Energy Monitors: Seeing is Believing — and Saving

Energy monitors make managing your power consumption enjoyable and easy to do.

The Energy Detective, or TED for short, monitors your energy usage. Image: The Energy Detective/

We’re taught from an early age to turn off the lights when we’re not in the room, but conserving energy today is really complex—thanks to our wired-up homes and our always-on electronic gadgets and appliances.

Thankfully, energy monitors take the guesswork out of watching heating and cooling costs. Sure, it’s yet another gadget, but energy monitors are strangely fascinating. They provide exact details of how much juice your house is consuming, and they actually make managing energy consumption enjoyable.

The Prius Effect in your living room

Researchers have shown that the well-known hybrid car saves energy for two reasons: It efficiently uses both gasoline and electric power, and it also provides a display screen that lets drivers track their real-time MPG efficiency.

Various environmental reports have suggested that home-based energy monitors have the same effect—keeping an eye on the display screens encourages savings of up to 10% of a home’s heating and cooling costs.

Do-it-yourself monitoring

Energy usage monitors are readily available and affordable. A system like TED—The Energy Detective ($120 to $455)—has a measuring unit connected to your home’s circuit breaker panel. Data, such as energy consumed in watts and dollars, is sent to another unit called the Gateway, which delivers energy usage info to your computer or wireless dashboard. TED stores up to 10 years of data.

Similar systems are available from Blue Line ($100) and the upcoming EnergyHub.   

Smarter meters

Utility companies are starting to replace analog electricity meters with digital smart meters that offer two-way communication, allowing utilities to regulate energy distribution more effectively. Smart meters transmit info via a secure radio frequency network so that utility workers don’t have to brave growling dogs and muddy side yards to read your meter.

If your home is one of the early adopters, you can track your hourly energy usage through your utility’s web-based application. That way, you can discover when in the day is electricity the cheapest, and schedule laundry and other power-hungry tasks for that time. In addition, your utility can send you a detailed electricity bill instead of an estimate of charges.

Smart meters also can transmit data to indoor display units that work like off-the-shelf energy usage monitors. A smart meter also can include details on gas usage.

Note that smart meters require professional installation by your utility, so call to find out if your home is on their roadmap.

Google your savings

If you want more use out of the real-time data, Google’s free PowerMeter is an advanced web-based graphical application that works with your home’s smart meter or energy monitor to track usage over time, set energy savings goals, and predict your energy bill based on usage.

The software can help you tailor your usage to bring down costs. It’s available through devices such as TED and utility companies such as San Diego Gas & Electric.

Affordable portables

If outfitting your entire home for energy monitoring isn’t feasible, you can still track the energy use of household items with the small, portable Belkin Conserve Insight ($30). It can tell you an appliance’s usage in dollars, carbon dioxide emitted, and watts consumed, and it offers monthly and yearly estimated costs.

Similar devices from Kill A Watt EZ include an energy usage monitor power strip, and range from $16 to $60.