.  Circuits feed the power to an individual room, and often for larger loads, a single appliance, such as a dishwasher, dryer, or refrigerator.  eMonitor provides all of the instant data collection and history, but is able to break readings down to individual circuits.  Power House Dynamics, the maker of eMonitor, describes their system as a tool for "electricity management", which is a step above monitoring.  The level of detail is really important -- we have heard reports from customers who say that they have found significant unneeded power users, and easily saved the cost of the product by being able to quickly isolate the source.

We think this real-time information is indispensable for understanding and reducing electricity consumption. You will know exactly how many kilowatts your house is using. The question is, what do you do with that information?

III. Which Monitor is Right For You?

Now you know about why each level of monitoring can provide further detail.  Which one is right for you?

If you live in a city apartment, or just want to know about how a few of the things you plug into the wall use electricity, the Kill-a-Watt is probably your best choice.  Simply plug it in between the fixture you want to measure, and plug the fixture into it.  It has an LCD display, so you can see right away how much power a single fixture uses.  Simple as pie.

If you live in a house, and want a super simple installation process, either the Blue Line PowerCost Monitor or Wattvision electricity monitor would be a great choice.  They both are designed to read most electrical meter in the US and Canada -- even the older models that have a spinning dial!  Installation is quick and easy  -- a screwdriver is all you need (to attach a special gizmo to the meter).  The BlueLine has a display that can be placed anywhere in the house, within 100 feet or so of the meter, depending on what's in between.  If you want some more details, we have a video explaining how to install the Blue Line PowerCost electricity monitor.

If you have a special requirements, such as solar a whole house electricity usage monitor connected to your electric box is the way to go. These monitors are installed in the electrical breaker-box (or even old fashioned fuse-box) serving your house.  While working in the electrical panel can be daunting, and you should check local regulations before doing it, it's actually a simple job.  Hire an electrician if you're at all uncomfortable, but it's a quick and easy task for anyone reasonably handy. The TED 1000 series has a nice display and does a good job.  The TED 5000 can handle sub-panels, an solar or wind inputs, and The Owl and Owl Micro are inexpensive and simple to install.

If you love data, want access to your historical use, and want Google PowerMeter integration, opt for Wattvision, eMonitor, TED 5000, and now even BlueLine's WiFi connection. eMonitor and TED will need a standard router and Ethernet cable to plug the device into.  Wattvision and BlueLine Wifi use wireless networking. Setup is usually straightforward -- you do it right through the same web browser you're reading this on!  

IV. Other Questions:

Do You Need A Display?  Data from Wattvision, TED 5000, BrulTech and eMonitor is available through a web interface on a computer or smart phone.  A wireless table-top display is standard Blue Line and The Owl, and is an optional item for the TED 5000 and Wattvision.  Having tested all these devices extensively at Energy Circle, we are advocates for having a display -- these monitors work to help you save by gently but constantly reminding you of how you are using electricity.  Sure, you can go to your computer (or iPhone or other web-enabled phone) and bring up some pretty cool readouts and details ... but having that little display in our hallway or kitchen is easy to read at a glance.  While you're the best judge of what will be most effective for you, we've found that a display sitting quietly on the kitchen counter is extremely useful. 

Multi-family Housing: If you rent part of your house to a tenant, you may only have one meter.  The units that install inside of electrical boxes can usually be configured to measure separate units, either for billing purposes, or just to provide tenants the information they need to reduce their electrical usage. 

Solar and Wind: If you have solar panels or a wind turbine producing power, both TED 5000 and eMonitor have optional versions providing "net metering" and can determine the amount of power being produced.

Non-standard Wiring: A strength of the meter-attached devices is that they can read a whole house with one device.  The monitors that install in the power panel, such as The Owl, TED 5000, eMonitor and BrulTech require additional parts for certain non-standard wiring, notably homes having multiple 200A 2-phase panels, or sub-panels.  But chances are you won't need this -- the majority of US and Canadian residences have "2 phase 240V service".  As long as you have a single electric meter, PowerCost monitor and Wattvision will work fine regardless of your wiring.  Bear in mind, none of these units are designed for non-residential buildings, which often have a different wiring scheme, and may have different local ordinances with regards to accessing the electrical panel or meter.

What About Gas or Oil Usage? Sorry, you're out of luck ... for now.  Given that in colder climates oil or natural gas can cost far more than electricity, we think there should be as much of an effort to have meters that also measure this important energy source as well. With luck, the designs of current models would allow them to accept this additional data once someone comes up with a clever way of reading it.  For now, read your bill.  We're doing our best to influence the industry on this score.

Cost: Various models have different costs -- the Owl Micro is currently in the lead at $79, and the BlueLine (no WiFi) is close behind at $99.  Generally, the greater the detail in information, the higher the cost.  Those providing whole house readings that transmit data to the Internet run about $250. eMonitor and fully configured BrulTech meter both will cost significantly more.  

But it is important to remember that if your electricity bill is $80/month (average for the US), and you can reduce only 20% of your electricity use, you'll save $140 per year.  You might break even the first year, but we're very confident that motivated homeowners can do far better than 20% -- and any savings you make pay back, year after year after year.  And don't forget, the money you don't spend is tax free!

Builders,  Remodelers, Contractors and Energy Auditors: Builders and remodelers should consider offering these products to customers -- there's probably a very short payback period for any monitor, and building green is a great selling point.  Email us directly if you're interested, as we're constantly hearing from customers who want us to connect them with people who know how to install them and set them up.  Home Performance pros using our Energy Circle PRO platform have access to the products in our store.