Knowledge is Power

What if I told you that you could use 30% less energy in your home without giving up anything at all?  No five minute military showers, you can keep using the AC, and you can watch all the TV you want. How is this possible?  About a third of the energy that a typical home uses is just pure waste. It’s not being used for anything useful, and you wouldn’t notice if you stopped using it.  The only reason you are using it is that you don’t know any better.

In this case, knowledge really IS power.  Or rather, the power to stop using so much power. And home energy and automation systems are going to allow you to take control.  

You’ve probably heard of “phantom loads” – these are appliances that use electricity whenever they’re plugged in, even if you’re not using them.  Computer equipment, AV components, and phone chargers are notorious offenders. But some of these things are worse than others. Using a simple tool like the Kill-a-Watt monitor, we discovered that our office printer was using less than 10 Watts in sleep mode, but we had a computer that was using nearly 100 Watts.  That told us what was most important to turn off, and ultimately we targeted that computer for replacement.

Phantom loads are pure waste.  The electricity they use doesn’t do anything useful, and it increases your air conditioning bill at the same time.  Luckily, most phantom loads in homes can be easily found using handheld monitors (like the Kill-a-Watt) that you can buy at a hardware store for about $20.  This is a great project for kids that involves a little math and helps them learn about energy conservation.

But this is all just the tip of the iceberg.  With our expanding ability to gather and manage data and control things wirelessly, we are about to experience a revolution in how we use power.  The revolution is actually here now, if you choose to participate. My husband and I have been using a whole-house monitoring system called SiteSage (available for $500-$800) in our net-zero energy home for the past four years.  These are great systems for finding both phantom loads and almost phantom loads.

Beyond phantom loads, Americans use a whole lot of power very inefficiently:  the benefits we get from these things are very small in proportion to the power that they consume.  But until you know what they are, we can’t make smart decisions about what to do about them. You can read articles about what the typical offenders are, but there’s nothing like using the power of the internet to manage your own data.

Our monitor records power use on every circuit of our home, and the data is saved to an app that we can access via internet and on our phones.  It will email us if our dryer starts using more energy per load, reminding us to check the lint filter and vent. It also alerts us if we appear to have left the refrigerator door open.  We can set it to notify us if a particular appliance starts using more energy than before, or if we are off-track for reaching our energy use goals for the month. It automatically analyzes our data and tells us how we compare to other homes in North Carolina and suggests circuits that may have phantom loads.  

Right now, you still have to log in and look at what’s happening with your house, although the app does make it really easy for you by analyzing the data and suggesting where you may have a problem.  And there are systems that will let you control your thermostat or turn off lights from inside the app. In the future, apps might be able to just turn off the power to phantom loads automatically, unless you tell them to specifically keep it on (no one wants to miss their DVR recordings).  It’s also possible that the power company could pay you to cycle your air conditioning or water heater off when the power plant is peaking, allowing them to avoid building new plants or bringing inefficient backup systems online. The data is already there – we just need to decide how we want to use it.  

Amy Musser is Founder/Principal of Vandemusser Deisgn PLLC, and Asheville-based home energy efficiency company.  A licensed mechanical engineer, she provides design assistance, certification and audits to support high performance homes.

You can also view this article as it was originally published on pages 56-57 of the 2015-2016 edition of the directory or as a pdf.